On Rosh Hashanah, we are exhorted to look into our deeds, what we have done well and where we have failed. We are taught, indeed we know, that the world is broken; what can we do to heal it?
Goodness knows there is much success and failure to go around. In our personal lives we see both gold stars and lumps of coal; even more so in the larger world which comes to us daily in newsprint, on TV, radio and our many electronic devices.
There have been challenges every year. Who can forget Yom Kippur 1973, when a shudder went through our congregation as news trickled in that Israel was under attack and vulnerable? That was terrifying. Today, happily, Israel is strong and well-defended.
How can we have a moment to reflect when the noise around us makes it impossible? Currently we are bombarded with images of war in Ukraine, destruction in Gaza, anger and mourning in Israel, horrific savagery in the realm of the Islamic State, plus a new crisis in Africa.
Two images stay with me. One is a view of an African village where Ebola is decimating the vulnerable. The riverside is piled with garbage spilling out of mounds of plastic bags – behind which are hovels. Imagine living with the dead inside and the rotting outside your doorstep?
The other was a photo of health workers shrouded in protective gear, carrying an Ebola victim to a pit where the body will be quickly buried. The “hospital” behind them is a shack. Nearby, young men in rags cover their noses from the stench.
In 2013, even before Ebola struck, the number of maternal deaths in Nigeria out of 100,000 live births was 560. In Guinea, the number of maternal deaths per 100,000 live births was 650, in Liberia, 640, and in Sierra Leone, 1,100. Note: in Canada, that number was 11 out of 100,000. In Guinea in 2012 the infant mortality rate was 59 out of 1,000 live births. In Liberia, 73; in Nigeria, 74; in Sierra Leone, 77. In Canada, less than five per 1,000.
I hope that our government makes this broken part of Africa a priority during the Ebola epidemic and for the long term. There is a crying need to alleviate the terrible poverty and corruption that allow such constant devastation.
That’s political; what about the personal?
With all this in mind, it will be difficult for me to reflect on the passage from the Talmud which appears in our machzor as a quiet aid to settling our mind before Rosh Hashanah services.
“The Bible relates that God created Adam, a single human being, as the ancestor of all humanity. This teaches us that to destroy a single life is to destroy a whole world, even as to save a single life is to save a whole world. That all people have a common ancestor should make for peace, since no one can say to anyone else, ‘My ancestor was greater than your ancestor.’… That humanity began with a single human being proclaims forever the greatness of the Holy One. For humans stamp many coins with one die and they all look alike, but the Holy One stamped every human being with the die of Adam, yet no person is like any other. Therefore every human being must declare, ‘It is for my sake that the world was created.’” (Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5)
Maybe we are given this teaching precisely because every year there will be distractions that interfere with our need to change our attitudes and behaviours.
There is great wisdom in the chassidic belief that an individual’s every act has cosmic consequences. If the world was created for the sake of each individual in it, then this year I hope that I will find one individual in these shards to mend and heal. That’s cosmic enough for me.