Better and Better Tomorrows - Rosh haShanah 5779

This derashah was delivered at St. Albans Masorti Synagogue on Day 2 Rosh haShanah 5779

Statue in the center of Stalingrad after Nazi air strikes, 1942.jpg

It was like any other day, really.

I was in 7th grade, and as usual, got up early to do homework, having uniformly failed to do it the night before. As usual, I turned on the TV to try and help wake me up at 6am, and sat down a bowl of cereal. I put pencil to paper and started working on whatever maths assignment I had neglected– when I finally bothered to look up, I could not believe what I was seeing. I assumed then that I was actually still dreaming. On the TV was an emergency news broadcast showing the north tower of the World Trade Center on fire, with the rear-end of a passenger jumbo-jet sticking out of it, and a huge plume of black smoke. I sat transfixed, and literal moments later, at 6.03am, just as my mind was beginning to accept that this was in fact real, a plane rocketed out of the sky, on live television, and slammed into the south tower.

There would be too more planes- at 6.37, the third hit the Pentagon, and at 7.03, the news reported that a fourth airplane which had diverted from course had crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. By 7.30, both of the 110-storey towers had fallen, taking with them nearby buildings and engulfing lower Manhattan in ash, smoke, and the bodies of all of those who could not escape.

Unbelievably, that was 17 years ago today– and the world that emerged from those attacks 17 years ago is deeply shaped by the experience of them. For me, and I think for many like me, that experience plunged us into history. Before that moment, as a child I was ignorant of what ‘history’ really means. I assumed, as many would- that history is simply a record of what happened before- but it is so much more than that. What we believe happened, affects very deeply what we think is happening and it shapes and molds what we make happen in the future.

Rosh haShanah, in many ways, positions itself to be a statement about history. Today is the birthday of the world, we recite over and over again. What is a birthday other than an annual commemoration of an historical event? Moreover, we include in our Musaf Amidah those special sections which define Rosh haShanah: Malkhuyyot, Zikhronot, and Shofarot. The second of them, Zikhronot, is all about history- and it’s that spirit that informs so much of what we do and what we aim to be on Rosh haShanah. Yet, it is worth us stopping to consider- why is history such a central theme to our observance of the Yamim Nora’im, and to our process of self-transformation which we are meant to be undertaking?

The answer is that Judaism is actually extremely radical on the question of history. The Torah puts forward an extremist doctrine of historical time and historical development- and it simply slips under all of our noses.

In the world which the Torah speaks to, history, even time itself, is an inevitably and unchangeably circular phenomenon. For every ancient people - Greeks, Romans, Babylonians, Assyrians, Sumerians, the Vedic culture of India, ancient Chinese philosophers, pre-Buddha dharma traditions - time is a cycle, a wheel that turns and turns, never moving– eternally exchanging endings for beginnings and beginnings for endings. In this world, the Torah makes an assertion which must have seemed absurd when it came out- the world is progressing. Time is advancing. History moves from a beginning, which is Creation, towards an end, which we mythologise as the Messianic Era. They must have thought we were nuts.

Today, we can hardly realise the radicality of such a concept- only because it has become the new normal. The Torah’s notion of history’s progress is the basic building block of all Western society and philosophy, it is what creates the intellectual foundation for the enlightenment, for science, for technology, and for the constant and consistent decrease in human violence over time.
Yes– you heard me right.

There is a rabbinic maxim, which I have had printed on all of your tickets for the High Holy Days this year- מעלים בקודש ואין יורדים - we increase in holiness and never decrease. History, holiness, time, development– it only goes one direction: good increases and never decreases. It always reminds me in particular of the way in which my in-laws respond to basic questions. No matter what the actual situation, they almost always respond to ‘How are you doing?’ with the same refrain: ‘Going well’, ‘Getting better.’ When there’s a problem, it’s always ‘It’ll be okay,’ ‘Things will be better tomorrow.’ Perhaps its foolish idealisation or some notion of self-fulfilling prophecy, but I actually think there lies in that response a deep and important truth.

Now, that sounds lovely and all, but many of you may think it is absolutely daft to suggest such a thing when we live in a world in which we experience such violence. We live in a world where school children know what the word genocide means and in which we find ourselves unable to figure out how to stop people terrorising others with bombs, guns, knives, and acid. Yet- if we take a step back- if we really consider it- is our world actually as dangerous as it seems? Is that rabbinic maxim wrong? Is today the safest time in history?

As odd as it may seem, I believe the answer is yes. We perceive there to be a great deal of violence because it is so readily available to us: dispensable by smart phone notifications and a twenty-four hour news cycle. Yet, that doesn’t reflect the reality of human history and the changes that have been wrought over time.

Let’s look at the numbers- just to see if we can get a sense. I owe a great deal of my knowledge of this question to Steven Pinker’s book, Better Angels of Our Nature where he asks the following question: What, would you say, are the bloodiest events in human history? Yes, predictably, the Second World War is number 1 with a death toll of 55 million people. In second place is the famine and destruction wrought by communist China in the Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward, which together claimed 40 million lives. Closely following is a much older crime, the Mongol Conquests of the 13th century, which claimed an estimated 40 million lives as well.

That would seem to prove that the Torah is wrong- the worst atrocities of violence have occurred in the 20th century. Yet, any statistician would tell you that it’s not an accurate representation of per capita violence, because the world population during the Mongol Conquests was only about 400 million, whereas the mid-20th century saw a world population of 4 billion. As a result, if we really want to understand the history of human violence, we need to understand in in context. The question is not: have more people died in the 20th century than prior centuries- because the answer is of course yes, but largely because more people have lived in the 20th century.

Instead we need to adjust for population changes to assess these atrocities in contemporary terms. If we do the maths to equate all explosions of human violence for which we have records to relate their population to a mid-20th century equivalent, the chart looks a bit different. The top five are now astronomically larger than our objective 20th century data. All end up over 100,000,000 dead and all occurred before the 20th century. They are:

  • The An Lushan Revolt - equivalent of 429,000,000 - 8th century

  • Mongol Conquests - equivalent of 278,000,000 - 13th century

  • Arab Slave Trade - equivalent of 132,000,000 - 7th-19th century

  • Fall of the Ming Dynasty - 112,000,000 - 17th century

  • Fall of Rome - 105,000,000 - 3rd-5th century

What a different picture of the world that presents! If we consider how little of the data we have, especially of the ancient world, the maths could be even yet more different. The reality seems to be that with every day, the chances of a given person experiencing serious violence in their own lives have steadily decreased. That sounds to me like the world is getting better. Now, the chart of human violence may be a descending line over ten thousand years, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t aberrations here and there- the 20th century certainly seemed poise to upset the trajectory of that downward curve. But, with the advances in human society since, the ‘Long Peace’ that has prevailed since 1945, and the surprisingly un-bloody end to the Cold War, the trend has nonetheless continued. On the broadest scale, the average chance of being a victim of violence continues to decrease.

For me, revelations such as these absolutely confirm the notion that we are, in fact, getting better. With each Rosh haShanah, with each year that ticks past, things do improve, we do ‘increase in holiness and not decrease.’ Progress is a real factor, even if it is eludes our day to day perception. We are in the funny position as being the people who live in the safest time in history, yet we believe it to be the most dangerous. If we can see past that, and look at the bigger picture and the longer scale, we may yet realise that our world is indeed improving.

I think that the Torah’s idea of history is more important than ever. In a time in which we think things are so much worse than they are, we need to repeat and reaffirm that maxim: we increase in holiness and never decrease. 5779 will be a better, safer, and holier year than 5778. Our calendar is indeed a wheel- but rather than the eternally-cycling wheel of the ancients, ours is a wheel on an axle, a tire which, as it turns, inexorably advances that which it carries. With each Rosh haShanah we celebrate another revolution, another step in holiness, another decrease in violence, and another improvement on the human condition.

I know it is easy to be bleak about the future– but we are asked to see it differently. Even when it appears to be dark and gloomy, we are asked to step back and look larger, to realise the role that each year plays in bringing redemption closer and closer.

For me, this day is an apt coincidence. Rosh haShanah coinciding with September 11th - that juxtaposition reminds me to remember that although there are peaks and troughs along the curve, the curve is going the right way. Even though we experience violence and see terror, we must remember, as Rosh haShanah asks us to do, that this year will be better than the last, and that an even better one will follow after. Over and over, around and around, until we reach that vision of the future when violence has disappeared and history is redeemed. We must not give up on the notion of progress, whether personal, communal, or historical. Things are doing great, and they’re getting better.

Shanah Tovah.