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Rosh Hashana 5774: Who is a true friend of God?

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Following on from his Installation sermon, the newly-inaugurated Chief Rabbi explores in his first Rosh Hashana address why God cherishes those who detect goodness, rather than faults in others. Value every individual for their uniqueness, he advises, and in this way become closer to God.

In my Installation Address earlier this week, I highlighted the importance of ahavat chinam, the natural, unquestioning love that we should have for others. We sometimes take this idea for granted, not fully appreciating just how tough a challenge it really is, but also how significant an impact it can have.

Even a broken clock tells the right time twice a day.

From our liturgy for Rosh Hashana we learn that by recognising this and applying it in our dealings with others, we are considered a true friend of God.

Our mussaf Amidah for Rosh Hashana offers an insight into the way God reacts to us through the blessing given by the heathen Prophet Bilaam, “He has not seen iniquity in Jacob; neither has he seen perverseness in Israel.  The Lord his God is with him and the King will be his friend” (Numbers 23:21).

The Iturei Torah (a twentieth century commentary by Aharon-Ya’akov Greenberg MK) provides a beautiful explanation for this passage. The Torah, he says, is referring to those who judge others favourably and always seek to find their virtues.  Since they see no iniquity in others, God is with them and cherishes them as a friend.

The Almighty delights in those who are well disposed towards others. God is comfortable in the presence of those who are comfortable in the presence of their fellow human beings. God is close to those who wish to be close to others, regardless of their imperfections.

The Ethics of the Fathers declares: “There is no man who has no hour”. This is an ancient version of the modern day “Every dog has its day”. Simply put, there are immeasurable qualities of goodness in every person, if only we had the patience and disposition to discover and appreciate them.

‘God is close to those who wish to be close to others, regardless of their imperfections’

The Hebrew words “pleasure” and “plague” are made up of the same three letters. “Pleasure” is oneg (ayin, nun, gimmel) while “plague” is nega (nun, gimmel, ayin).  The only difference between oneg and nega is where you put your ayin – your eye; that is, how you view the situation.  Two individuals can meet the same person and share the same experience.  For one, it can be a pleasure and for the other a plague.  It depends on the attitude they adopt.

We are all created in the image of God and as such, every human being has virtues, coupled with immense untapped potential.  If we can harness and tap into the goodness in others we will discover the hidden pleasures of their souls and the special attributes that we never knew they had.

An appreciation of the uniqueness of each person and their closeness to the Divine lies behind the manner in which the Israelites are counted in the wilderness. At the commencement of the Book of Numbers they are commanded, “Take the sum of all the congregations of the Children of Israel….by their polls.” This seems surprising when we consider that King David and the Israelites (in the Book of Samuel, 2:24) are severely punished for the census they took. David says: “I have sinned greatly through that which I have done.” Why did David’s action prompt the wrath of God, while Moses, on no less than four occasions, did likewise at the behest of the Almighty? The answer lies in the manner in which the numerical strength of the people was ascertained.

David undertook a head count, reducing each individual to a statistic. As every human being is unique, created in the image of God, it is anathema for us to regard any person as a mere number.

Since the Holocaust, we carry the scars of the Nazi era when, as Jews, we had numbers branded on our arms in an attempt to dehumanise us, to reduce us to mere statistics, bereft of dignity and individuality.

Moses, however, does something different to David. Rashi explains “by their polls” to mean through shekels, a half-shekel per poll. It was not the people that were counted, but rather the contribution that they made.

Commenting on the command, “Seu et rosh” – “count the heads” (Numbers 1:2), Rabbi Isaiah Horovitz (16th century author and teacher) suggests that every person is a rosh, a head.  Each one has the potential to reach great heights and must thus be counted individually as a special and unique entity.

‘We had numbers branded on our arms in an attempt to dehumanise us, to reduce us to mere statistics’

Our sages teach: “If one saves one life, it is considered as if one has saved an entire world” (Sanhedrin 4:5).  The Almighty saw fit to make no two people quite alike, either in appearance or in thought. Society is composed of unique individuals, each one a sacred microcosm; a world in himself or herself, deserving our ahavat chinam, our love and respect for no reason other than for being a fellow human being.

As we usher in a New Year, the anniversary of the creation of humankind, let us reflect on our relationships with those around us; our relationships with our families, our friends and our communities. Let us resolve to love more and to care more, to give more and to cherish more. Let us seek out the virtues and the good in others. As we come closer to the other, so we come closer to God. Befriend another and you have a friend in God.

Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis