By Max Simmonds
I had my first day of work at a new job this week and the 460 wasn’t on time. It was a weekday morning, so there should be a 460 every 10–13 minutes. I had to wait for half an hour.
THE AUDACITY OF THE 460 TO BE LATE LIKE THIS! WE HAVE OBLITERATED OUR NATURAL WORLD TO MAKE WAY FOR MODERNITY AND STILL, STILL, I’M RUNNING LATE FOR WORK!
How did it all go so wrong? I allocated my time perfectly so I could have a big breakfast (six Weetabix… six!) and do some hitbodedut in the park opposite my workplace before the day started. My soul would be empty of its anguish, my stomach would be full of soggy wheat biscuits and I would be ready for a day’s work.
But there I was, running through Cricklewood like a proper mashugana, with my hand clutching my kippah so it wouldn’t fall off my head. All because a bus was a bit late.
In a world without bus timetables, buses would never be ‘early’, ‘on time’ or ‘late’, they’d just be ‘here’ or ‘not here’. A bus timetable makes buses arrive on time only insofar as if it didn’t exist, there’d be no such thing as ‘on time’.
The bus timetable doesn’t say when the bus will arrive, just when it should arrive. Nobody stresses about if the bus will arrive, just if it’ll arrive on time. All this uncertainty festers and ferments in our souls.
We long to grasp the world in all its ambiguity and fashion it into something regular and predictable. But there’s no kiln to put our little masterpiece into. Before our pudgy, arrogant fingers have even left the clay, it melts back into the confounding pool we began with.
Sometimes I think I inhabit the world in its entirety as if it were Long Lane Finchley Central Bus Stop (Stop B). I placate myself with bus-timetable-assurances, which only leave me disappointed and bitter when they fail to come off in our inescapably fluid world.
The truth is that this world will never give us genuine stability. Only in the world which lies beyond it — beyond ‘it’ — can we experience true guarantees.
As Shabbat draws to a close this week, Rosh Chodesh Elul (the start of the month of Elul) will begin. It’s time for us to get ready for repentance. We prepare for the coming of the Yamim Noraim (High Holy Days, lit. ‘Days of Awe’) by blowing the shofar and reciting Psalm 27. The Psalm brings us to confront this tension between surrendering to God’s will, and our instinctive need for imminent justice in the face of enemies who bay for our blood.
For how long must we wait for justice? Is it a privilege to have the strength to wait, or is it a kind of heretical-entitlement to demand Hashem to conform to the bus timetable we’ve written up for Them?
Unlike the bus though, God is always ‘here’. At primary school, we’d sing:
Hashem is here, Hashem is there, Hashem is truly everywhere. Up, up, down, down, right, left and all around, here, there, everywhere, that’s where he can be found. Listen here
So if Hashem’s everywhere, why’s it so hard to feel Them right now? Why do I feel so alienated from Their holiness? In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor sees the Secular as engaged in a project of ‘disenchantment’. What happens then, when, as the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel believed, it’s through enchantment — embracing the sense of wonder which emerges from mystery — that we feel Hashem?
As civilisation advances, the sense of wonder almost necessarily declines. Such decline is an alarming symptom of our state of mind. Mankind will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation. The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living. What we lack is not a will to believe but a will to wonder. Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion, 37.
The opportunities to experience wonder have been wrenched away from us by the powers-that-be. Folklore traditions have been replaced by inane cartoons. Our green spaces have been brutalised, to make way for Brutalist places. We’ve been programmed to objectify others and allow ourselves to be objectified by others. We sacrifice our potential for fulfilment at the altars of Baal and Moloch, now costumed as material ascendancy, rationality and ego.
The psalm ends with an instruction to keep faith that Hashem will establish justice eventually, even if it’s not in time with the bus timetable framework we’ve mapped onto our lives:
קַוֵּ֗ה אֶל־יְ֫הֹוָ֥ה חֲ֭זַק וְיַאֲמֵ֣ץ לִבֶּ֑ךָ וְ֝קַוֵּ֗ה אֶל־יְהֹוָֽה. (Kavei El-Adonai, chazak veya-ameitz libecha, vekavei El-Adonai!) Wait for God, be strong and let your heart take courage. Wait for God!
Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov.
(A drasha for Makor Hayim. 06/08/21 . 28 Av 5781)