Once a year for ten days we do a kind of moral stocktaking

September 28, 2011
ThoughtForTheDay 20200515 RabbiLordSacks mp3 image 1
Broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, 28th September 2011

News continues about the crisis in the Eurozone, and the massive bail-out, measured in trillions of Euros, to prevent the Greek debt crisis engulfing the whole economy of Europe.

And tonight we begin Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, the festival whose most famous symbol is the shofar, the ram’s horn we blow to mark the beginning of ten days of repentance.

Now I admit the connection between Rosh Hashanah and the European debt crisis isn’t obvious, until we remember the point made by the philosopher Nietzsche, who pointed out that the German word for guilt, schuld, is essentially the same as the word schulden, meaning debts. And the same is true in Hebrew. Chayav means both to be guilty of a transgression, and to owe someone something.

As soon as we see this we get an insight into both the Jewish New Year and elementary economics. The Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement are there to prevent a build up of guilt, that is, indebtedness to God.

Because otherwise, whether morally or financially, we tend to borrow and spend as if there were no tomorrow. The end result is that when the bill finally comes it’s overwhelming.

So in Judaism once a year for ten days we do a kind of moral stocktaking, a spiritual audit. We see what’s gone wrong; we apologise; we try to make amends; we put our lives in order; all this to avoid the human equivalent of what’s happened to some western economies, namely of reaching a point where we discover that we’ve spent all we have – be it our money or our lifetime – with all too little to show for it.

And we can do this with honesty because we know God forgives. Whereas our culture today – be it the media or the market – tends not to forgive. So people are forced to deny there’s a problem. They reassure investors. They produce bold forecasts, hoping no one will realise the true situation until the crisis passes. Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt. As far as the economy is concerned it’s been our default option for years.

I think we could all do with an annual period of stocktaking, accompanied by a day of forgiveness, in which we were free to be honest about ourselves and the things we’ve done wrong. Better small debts annually repaid than massive ones that build up until they’re un-repayable. That’s the principle of Rosh Hashanah and may I wish you all a good new year.