BBC Radio 4:The Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis - 20/09/2017

The journalist, Daniel Knowles, observed a fascinating moral problem on the roads of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. At night, since the lighting is poor and the surfaces are often damaged and uneven, motorists drive with their full-beam headlights on. Doing so is of course likely to dazzle or momentarily blind other motorists. But, since everyone is doing it, no individual motorist feels safe using dimmed or dipped headlights. Unsurprisingly, Kenya suffers from one of the highest rates of traffic deaths, despite the fact that many live in rural areas and don’t own a car.

This challenging predicament begs a question which seems virtually impossible to answer: who ultimately bears responsibility for this obviously human-made problem? We might reasonably expect the authorities to spend more money on road maintenance. Yet should we not also expect motorists to drive with the safety of all road users in mind – even knowing that others will not do the same?

This tension between individual and collective responsibility is an important feature of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which commences this evening. Our deeply evocative liturgy uses the analogy of a shepherd inspecting every single sheep individually, making it clear that each one of us is judged by God alone. Yet, all of our prayers are delivered in the plural. Each person confesses transgressions that they may never have committed themselves because of a sense of collective responsibility for the whole.

A highlight of the Rosh Hashana service is the moment when the ‘kohanim’, those who are of priestly descent, face the congregation and bless them. But what would happen if the whole congregation were of priestly descent? To whom would they direct their blessing? The Talmud poses this question and offers a fascinating answer. They must nonetheless, face an empty room and give the same Blessing. This conjures an image bordering on the absurd and yet, the inference is extremely powerful. The blessings given in our Synagogues are for everyone around the world and not just for those in front of us. We must be sensitive to and in tune with the concerns and aspirations of those beyond our walls.

All citizens have a fundamental responsibility that extends beyond themselves. The great Jewish sage Hillel put it like this: “If I’m not for myself, who will be for me? And if I’m only for myself, what am I?”

At times when we are faced with our own versions of the ‘full-beam headlights’ predicament, we should be mindful of the greater good. Rosh Hashana teaches us to be prepared to give a little more and expect a little less in return.