By Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis
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, every motorist drives 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 bears responsibility for this obviously human-made problem? Should we expect the Kenyan authorities, with half their population living below the poverty line, to spend more money on road maintenance? Should we expect motorists to place themselves at risk for the greater good, when they know others will not?
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. The Talmud poses a fascinating dilemma: what happens if every person in Synagogue is of priestly descent? And the answer is: they nonetheless face an empty room and give the Priestly Blessing. It seems quite amusing, if not absurd. But, actually, something very powerful is happening. The blessings given in our Synagogues are for everyone around the world and not just for those in front of us. We strive to be in tune with the needs, the concerns and the aspirations of one and all.
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 a version of the ‘full-beam headlights’ challenge, 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.