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Erev Rosh Hashanah 5777 -Fractal Community – Rabbi Paul Freedman

 A couple of weeks ago I was at a two day seminar with other Jewish lay-leaders and professionals, including four of us from this community. One of the initiatives of the Reform Movement, launched at this summer’s chagigahconference, is focussed on community development and re-imagining Jewish leadership, and Radlett Reform – as one of the largest and fastest-growing vibrant communities – is committed to the work. The facilitator was explaining how the principles and good practice of community-building apply equally well on different scales: from individuals in families or communities, to society or even internationally. We learnt about the different approaches of the Ancient Melians and Athenians, according to Thucydides in the Peloponnesian Wars. It seems I’m an Athenian, but that’s for another time.

 To illustrate the idea – of thinking on multiple scales – the facilitator asked if anyone in the group could explain what a fractal was. There was a slightly embarrassed pause until I admitted that I knew and, putting on my ex-Physics teacher hat, did my best to give a short explanation. Actually I’ve mentioned fractals in a sermon before – not just because they were invented, or rather discovered, about 30 or 40 years ago by a Jewish Mathematician – but also because they provide a really excellent metaphor for these ten days of reflection, from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, that begin tonight.

 In the 80’s, colourful posters of fractals appeared all over the place, a quite unusual phenomenon of a development in the academic field of Mathematics capturing the public imagination. So if you know what a fractal looks like, then you know what I’m talking about – perhaps you have a picture of one in your head right now. But if you don’t know what a fractal looks like, they’re quite hard to describe! [see sequence below]


Although fractals do occur in nature, the ones on the posters were basically these mathematically-generated, artistic-looking, often colourful patterns of infinite detail. These swirling patterns are not just beautiful: but the key thing about any fractals is that they are infinitely detailed. What that means is that no matter how much you zoom in on a bit of a fractal, it still just looks like a fractal. Keep zooming in and you can’t tell that it has been enlarged. Every detail in a fractal just contains more detail, no matter how long you go on zooming in. The result is that when you look at a fractal, if you lived in a fractal, there’s no way of knowing the scale. Are you taking in the big picture or focussed on a detail? In a fractal there’s no difference.

 And that, I think, can be quite a powerful, even liberating idea for us. If there are times when we get a little carried away with our own importance, or think the world revolves around us, it is helpful to remember that we are just one detail – though every detail is crucial – in a much bigger picture. If there are times that we feel that we are just one small cog in a big machine, perhaps we might reflect that our lives are in fact the ‘big picture’ that we don’t always see when we are too focussed on the details of the everyday.

 As a growing community it means we have a role to play in the development of Reform Judaism and indeed of Anglo-Judaism but also, always, to nurture the individuals and clusters of interest that together make up our own BIG Radlett Reform family.

 The analogy works for our individual actions too. The smallest action, the most minute detail, might still be significant in on a larger scale. I never took up smoking, but I’m told that one way to give up, is to give up for just one day, and then another, and then another… As the Chinese say: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

 No action is insignificant. It is a detail in the big picture of your life. No one person is insignificant, he or she is one detail in the big picture of our society or of human history. As Claude Montefiore, one of the founders of Liberal Judaism in this country put it: “Ten bad Jews may help to damn us; ten good Jews may help to save us. Which minyan will you join?”

 There’s a piece by Franz Kafka in our Machzor that I sometimes read out towards the end of the Yom Kippur service. It is a troubling or disturbing story – mostly, I think, because it has a troubling or disturbing ending. It occurs to me that reading it at the beginning of Rosh Ha-Shanah, at the beginning of this ten day journey, might be just as appropriate. So here it is.

 Before the Law stands a doorkeeper on guard. To this doorkeeper there comes a man from the country who begs admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says he cannot admit the man at the moment. The man, on reflection, asks if he will be allowed, then, to enter later. ‘It is possible,’ answers the doorkeeper, but not at this moment.’ Since the door leading into the Law stands open as usual and the doorkeeper steps to one side, the man bends down to peer through the entrance. When the doorkeeper sees that, he laughs and says: ‘If you are so strongly tempted, try to get in without my permission. But note that I am powerful. And I am only the lowest doorkeeper. From hall to hall, keepers stand at every door, one more powerful than the other. Even the third of these has an aspect that even I cannot bear to look at.’

 These are difficulties which the man from the country has not expected to meet; the Law, he thinks, should be accessible to everyone and at all times, but when he looks more closely at the doorkeeper in his furred robe, with his huge pointed nose and long, thin, Tartar beard, he decides that he had better wait until he gets permission to enter. The doorkeeper gives him a stool and lets him sit down at the side of the door. There he sits waiting for days… and years. He makes many attempts to be allowed in and wearies the doorkeeper with his persistence. The doorkeeper often engages him in brief conversation, asking him about his home and about other matters, but the questions are always put quite impersonally, as great men put questions, and always conclude with the statement that the man cannot be allowed to enter yet. The man, who has equipped himself with many things for his journey, parts with all he has, however valuable, in the hope of bribing the doorkeeper. The doorkeeper accepts it all, saying, however, as he takes each gift: ‘I take this only to keep you from feeling that you have left something undone.’

 During all these long years the man watches the doorkeeper almost incessantly. He forgets about the other doorkeepers, and this one seems to him the only barrier between himself and the Law. In the first years he curses his evil fate aloud; later, as he grows old, he only mutters to himself. He grows childish, and since in his prolonged watch he has learned to know even the fleas in the doorkeeper’s fur collar, he begs the very fleas to help him persuade the doorkeeper to change his mind.

 Finally his eyes grow dim and he does not know whether the world is really darkening around him or whether his eyes are only deceiving him. But in the darkness he can now perceive the radiance that streams immortally from the door of the Law. Now his life is drawing to a close. Before he dies, all that he has experienced during the whole time of his sojourn condenses in his mind into one question, which he has never put to the doorkeeper. He beckons the doorkeeper, since he can no longer raise his stiffening body. The doorkeeper has to bend far down to hear him, for the difference in size between them has increased very much to the man’s disadvantage. ‘What do you want to know now?’ asks the doorkeeper, ‘you are insatiable.’

 ‘Everyone strives to attain the Law’, answers the man, ‘how does it come about, then, that in all these years no one has come seeking admittance but me?’

 The doorkeeper perceives that the man is at the end of his strength and that his hearing is failing, so he bellows in his ear:‘No one but you could gain admittance through this door, since this door was intended only for you. – I am now going to shut it’.

 It is possible to understand the parable differently, but in my reading it is a sad story, albeit one from which we can draw a much more positive lesson. The man from the country has failed. He has reached the end of his life, waiting to be granted access through this first of many doors, but not once did he actually try to walk through the door, a door that in the end he learns was actually intended for him. His door – and he never stepped through it. Either the enormity of the whole journey, at one end of the scale, or his obsession with detail down to the fleas on the guards coat, at the other end of the scale, have distracted him from his ultimate purpose.

 A verse written by Jonathan Swift in 1733, a century and a half before Kafka and two and a half centuries before the discovery of fractals – Swift describes a flea, perhaps one of the fleas to appear on the guard’s coat in Kafka’s parable, but his description almost sounds like a fractal.

 So, Nat’ralists observe, a Flea

Hath smaller Fleas that on him prey,

And these have smaller fleas to bit ’em,

And so proceed ad infinitum.

 Over the next ten days, and in the year ahead, we each and as a community have our own doorways through which we must pass. Let us not dismiss them as irrelevant detail, nor be overwhelmed by their significance. We can do no more than live at our own scale and leave it for God to see the full fractal of our lives. A midrash quoted at the beginning of our Erev Rosh Hashnah machzor:

 Amar Ha-kadosh Baruch Hu: Banai, pitchu li pehtach echad shel teshuvah kechudah shel machat, va-ani poteach lachem p’tachim she-yihyu agalot u-kraniot nichnasot bam.

The Holy Blessed One says: “My children, open for me one gate of repentance by as little as the point of a needle, and I will open for you gates wide enough for carriages and coaches to pass through. (Song of Songs Rabbah 5:2)

 Rabbi Paul Freedman

Tue, 20 October 2020 2 Cheshvan 5781