English writer Patrick O’Brian is best known as author of a series of 21 seafaring novels, which inspired the film “Master and Commander.” The final installment in the series, left unfinished at the end of the author’s life, is untitled, referred to simply as “21.” O’Brian’s very first novel, however (“Testimonies,” written before the author turned his considerable creative talents to the sea, and originally released under the title “Three Bear Witness”), is both a tragic love story and a subtle, sensitive theological reflection. Much of the book is structured as a collection of testimonies given by the leading characters to an unnamed (and apparently, it turns out, heavenly) investigator, very much in the style of police interrogations or legal depositions.
The central protagonist of “Testimonies” is Joseph Aubrey Pugh, an Oxford don who has taken some time off from academe to collect himself and to enjoy the simpler life and slower pace of a mountainous farming village in Wales. There he is introduced to an unfamiliar world by an exemplary farmer (though, alas, a deeply flawed man) – Emyr Vaughn. Pugh describes a walk he had taken together with Mr. Vaughn through the Welsh countryside:
“I remember being struck again by the extraordinary way he recognized individual sheep. ‘That ewe there [Vaughn would say], she is the daughter of the one by the wall. She had twins, but she could not feed both of them, and I put one to that ewe we passed by the road, the one I said had the maggot very bad last year – her lamb had the brait [i.e., was of speckled or spotted coloration].’ It was obvious he was not talking for effect: he had hundreds of sheep there, and he knew each one, with its maternal ancestry…. I meant to ask him how he identified each….”
One of the most cherished, theologically challenging, and emotionally freighted prayers of the High Holy Days, Unetaneh Tokef, offers testimony that during this sacred season, we all pass before God “k’vnei maron” – like a flock of sheep. God, an extraordinary Shepherd, views us not as an ill-defined collective – not as an anonymous or amorphous herd. God recognizes each and every one of us as a unique individual, each with our own personal history, each with our distinctive qualities, each with our accumulated wounds and scars and defining struggles, each of us a mother’s child, each of us worthy of our Keeper’s watchful attention and loving care.
Read on the cusp of Rosh Hashanah, Parshat Nitzavim opens with similar attention to individuality, addressing each and every Israelite with her or his unique humanity and unmatched personal experience:
“You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God— your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from the woodchopper to the water drawer – to enter into the Covenant of the Lord your God…” (Deuteronomy 29:9-10).
In these first, critical verses of the Torah portion, as in Unetaneh Tokef, each and every member of the community individually appears before God to affirm the Covenant. Each and every one of us plays a significant role. Each and every one of us is accounted a matter of moment in the eyes of God, commanding incalculable concern and attention.
Each and every one of us – “tribal leaders” and “drawers of water” and “strangers” alike – each and every man, woman, and child is (like O’Brian’s final opus) an unfinished product. We still have work to do. Our final chapter remains as yet unwritten.
As he began his 21 novels of sea travel and daring naval exploits, Patrick O’Brian carefully considered a theme he shares with both Parshat Nitzavim and Unetaneh Tokef: the inestimable sanctity of the human individual:
“I have had such a sickening of men in masses, and of causes, that I would not cross this room to reform parliament or prevent the union or to bring about the millennium. I speak only for myself, mind — it is my own truth alone — but man as part of a movement or a crowd is indifferent to me. He is inhuman. And I have nothing to do with nations, or nationalism. The only feelings I have — for what they are — are for men as individuals; my loyalties, such as they may be, are to private persons alone.”
As the Days of Awe approach, may we, too, discover the infinite beauty that resides in each and every human being, in each individual relationship, precious, unique, and irreplaceable.
As we submit ourselves to our heavenly Master and Commander for review — judgement divine and ovine — let us bear witness. We offer testimony that God knows us — each and every one of us — flawed human beings though we may be, however spotted our personal history, however checkered our past. God knows the real us. In the year ahead, may each and every member of our flock — and may we together — strive more intimately to know our Shepherd, as well.