The evenings are drawing in. Yet even as the dreaded dark nights of winter approach, and the dry leaves rustle underfoot, autumn unfurls her burnished banners of red and crimson and gold and we relish the lingering warmth of summer’s last glow. This is also harvest time; our Holy Day season will come to fruition in Sukkot and Simchat Torah. Even as we enter this period of judgment and introspection, we rejoice at the opportunity for gathering in, and for Return.
The first thing we do during the High Holydays is come together, connecting with all Jewish communities throughout time and space. The powerful urge to show up and be counted at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur reaches back to the ancient beginnings of our People. But just showing up to be counted isn’t enough. This sacred season calls us to examine the meaning of our lives. The High Holyday liturgy urges that we take stock and ask ourselves the most important questions:
What are we? What is our life? What is our love? What is our success?
We are called to reflect: Who am I? What is the purpose of my life? What are the unique gifts God has given me? Do I open my heart to others? Do I act to make this world a better place? This year, am I more compassionate and generous, more kind and patient? If my achievements and failures, joys and heartbreak have not helped me to be more understanding of others, then what is my life worth?
For the coming Ten Days, in the period linking Rosh Hashanah with Yom Kippur and known as the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, we are called to Teshuvah. Teshuvah is traditionally translated as ‘Repentance’. But if we look at the 3 letters of the Hebrew root in Teshuvah- shin, vav and bet: shuv – we find that a more accurate meaning of Teshuvah is Turning/Returning. As the year turns, so do we, as a People. At Rosh Hashanah we return to each other, return to God and return to ourselves.
How are we to understand this process?
First – we ask forgiveness from those we have wronged. The rabbis are very clear on this – God forgives only those matters between us and God. For all the rest – our broiguses, the many ways we have let people down, the words we have spoken that hurt or humiliated, the promises made and not fulfilled – these are for us to mend with our fellow human beings. Between now and Yom Kippur we must go in person and ask forgiveness from those we have wronged. In turn, we are required to forgive those who have wronged us. How can we expect forgiveness for ourselves if we don’t forgive those who have wronged us?
Next, in ‘This is Real and You are Totally Unprepared’, a guide to the High Holydays, Alan Lew z’l points out that the word Teshuvah shares the three letters of its root with ‘Shabbat’: to stop, to rest. When we stop and rest we give ourselves time to be fully present to our joys and our pain. And also to celebrate the harvest of our achievements, acknowledge how far we have come and give ourselves credit for the courage shown in the face of adversity. Stopping and resting helps us to recharge our batteries; to be renewed.
At the same time, ‘arriving’, reaching a state of completion, is not a Jewish idea. Cycles of exile and return are embedded in the mythic and historic narrative of the Jewish People. Time after time we mess things up, and are exiled to Babylon, and to Rome. Our first idyllic intimacy with G-d in the Garden of Eden is ruptured by that bite from the apple, banishing us from the garden. Though the promise of ultimate return is safeguarded by the cherubim, those angels brandishing their fiery swords at the gateway to Eden, floodlighting the flightpath home.
The High Holy Days invite us to turn. However far we feel from our tradition, from ourselves, from those we love, the loneliness of distance is rooted in emotional and spiritual separation. When we make the simple choice to turn, we find that God has been there, waiting for us all along.
Rosh Hashanah celebrates the creation of the world, and thus carries one of the most universal messages of all the Jewish festivals. We remember that G-d left the work of creation unfinished, inviting us to be co-partners in the task of completing ourselves and completing the world. We imitate G-d in our capacity for action and creativity. Rambam, Moses Maimonides, argues passionately in his Hilchot Teshuvah that the actions of each and every one of us matter! It’s true that my individual donation to the SWESRS High Holy Day appeal will make hardly any difference at all. But my donation, together with your donation, and your donation, all add up to making a significant difference.
Individually, we don’t amount to very much. But collectively, we can transform the world. Jewish tradition calls out to us: Truly believe your actions make a difference, so you can step up to be God’s co-partners in completing the work of creation! We cannot help but be overwhelmed by the world’s turbulence. But this year, as we celebrate the birthday of the world, let us commit to doing everything we can to be God’s hands in this world, supporting the sick, offering companionship to the lonely, supporting the refugee, protecting the planet.
Changing our beliefs and actions demands effort. This season we wish each other Shanah Tovah, A Happy New Year. Did you know that Shanah is also connected to the Hebrew root Shinui, change. Believing in the possibility of change is one of Judaism’s most radical beliefs. Believing in the possibility of change underlies the entire process of Teshuvah. Changing ourselves is one of the most courageous and optimistic things we can do as human beings. Perhaps, instead of wishing each other a Happy New Year, we should wish each other a Happy New Change!
Tomorrow we will hear the blasts of the shofar, which call us to wake up! and to look at our lives with a critical eye. May the blasts of the shofar this year also remind us to stop and to rest; to gather in and to Return. May we be blessed with healing and renewal, so that we can go forth and continue our work of completing G-d’s creation. Shanah Tovah!