The phrase Hashivenu, ha-Shem, elecha v’nashuvah; chadesh yameinu k’kedem, which finds its origins in the Book of Lamentations (where it is either the penultimate or ultimate sentence depending on how you look at it), will be heard throughout synagogues on the High Holidays. It might be literally translated as “Take us back, ha-Shem, to Yourself, and let us come back; renew our days as of old,” but that isn’t entirely helpful – or at least it doesn’t tell the whole story. I’ll leave you to ponder, during a quiet (or loud) moment over the holidays, the power dynamics of repentance established in the first part of that sentence. Instead, I’d like to focus on the latter section, which appears to contain a blatant contradiction.
What did Jeremiah, the presumed author of Lamentations, mean by “Renew our days as of old”? How can something be new and old at the same time? Is history meant to define us or guide us forward? Commentators have long sought to clarify the apparent conflict in the phrase. One traditional explanation contends that the word “renew” is a reference to Adam and the Garden of Eden, in which case it becomes a request to return the supplicant to a world that was, at the time, literally brand new. A more modern, less literal explication might embrace the flagrant contradiction, arguing that Judaism has to be a combination of the two – tradition mixed with today’s sensibilities.
However you look at it, though, there’s no denying that renewal is a central fixture of Judaism. And the High Holidays are arriving just in the nick of time to remind us about that, at a moment when it feels as though society has forgotten the concept as a whole.
Maybe it’s because we see fakery all around us, with so many people willing to say and do whatever it takes, as long as it gets people to pay attention to them. (Maybe we’re even guilty of it, too, in the way we portray our lives on social media.) It throws us off kilter, makes us less trusting. And when we lose trust, we also lose the capacity to believe that people can really change. If there’s no possibility of change, what chance is there for renewal?
You can see this ugly cycle at play in Canada’s federal election campaign, where digging up dirt on opponents has emerged as the apparent go-to strategy of each and every political party. As Justin Trudeau faces his moment of reckoning with the past, he claims he made a mistake and has learned from it, while his opponents argue that what he did back then only further delegitimizes what he has said in recent times.
I don’t know who’s right, but what I do know is that if we have lost faith in the ability of people to change for the better, then heaven help us all. (And yes, that also applies to candidates who have had hateful things to say about Jews and Israel – all the more so.)
Rabbis often describe the sound of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah as a wake-up call. The prescription for a sweet new year rests on our ability to take account of who we are and who we intend to be, to return where we came from and to set course for something new at the same time. As each of us reflects on what that means for the year ahead, let’s also remember that the person sitting in the next seat is doing the same, and engage in the massive project of renewal together.
A shanah tovah to all.