We are a people who return.
For generations we prayed for our return to Israel. We returned and still pray for the ultimate return. Each time we pray we return to the same liturgy, repeating words which have become rote through repetition. Every week we return to Shabbat, lighting candles on Friday night and smelling the sweet spices at Havdalah. On Simchat Torah, as we complete our annual reading of the Torah, we return immediately to the beginning and chant the words of Bereshit.
Returning offers a sense of comfort drawn from familiarity. When a camper returns from camp, a student from university, or a traveller from a far off land, returning offers the warmth of the known.
In many respects, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the archetype of returning. Each morning in the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah, we hear the familiar sound of the shofar, reminding us of the New Year coming. On the holiday we return to familiar foods – apples and honey, honey cake, the familiar and ritualized meals eaten before and after the fast. There are melodies we only hear in shul on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; we could likely hum them now. We return to these melodies – which vary from haunting to uplifting – only once a year. We all know people who we only see three times a year. We look forward to returning to them, catching up on the year gone by, and wishing them Shanah Tovah.
It is powerful to return and on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we do it with all our senses – seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting.
But while we return to the familiar, we cannot afford to return to the same.
When that camper returns from camp, the student from university or the traveller from a far off land, they return to a place which has changed and they return as changed people. They may see people they love, eat foods they remember fondly, and hear sounds and smell smells which remind them of years gone by, but things have changed.
For all of us change can be scary. But it is change that rejuvenates us to look at ourselves and the world anew. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach said, “If five minutes go by and I don’t change, I don’t want those five minutes.”
Even more so on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Many of us will return to the same synagogues, with the same rabbis and cantors and the same liturgy with the same melodies. We’ll eat the same meals with the same family. It will be familiar, but it will have changed. It must have changed.
We will stand in shul and strike our chest while saying the Al Chet “We have become guilty, we have betrayed, we have robbed, we have spoken slander…” It will be the same words, the same actions, the same melody, but will it have the same meaning?
Are we returning to the same place or to somewhere new?
As we prepare to enter the New Year, it is a time to reflect on where we were last year, what is the same and what has changed while looking forward to next year and considering what we’d like to retain and what we’d like to change. We are blessed by the power to enact change in ourselves, in our communities, and in the world.
When we return to synagogue this Rosh Hashanah, may it be a place that is intimately familiar, but may we enter as individuals who have changed and when we leave synagogue at the end of the chagim, may we leave a changed place as people who have changed. n
Daniel Held is executive director of the Julia and Henry Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Education at UJA Federation of Greater Toronto.