Accepting that which is different is one of the most complex human endeavors for which psychologists tell us we are not well wired. To maintain internal stability, humans gravitate towards a state of homeostasis, resisting change and seeking the balance and safety in the known and comfortable. So, is it any wonder that the anxiety mounts as we lead up to these High Holidays?
No indoor services and, in most cases, no in-person services at all, no gathering of family and friends, no annual check-in with community members who sit in front of us, behind us or even next to us. You, like me, have likely heard the long list of things that will be different. To counterbalance all that will be different, communities around the world have spent weeks (even months) introducing creative and innovative offerings to create meaning, connection and inspiration trying to make the unfamiliar familiar and the uncomfortable just a bit more comfortable during this unprecedented time of isolation.
Knowing this, I want to take a moment to remind us of a truth central to the High Holidays themselves and at the core of Jewish belief. Change is possible and inevitable. Each and every one of us, in every age and stage, is becoming and holds infinite capacity to embody and embrace change in the world, in others, and even in our selves.
Throughout these holidays, we turn to Teshuvah, the powerful element of return and repentance, as a reminder that our life hangs on the evolving possibility of change. In the biblical narrative of Deuteronomy, Moses gathers the people for one final address before his death. He promises: If you return to God, [and listen to God’s voice, doing everything that I Moses) am commanding you today … God will be waiting in love to help you with the return, God will show compassion, he will help you to re-settle in a Godly world, he will bring you to the land of Israel which you will inhabit. (based on Deut. 30:1-14)
In a beautiful, poetic, and moving passage, we as a people were urged to change, to reconnect with God and Torah in ways that would bring a parallel return from the banishment of exile to the land of Israel. This is where we come to the power to change for the very next verse continues, “For this mitzvah which I am commanding you today – lo nifleit hi mimcha – is not too difficult for you – vlo rehokah hi or beyond your reach.” ‘ lo bashamayim hi – it is not in heaven,’ and ‘it is not too baffling.’ In other words, says the Torah, this command is in your grasp and is right in front of you. For the 13th century Spanish commentator, Nachmanides, the most striking feature of the ten verse passage is that the verb lashuv – to return – the same root as the word teshuva – appears again and again. In fact, though few, if any, English translations do it justice, there are actually seven different instances of the word.
Ultimate redemption, Nachmanides says, comes through the ability to make different choices, to think differently, to adapt, to turn. The ability to accept change in ourselves, in others, and in the world changes life’s course and is the key to transforming wandering in the desert into experiencing life in the land of milk and honey.
Change is hard. Change is scary. Change is unbalancing. And, resisting change leads us to stagnate, looking backwards towards what was, blocking the ability to open to possibilities of what can be.
Change is also inevitable. We cannot always control what changes. Authentic Jewish spirituality asks us to open our hearts and minds to change. Change is always happening, whether we want it to or not.
I invite you to share what has become my spiritual work for this season.
Try not to focus so much on the challenges of change. Embrace it. Accept the invitation to look forward. Celebrate that out of change comes good. Out of the new comes the possible. As Moses instructed, lo nifleit hi – is not too difficult– v’lo rehokah hi or beyond your reach.” ‘ lo bashamayim hi – it is not in heaven,’ and ‘it is not too baffling.’.
Don’t ignore the holidays because we cannot mark them in our usual way. Make a plan from within the change. Choose from amongst the many creative and innovative prayer and rituals that this stay-at-home pivot has birthed. Or, create your own new traditions. Spend time in the silence reflecting, sing like you have never sung in front of the computer screen, celebrate with those in your household with festive meals (some have even created a table ceremony much like the Passover seder). We have been given a precious gift that can inspire us to think anew about the importance of these High Holy days.
As we return the Torah scroll to the ark after its reading, we sing aloud hadeish yameinu k’kedem, asking for the strength and determination needed to renew our days as in times past. This year, whether we participate in a Torah service or not, the words of the prayer sound loudly as a reminder that renewal is born when we sow the seeds of change, when we invite the old to be new and the new to have meaning.
May it be a year of goodness, a year of blessing, and a year of planting the seeds of change. Shanah Tovah.