Starting Over

After just about thirty years of using a personal computer, this is the great technical wisdom that I have gained: most of the glitches that I encounter with software, and even with the machine itself, can be remedied by re-starting the computer.

I am truly sorry if I have disappointed you with my decidedly low-tech insight into the workings of computers, but I really do believe that it is true. Just when you’re about ready to sit on hold for hours waiting to talk with the technical support division of whatever product you might be using, do yourself a favor. Turn off the machine, and start over. Re-boot. You’d be amazed at the cleansing effect a good re-start can have on a balky computer.

Despite the revelry that invariably accompanies the celebration of a secular new year, so very different from the sober introspection that is the Jewish High Holidays, there lurks not far beneath the surface a different version of the “re-start” theme. The idea of “New Year’s Resolutions” implies a commitment- albeit of somewhat dubious sincerity- to take on new behaviors or commitments that one might feel are more healthy and constructive than those that characterized the preceding year. These so-called resolutions are often not worth the paper they’re written on, if indeed they are written down. Yet on some level they nonetheless reflect, at the very least, an awareness that there are areas of our lives that are in need of some repair.

The idea of re-booting one’s life is rich in both literal and metaphorical ways. Some years ago, I delivered a sermon on Kol Nidre night that was based on the workings of my car’s GPS device. When I ignored or missed a turn that the GPS had instructed me to make, the unit would go silent for a few seconds and then calmly say, “recalculating.” It was, of course, developing a new set of directions based on my unanticipated (and probably unwise) deviation from its instructions. It occurred to me one night in the car that, on some deeper level, the charted directions that a GPS unit lays out for any given trip represent, like the good life, the path we are intended to follow. From time to time, we may veer off that path, intentionally or unintentionally. And when that happens, we are challenged by our consciences (dare I say by God?) to “recalculate;” to figure out how to find our way back to where we are supposed to be going. The idea of t’shuvah—of penitence– is, essentially, one of spiritual recalculation and recalibration.

When we restart, or reboot a computer, we are sharing with it anew a set of operating instructions and prompts that tell is how best to operate. For whatever reason, its systems may have been corrupted or compromised along the way. Restarting the operating process begins the whole operation from scratch, before things went wrong. That’s why the restart option offers such a good chance of fixing bugs. It restores the computer to the status quo ante– to the state of being that it enjoyed before the problems began.

I know what you’re thinking; would that life were so simple that we could “restart” at will and go back in time with a chance for a “do over.” My goodness, how often we humans would love to have a chance for a “do over!” How often do we say something that we would give anything to be able to take back, or do something that we would give anything to have undone… I dare say that it’s more times than we can count, almost every day!

But even though we can never really “re-start” as cleanly and completely as a computer does, we nonetheless treasure our opportunities to start over.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur draw their amazing power from combining this idea with the spiritually potent conceptual overlay of sin and punishment, fidelity to the Covenant and the reward that ensues for the faithful. New Year’s Day will never have that power for us, not least of all because its origins are pagan, and the history of New Year’s Day has often been less than kind to Jews.

But for better of for worse, absent the alcohol and the excesses that so often accompany it, the secular New Year is an important opportunity for a new beginning, and it should not be ignored. We live by the rhythm of two calendars, one sacred to us and hallowed by tradition, and the other a product of values often not our own. But if, by chance, we are able to derive meaning and substance from a secular holiday (an oxymoron if ever there was one!), I see nothing wrong with that. And in that spirit I wish you all a happy secular new year! May if afford us all yet another chance to re-start our lives in a more positive direction…

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.