Our liturgy compels us to reflect upon the past year during Rosh HaShanah, but despite the refrains of “ashamnu, bagadnu…” (“We have sinned, we have betrayed”), Rosh HaShanah is a beginning. As its name indicates it is the head of the new year.
Many beginnings are obvious and this summer, I have seen several. While the overall mood in Israel has been overshadowed by the conflicts in Lebanon and Gaza, for me it was punctuated with highlights accentuating life. I celebrated births, weddings and hundreds of North Americans making aliyah (immigrating to Israel).
For me, these sparks of life all seemed unique, none were “typical,” which gave me an even greater appreciation of them.
My new neighbors made aliyah from a small 250 family Jewish community in Knoxville, Tennessee where they had lived all their adult life. Joe, an architect made aliyah at the age of 81 without knowing Hebrew. His wife Marion, a nursery school teacher, can get by in Hebrew, having first visited Israel in 1950 and having made dozens of trips since then. With two of their three children in Jerusalem (the third is in Atlanta), Joe and Marion have decided that Jerusalem is where they belong. Nonetheless I truly admire them for starting a new life in a new country at their age.
Glen and Lisa are two other recent immigrants I have befriended in the last two months. As Judaism took on more and more importance in their lives, Glen and Lisa felt that they wanted to be part of a community who lived their lives in a similar fashion and knew that such a new beginning would be easier before their children entered high school.They made aliyah from Ft. Lauderdale with four children ranging in age from two to thirteen and have now begun their new lives in Jerusalem, starting school and planting roots in our community.
In addition to welcoming newcomers this summer, I have been dancing at weddings.
At every Jewish wedding we sing ??? ???? ???? ????? ??????? ???????, ??? ???? ???? ???? ??? ??? ???? ???. There will be heard in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem, the voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the groom.
These words are a reaffirmation of life whenever they are sung, but for me they take on a special meaning when they are actually sung in the streets of Jerusalem. When I sing at a wedding of two lovers who have found each other in Israel after coming from the Diaspora as part of the ingathering of the exiles, I can not help but feel that we, in Israel, are reversing history. Not only are we fulfilling what Emil Fackenheim called “the 614th commandment” – continuing Jewish life and denying Hitler a posthumous victory, but we are reversing history in a way that no other people has done – by returning to our borders after the Roman expulsion, and creating a nation-state after our two thousand year exile. To me, this is truly amazing. Singing this verse at a wedding is one of the highest highs I experience.
A few weeks ago, overlooking the Jerusalem skyline, I danced at the wedding of Tyson, with whom I served in the army. While Tyson came to Israel from Michigan, his bride, Rebekka came from Oslo. Their wedding was a beautifully intimate affair of close friends and family, many of whom came from abroad to bless the new couple’s life together in Jerusalem.
That same week Adam, originally from Boston, and Michelle, from Wisconsin, were also married. Adam had come to Israel with his parents as a child, but after a trial year returned to Boston. Upon completing college, he returned to live in Israel and served in the army with a special group of returning Israelis.
While all of us are starting new beginnings this year, there is also a sense that we are returning and building upon our past. The days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are a time which our tradition teaches us is a time of “teshuvah” (repentance), which comes from the word “shav” (to return). It is a time for us to return to God, to return to ourselves, to return to our communities and to return to our people. However, it is also a time for new beginnings. Without knowing where we come from, it is difficult to know where we are going. It is hard work to look at oneself and examine one’s life. Yet only when we do that, can we move forward.
For me, in the day-to-day rush of things, it is hardest to live in the present. To be aware of each moment and of each breath as a miracle of God’s gift of life. Yet, when I manage to be mindful in that moment, to put aside the past and the future and to appreciate the present, I am most at peace.
May the coming year bring us many moments of life, awareness and peace – starting with the breath you are taking now.