Rabbinic Commentary

Rosh Hashanah Reflections 5784: Where I’ve Been

Rosh Hashanah begins this evening and no matter how you are marking it, the holiday is an invitation to reflect on the year that has passed and consider how we can better return to ourselves as we embark on the new year ahead.  

This year is a very different year for me.  For the past 16 years, I’ve been involved in some way as a synagogue leader, from educational programming to the pulpit.  This year is a gap year for me.  No longer working for a synagogue but not ready to be offering programming yet with the new organization.  In one year from now, I will, God willing, be leading again, facilitating what will hopefully be unique and meaningful experiences for others.  So this year is different, in some ways good, and in other ways difficult.  

On the one hand, I have the amazing opportunity to lean into Rosh Hashanah with my kids (who were not interested in a posed photo at the moment) to experience a family oriented celebration from start to finish - a gift many Jewish professionals long for and miss out on. The opportunity to sit around a dinner table without the stress of leading worship in an hour. After  so many holidays spent with my kids watching me from afar, I hope to lean into the unique opportunity to be fully present with them and to make this a holiday centered around being together. 

And there is grief too… the loss of doing something that brings me so much joy and meaning; to lead a community of people who I love, connect with, and support.  I will so deeply miss being a spiritual leader during the holidays this year and the fulfillment that comes with facilitating meaningful religious moments for others.  

This year, since I’m not delivering any sermons, I’ve decided to channel my thoughts and musings through writing, to share with those in my network, and also as an outlet for myself, since intellectual engagement is one of the ways that I connect to the holiday season. The writing process is more than a process for me, it is the actualization of higher thought that propels me forward as an individual, and helps me consider where we are going as a Jewish people.

Writing is both personal and communal… it is a way for me to draw on my own experiences and consider how Jewish text and tradition can be a guide and map not only for me, but for the broader world in which I live, and the people I interact with.  

And so, I’m leaning into that process as well… and crossing over the 2100 character instagram limit that keeps my weekly challah blog short and sweet.  For Rosh Hashanah, I want to reflect on where I’ve been and on Yom Kippur, share more deeply about where I’m going, all grounded in the evolution of Jewish text.  I hope these reflections resonate with you as well, as you enter this season with hope for blessing, for strength, for healing, and for growth. These holidays have the potential to be deeply personal and intimate… inviting moments of reflection, repentance, repair, and return.

I’ve been thinking a lot this year about the concept of “teshuvah.” Teshuvah is a complicated Hebrew word… It is translated both as “return” and also as “repentance,” and sometimes it is translated as “returning in repentance.” It is a difficult concept to grasp as returning and repenting can have very different applications.  Oftentimes the concept has a negative or critical association, which I think is because of the way the liturgy presents it. The liturgy directly asks us to go through a long list of sins and implores us to repent for many things we have not done. 

I came across an interesting text that challenges this understanding of teshuvah and almost flips it on its head. It suggests that we will be more effective in our teshuvah if we judge ourselves (and others) favorably instead of searching for and emphasizing our errors or weaknesses. The text, from Likutai Halachot, says:

“By judging ourselves favorably and finding more good points inside ourselves (even though we have done what we have done and blemished what we have blemished) we can genuinely cross over from the side of guilt to the side of merit. And through this, we can merit doing teshuvah.”

I love this text so much and the way it reframes the idea of repentance.  Instead of looking for all the ways we have missed the mark, which can potentially bring us further away from God, it invites us to look for good inside ourselves… suggesting that the more we see ourselves and others as whole, the easier it will be to return to God in repentance.  When we see ourselves as overwhelmingly good and righteous, it allows us to identify the ways we have missed the mark with love and acceptance of self. It also allows us to accept those who have hurt us with understanding. We see mistakes as just that, mistakes that we can learn from… not shameful, or permanent blemishes on our soul that we need to implore God to forgive.  

And as the text says, this focus enables us to more naturally return to ourselves.  It is so easy to get caught up in a world of kvetching, of seeing the bad that is all around us, or part of us… but when we focus on the things we love about being alive and the unique gifts we bring to the world, it allows us to better understand what we need and how we can improve.  It is so easy, and so natural to be consumed by the very real pain and suffering all around us, and even within us that it is sometimes difficult to see the good. But when we do, it is much easier to see that things we otherwise might complain about, are things we have the capacity to do something about. To do what is needed to make the world, or ourselves more whole. Why?  Because we now know and believe that we are strong, we are capable, and we are deserving of the good that we already have inside us. 

This is the teaching I needed to hear this past year.  I realized that instead of complaining about my circumstances, I could, and must do something about them. When I focused on my inherent goodness, the values I hold, the life that I wanted for myself and for my family, it became so obvious that I needed to make a professional change.  It was not easy. I resisted. I still complained. I tried to find a way that I could “have it all” and make it work to stay in the job I loved while also having both the work and the personal life I knew I deserved…  I thought if I just tried a little bit harder, I would figure out a way. But finally, by returning to my inherent worthiness, I was able to see that focusing on my needs and wants is not the same thing as giving up. 

It is so easy to be consumed by challenges, personal or external, to complain about systematic brokenness and societal injustices, to see our circumstances as unfair and unjust. But as easy as it is to complain it often gets us nowhere.  Instead, with effort and intention, and a focus on ourselves and our inner goodness, as well as a recognition that societal norms don’t change overnight, we are able to see that not everything can be fixed in a reasonable timeframe. And in the meantime, while we wait, life continues on and we are missing out by not being able to actualize the truest version of ourselves. 

We can still continue to fight the fight, to pursue a more just society, to make a difference in the world while also caring for ourselves.  In fact, if we stop caring for ourselves, we are likely to at some point stop being able to care for others and I finally realized that I was reaching that point.  It is not incumbent upon us to finish the task, but we are also not free to desist from it… 

By returning to myself, by making myself as whole as the round challah of the High Holy Days, I was able to understand that making a professional shift was not the same thing as walking away from my life work and passion.  It was actually the opposite… walking away from one particular role is the exact thing I needed to do in order to walk toward a world where I could achieve my highest professional potential.  

And I only got there by embracing the teaching of this beautiful text. Our mistakes will always be there. As will the mistakes that others have made to harm us. Injustice will always exist in this world. If we want to meaningfully address any of these things, we need to do so from a place of self-love and empathy, not shame, pity, or anger. 

So my friends, my hope for you all this Rosh Hashanah is to find and embrace your inherent goodness and worthiness. To see teshuvah through the lens of returning to the merit you already have inside you, and the gifts you are capable of giving to the world when you become whole.

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