D'var Torah, Parashat Ki Tavo 5779/Sat 21st Sept 2019

by Cantor Tamara Wolfson

The writing is the opinion of the author and does not necessarly reflect that of Kehillah North London.

The new year starts as days are waning. 

I’m never ready when the first leaves turn.

Every Jewish day begins with evening:

darkness before light, since the beginning.

I’m never ready when the first leaves turn.

Roll the scroll toward the end of our story:

darkness before light since the beginning.

Am I ready to turn and face what’s coming?

Roll the scroll toward the end of our story —

can I open my hands and let go of the summer?

Am I ready to turn and face what’s coming?

You know what they say about endings.

I open my hands and let go of the summer,

paint every cracked and broken place with gold.

You know what they say about endings:

turn the page, start a chapter, begin again.

Paint every cracked and broken place with gold!

Every Jewish day begins with evening:

turn the page, start a chapter, begin again.

The new year starts as days are waning. (Rachel Barenblat)

 

How do we know when we are ready for the new year — whether Jewish or secular? We feel the air changing, we see the leaves changing, and a little voice inside of us coaxes us to also change. “Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, dibarnu dofi.” We beat our chests as we resolve to be better next year. We make new year’s resolutions effective at midnight, promising to do things differently. But change is hard, whether it’s a new year or not. What makes these changes different from all other changes? What makes our new year’s promises that much more important?

Unlike the secular New Year which in my case is historically framed by champagne, fireworks and renewed gym memberships, our Jewish New Year is framed by liturgy. The words, music, and meditations of the High Holy Days center our spiritual intentions. My resolutions on December 31st are hardly ever spiritual. I usually resolve to be more organized, to be a better friend and partner, or to finally finish some project that’s been gathering dust for months. My Rosh Hashanah resolutions dig deeper than that. How can I begin to heal the places where my soul is hurting? What can I do to improve my faith during times of anxiety? How can I join together with my community to repair the world? And can my actions here on earth have a spiritual impact beyond my current reality?

The Days of Awe seem to present us with a spiritual tension between our potential for change and the finality of our lives. We spend a great deal of time praying to be written up in the Book of Life and meditating on our mortality. The central theme of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer is essentially boiled down to one question: who will live, and who will die? Meanwhile, the undercurrent of these High Holy Days begs the question: how can I make the most of my life? How can I focus on living the best life I possibly can?

While these two things appear to be in tension, I like to think of them more in conversation with one another. Instead of death negating life and instead of mortality negating meaningful change, we can instead frame this time period as a give-and-take rather than a black and white choice between life and death. While we may not have control over when and how our lives will end, we do have control over how our lives are lived. We know this instinctively, but we forget it too frequently. This year, I want to do a better job of remembering. I challenge us all to do the same.

This year, let’s use our free will, our power of consent, our freedom of speech, our intellect and time and talent, towards doing more good in the world, making meaningful change within ourselves, and continuing to stretch ourselves in order to grow. Let’s all try to remember in the midst of a world that is broken and burning that we have more power than we realize. 5780 is a new year. Let’s harness the power of that newness for goodness, for peace, and for blessing.

Ken yehi ratzon. May this be God’s will.