“Let’s start at the very beginning,” my childhood idol Julie Andrews sang to the Von Trapp children atop the impossibly beautiful Austrian alps. And so we will! Each year at this time, the excitement of starting anew, of wiping our spiritual slate clean finds us. So does heartbreak, disappointment and anger over all the things in our lives and our world that have not changed. As the poet Stanley Kunitz asked, “how shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses?”
Like all the best questions poetry poses, there is not one single answer, Jewish or otherwise. The best we can do is stay committed to each other, learn as much as we can together, find our responses and bring those responses to life.
Two years ago at my congregation’s children’s service, I told a story of a villager who wished to drill a hole in the bottom of the boat that had ferried his community to a picnic. Everyone learned — even the villager — that a hole in the boat made by one person would quickly become a problem for every person! Some might even say, by the story’s end, that we’re all in the same boat.
There were years that this saying is a mere saying, there to prove a point. Not anymore.
How I wish I could write that it’s as simple as villagers and boats. It is that simple, and it also isn’t. What are the broader obligations we are called to in Nitzavim, as we read of our community standing together at the end of their wilderness journey, ready at last to make their crossing? Appropriately enough, it is a portion calling us to be our best selves, to draw on all the confidence, open heartedness and holiness we can muster. We chose these sacred obligations then. May we also choose them now.
The obligation of memory. As a member of my own family raised in the post-World War era often reminds me, “how can we forget our nomadic roots?” While our forebears were being forced out of many cities and towns, leaving with just the clothes on their backs, they possessed the knowledge and resilience which could not easily be taken from them. The images of new refugees we see today may not belie the skills and aspirations they possess, but think about the children and grandchildren of those described as the refuse of other lands, and how many discoveries and awards they received for contributions to humanity by living as free people on these shores.”
The obligation of empathy. These lines belong to a different holiday than the one we’ll be gathering for just days from now, but we know them well. “Remember the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:20) Those words are repeated over and over again in the Torah to underscore for us, in each generation, that even as the world grows bigger and more complicated, even as grey areas multiply, even as we treasure free choice as well we should, we all have work to do when it comes to seeing that the struggles some face now are struggles we faced then. What we can’t do is become lulled into thinking that our obligations to others end once we’ve ensured that we have enough air to breathe.
The call of the shofar. And finally, the obligation this season brings us most powerfully. The shofar calls us to consider the renewal and wholeness we want most: for ourselves, for our community, and in all corners of the world. As Nitzavim reminds us, “Lo bashamayim hi.” (Deuteronomy 30:12) It is not in the heavens, nor across the sea. These words — this glorious tradition of ours — is very near to us. And we can take hold of it from wherever we stand, sharing its teachings of memory, of empathy, of inner and outer repair wherever we go… wherever it is needed most.
This Rosh Hashanah, may our prayers be heard and may the work of our hands be blessed. In these last days of Elul, may we be sources of comfort and sustenance everywhere we walk.