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The Directive? To Go Forward, to Begin Again
This is our time of beginning, again. On Rosh Hashanah, we ushered in a new year, 5771. For some of us, the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur proved a time of contemplation and reflection, and then, following Kol Nidre, we entered the Sabbath of Sabbaths. We joined Jews across the world in repeating prayers and songs of petition and return.
Afterward, we joyfully constructed sukkahs, and balanced the solitary sojourn of Yom Kippur Day by gathering with family and friends in our temporary, lovingly decorated structures. And finally, rounding out our celebrations, we danced with our Torah scrolls down the aisles of our synagogues and into the streets.
But some of us have not been able to embrace this new year with anticipation and joy. The year that has passed continues to weigh heavily on our hearts. Our losses and grief set us apart from even those closest to us, and the more they reach out to us, the more we wish to flee, to retreat, to re-enter the darkness that has, perhaps, become home.
Some of us are grieving a loved one who has died. Some of us have suffered the end of an important relationship. Some of us have lost a job that enabled us to provide for our families. Some of us are wrestling with illness -- our own or someone else's. Some of us struggle to get out of bed each day. We may be unable and disinterested in beginning again.
Bereshit's mysterious opening words may gently nudge even the most disaffected and distant among us. For centuries, scholars, translators and faithful readers of the text have puzzled over the interpretation and translation of these words. "In the Beginning ..." In the beginning of what? In the beginning of God's creation? In the beginning of time?
How do you think about time? Is it linear, with a start, middle and end? Is time simply a way of naming the random events that occur in a given period? Or are there indeed cycles of time that, like ocean tides, repeat and recur, and pull us along with them?
We Jews understand ourselves, individually and collectively, as connected to a powerful cycle of celebrations and commemorations that enables us to mark and make sense of our passage through the world. Our feast and fast days give meaning to time, and help us interrupt patterns that trap us, rather than liberate us. The cycle of the Jewish year offers each of us a chance to consider how our own journeys intersect with, parallel and veer away from our historic -- and contemporary collective -- experience.
This week, as we once again roll our scrolls to the beginning, we are invited to experience the words of the Torah anew, as if for the first time. The large Bet that welcomes us -- the first letter of the word "Bereshit" -- pulls us into the text. My teacher, Rabbi Eugene Mihaly, following the Talmud, taught me that Bet, with its open arms, invites us to focus our attention on what is ahead.
This letter, closed behind, on the top and on the bottom, turns us away from our preoccupation with the past (what is behind) or concerns about the present (what is above and below). We are invited to go forth -- those who celebrate and those who do not, those who join with others and those who choose a solitary path, those who claim Judaism as their home and those of us who say, "not yet" -- all of us are welcome to begin again with joy.
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., serves as Union rabbi and worship specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism. E-mail her at: slelwell@ urj.org.