As we approach Rosh Hashana, I find myself focused on Pesach. I’ve been thinking about all I do physically to prepare for it. Along with Jews around the world, I look for and clean all of the chametz (“leaven”) in my home, car, and office. We undertake a cleanse of sorts as we prepare to symbolically leave Egypt. We go into Pesach with a fresh start. Each year I ask myself: does the same hold true for the beginning of the new Jewish year? Is there a parallel for the cleaning of the symbolic chametz that I have accumulated through my actions over the past twelve months?
I have often heard Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur spoken of as a new beginning, a clean slate. I have long puzzled about what it means to begin again after a year filled with experiences that capture the vicissitudes of life. During the Kol Nidre prayer we nullify all the vows we have yet to make. But do we really have the opportunity to begin again? Even if we courageously choose to go before those we have sinned against, as the Rabbis intended (Massekhet Yoma 85), this does not wipe the slate clean. The hurt we have caused, as well as the good we have done, has had an impact on our children, our spouses, and friends and has left a trace.
In a short essay entitled “The Meaning of Repentance,” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel offers a different way to think about the process of t’shuva (repentance). He wrote:
“[Repentance] is not the same thing as rebirth; it is transformation, creation… The power of repentance allows re-creation of the past to take place.”
In this way, the yamim nora’im (The Days of Awe) represent an amazing gift, an opportunity to return to our earlier actions and to re-work our past choices and transform what was. As a result of a process of honest reflection and of taking responsibility, we move into our future not having left behind all that we were, but taking it with us. We are transformed, newly committed to making choices that reflect our better selves.
Not surprisingly, the Torah offers suggestions for how to proceed. Just as we are transformed from slaves into God’s people during Pesach, Sefer Devarim (The Book of Deuteronomy) reminds us that our past can be a powerful motivator for treating others with compassion and kindness (5:15,15:15, 16:12, 24:18). Just as I search for actual chametz each spring, I now find myself seeking concrete opportunities to address the emotional residue in my life, to practice kindness each day, towards others and myself.
Can I let another driver into traffic when I am running late? Will I make time for a colleague who is struggling? Will I remember to ask someone about her mother’s health before requesting what I need? Will I take homemade soup over to a sick neighbor? Will I offer to babysit for a friend who needs some time for herself? Will I choose to give myself more sleep and to spend more time with good friends? During these upcoming holydays, I’ll be re-working my past and making kindness a more conscious choice in my life.
May this coming year be filled with greater kindness to yourselves and to others you meet on your journey. Shana Tova.