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Shabbat Shuvah: Remembrance and Return

09/22/2023 12:33:59 PM


     L’Shana Tovah once again!  Tonight, the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanan and Yom Kippur, is known as Shabbat Shuvah – a Shabbat that reminds us, among other things, that this High Holiday season is just that: a season.  The inner work and contemplation does not end with Rosh Hashanah or even with Yom Kippur.  It all goes on. 

     Since its inception, our tradition has also taken up questions as to just what returning means.  If our formative stories were about people who felt at home, who settled and stayed, we would probably all still be enjoying life in the Garden of Eden.  Instead, Adam and Eve’s earliest descendants traveled through deserts, traversed mountain ranges, crossed rivers… all to live here not there, be buried there not here, find a mate for their child by this well, not that one.  Judaism is no more defined by Edenic perfection than it is by being peacefully entrenched anywhere for all our days.  Oh, to live out our days, care for our families, be buried in our birthplaces or in the places we never imagined.  That is the restlessness we’ve inherited, for better and worse!

     And this was all before the central motif of our people imprinted itself within us: that of wandering through the wilderness, becoming objects of laws and principles and expectations they hardly understood-- these ancestors of ours.  All in service to a greater becoming: that of transforming themselves into something greater than they – than we – had been.  It took a long time.  Time not to want the certainty of Egypt anymore, brutal though it had been.  Time to knit themselves into a people who would come to understand that we might always be defined less by our arrivals, and more by our journeys.  It took a long time?!  Some would argue it’s still happening, and they wouldn’t be wrong! 

     Ours is, after all, a history marked by expulsions and dispersions, by settling, leaving and resettling again.  In Psalm 137, penned during the Jews’ first exile from Jerusalem, the writer famously lamented: “how can we sing God’s song in a foreign land?”  For him, the question was an outcry of near futility.  What he missed, as we all do from the middle of the experience -- what would only become clear looking back is that this question contained the seed of a response in its very first word.  How.  It could have been “can we sing,” to which the answer could well have been “we can’t.  It’s over.  It wasn’t “can we” though, it was “how can we?”  How will we?  Far from where we had begun, a remnant of who we had been, we would feel those first steps home. 

  It is the music of our tradition that shows us how.  It is its poetry, its songs and stories, its very elasticity.  It is the ancient and contemporary paths we have committed to again and again, knowing with those first steps, home will define and redefine itself again… under our soles, and within them too.

      For all of us, as this time of turning: may we be blessed with a meaningful resetting, and year a year of new growth to come.  A year that brings with it sweet moments of home, wherever each one of our first steps begins.    

     Shabbat Shalom, and Shana Tovah,


     Rabbi Rebecca Gutterman

Thu, December 7 2023 24 Kislev 5784