The High Holy Days are passed and we are moving into this new year – a year so different from anything we could have ever imagined.
And yet our tradition is always with us. Judaism can help ground us and connect us even when everything feels so chaotic.
I want to share some ideas this month about what Judaism has to say about new beginnings. It’s a new year, but how do we make it a better new year?
I heard the author Bruce Feiler discussing his new book, It’s All in the Transitions. One of the conversations he had with his interview subjects was asking them to think of a shape that described their lives. Some people said a heart, or a window, or a home … but no one said a line.
His had surmised, and his research proved that linear life is dead.
The idea that time flows in order from one event to the next smoothly and at even intervals – we go to school, then we get a job, then we marry and settle down, and we repeat the same line format with our own kids. That just is not the reality for most people any more.
New things can happen at any stage of life.
In fact, his research showed that modern people experience over 36 significant transitions in our lifetimes. Some are good – a new job, a new baby, some are difficult – a loss, an illness. But change comes. There are many twists and turns. Our lives are not shaped like lines anymore.
I’ve thought about this linear image a lot too because in Judaism we sometimes are under the impression that we’re on a line or a ladder climbing upwards. And while we are always trying to improve our lives and add more holiness to our actions, there is a danger that strictness and adding more and more rules to our practices actually detracts from the mitzvah in the first place.
Kevin and I used to joke that in the rabbi community people would try to “out Jew” one another. Meaning: keeping kosher with food wasn’t enough – there is kosher toothpaste and kosher make up – there are even kosher cell phones.
So that image of a line doesn’t work for me both in terms of how life happens in our modern world and also in how Judaism works.
Stricter is not always better.
I’ve come to think of the shape of Jewish life, as a spiral. A nice round, smooth, hopefully trending upwards spiral.
A spiral is more gentle and forgiving than a line. And a spiral allows us to see what’s behind and what’s ahead of us.
What does that mean for this time of year … is it a fully new beginning or it is just one more step on our existing sprialing path?
Well … like all good Jewish questions the answer is yes … to both.
In some new years maybe it is a whole new beginning, a big transition. Maybe we jump a whole level from one rung of our spiral shape to another level. Maybe we even jump off our old spiral shape and land on a spiral that we want to work on.
New beginnings and new year can be exactly that – totally new.
And other years, maybe it’s not so radical.
Maybe it’s just a few gentle steps, maybe it’s even a reverse to something we’ve been missing and want to get back to.
Teshuvah means returning, coming back to our best intentions and our original neshamah that is pure and full of potential. Backward movement can be progress too!
That’s why I like this spiral shape. It reminds me of a slinky. It can bend and move in all directions.
I wonder what shape you would use to describe your life? How does the image of a line or a spiral feel to you? Is this new year about a big leap, is it about returning to a past passion or comfort? Is this new year about the slow and steady?
There is room for all of those experiences.
I wish you n’siah tovah – a good journey – whichever shape your new year takes.