Jewish Holidays and the Concept of Renewal
There are so many vibrant and vital themes to our Tishrei (Autumn) Festivals, but my personal favorite is the complicated but beautiful concept of renewal. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and then continuing on to Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah, we don’t resolve to change our lives – our lives may stay exactly the same. We strive to renew – to rediscover our deeper, truer selves, and find our way back to who we were meant to be. It’s almost a paradox; we commit to new journeys, new adventures, but these winding, shifting paths lead us nowhere but home. The Sukkot huts we build during the holiday symbolize both the journey and the destination; the process of renewal takes us to where we most belong.
We see this most clearly during the upcoming final festival. On Simchat Torah, we don’t just celebrate completing the Torah – in fact finishing the Torah would provoke sorrow and nostalgia, not joy. But we also celebrate beginning the Torah again, starting the story over, finding new and vital messages in the ancient text. When I glanced through the first few chapters of Genesis this morning – verses that I’ve read hundreds of times – I found stories of refugees fleeing their homes; brothers fighting brothers; strange and deadly weather patterns; the tension between conquering the Earth and caring for it; the excruciating difficulty of finding a common language among humans for approaching God. In other words, I encountered my own reality, my daily life, at home and in the world. None of these issues is new to me, but my re-engagement with Torah affords me the opportunity to approach each one with a renewed sense of wisdom and commitment. Like our lives, the Torah is always new, but at the same time, it always shows us the way back home.
Rabbi Philip Graubart