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North Shore Temple Emanuel

a Progressive Jewish Congregation

Rabbi Misha Clebaner
Erev Rosh Hashanah 2021
To Dwell or Not to Dwell in the Past


Shanah Tovah!

Most mornings for the past two months, my days have started with a quick jog down my hallway while wiping away the sleepiness from my eyes. I’d always meant to get into running, especially in the morning, but I hadn’t planned to do it at 6 am and for only a distance of 6 meters.

Instead, this new and very short distance running routine is the result of my 14-month-old son's newfound ability for sprinting towards his desired destinations.

The destination in question for my son during our early morning sprints is the couch in the living room so that he can be near the windows. After his resolute climb inevitably succeeds, he squishes his face up against the window and begins surveying the people, cars, and trees down below.

No matter how cranky or upset or difficult his day was the day before, he pivots towards the positive each morning.

And it is not a slow pivot at that. It is a hasty dash with no looking back.

For all of us celebrating Rosh HaShanah this evening, each of us has these things in our own lives. The things that we, too, both literally and metaphorically make a speedy dash towards.

These are the things that fill our lives with so much inspiration and joy that we, too, do not look backwards. These are things that get us out of bed in the morning.

They bring us joy and fulfilment and give us a sense of connection not only to ourselves, and to others, but maybe even to a higher state of consciousness or focus.

Yet, we also have the serious concerns and worries that plague our thoughts or weigh heavily on our hearts. These are the things that keep us up at night.

The thoughts about what might go wrong in the future, or what we messed up during the previous day.

The high holy days are a tricky time in the sense that they ask us to hold two seemingly contradictory states of mind.

The two sides of the high holy day coin are “what keeps you up at night” and “what gets you out of bed in the morning”.

The “I hope to” in the year to come versus the “I wish I didn’t” in the previous year.

It is a paradoxical time for new beginnings and fresh starts but it is also a time for reflection, introspection, and unpacking the deeds of our past. No wonder it takes place during the changing of the seasons. We are in this liminal state between the two poles.

Yet, how are we expected to pivot so quickly between these polar opposites? Between the remorseful and repentant and hopeful and the longing?

The High Holy Days are often called The Days of Awe.

It is about expressing our desire for more of the ‘awesome’ and less of the ‘awful’.

We are not only asking God to change the balance between these two “awes” in our life but we are told to push ourselves out of our comfort zone and to acknowledge our agency in how much “awe” we have in our daily lives.

We have the capacity to choose “awesome”, to be written and sealed in the book of Yes! Or we can dwell in the past get left out of the publishing process.

So, how can we maximise one over the other?

Jewish tradition says that the answer is in our legs. We vote with our feet which direction we move in.

This message of reminding us to vote with our feet appears on Yom Kippur morning, as we read the final chapters of Deuteronomy and are instructed to either focus on the good or to dwell on the bad.

“See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity. I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before blessing and curse.”

About this call to vote with one’s feet, the medieval Jewish commentator Nachmanides says about the Israelites as they are on the verge of entering the Promised Land and have a new future ahead of them:

“There are two courses in their hands and it is in their power to walk whichever way they desire. And there is no power below or above that will withhold them or stop them.”

This was the choice for the Israelites and it is for us as well. But how do we move from one and go to the other?

Jewish tradition gives us a spectrum of intensity for how quickly we could dash away from the mistakes of yesterday and move towards the hopes and joys of today and tomorrow.

A teacher of mine, Rabbi Art Green, has written about two seemingly contradictory teachings within Hasidism with regards to the quickness that one can take in their journey from repentance and regret towards joy and fulfilment.

On the one hand, he quotes the founder of Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov, who taught that the greatest enemy of the “joyous quest is self-doubt, often caused by excessive worry” about one's failings and shortcomings. Too much concern about our failings puts us in “mortal danger”, said the Baal Shem Tov.

“Worry occupies your mind, takes you away from joy, and leaves you unable to see the beauty and wonder that always surround you.” 

To avoid excessive worry and self-doubt, the Baal Shem Tov said that one mustn’t delay in owning up to our mistakes. Instead, he says, repent quickly and decide you will not do it again, “go back to serving with as much wholeness and joy as you can muster.” 

Yet, despite the unstoppable nature of our choice as Nachmanides pointed out and the declaration to move quickly as the Baal Shem Tov said, there is a difficulty in making this move towards the “awesome” without at least a brief layover within the “awful”.

Our high standard to be the best versions of ourselves yet failing to reach that goal can weigh heavily on some of us.

This was the case for one descendant of the Baal Shem Tov. Despite his great-grandfather’s teachings for a quick repentance, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov struggled to lift his feet with the ease that the Baal Shem taught about.

Instead, he was frequently weighed down by the heaviness of his concerns about his misdeeds and by his ruminations about past misconduct or his current inability to do true “teshuva” - a thorough repentance.

Nevertheless, he had a burning desire within himself to succeed in his own short sprint towards joy and awe without looking back for too long. “You must never let up in the search for joy” he taught.

Along this route towards fulfilment, he acknowledges that we must look back and have a true moment of reflection: do not ignore your distress “but chase it and transform it into happiness."

He likens it to an individual that reluctantly joins a dance circle and is then swept up in the jubilant mood slowly but surely.

We may not have the childlike intensity to oscillate between the apologetic and the jubilant, but perhaps the slow and steady transformation that some of us are more inclined towards allows for us to undergo a more robust and sustainable change in the year to come.

The not-so-fast approach towards moving forward is also endorsed by 18th-century Jewish teacher of ethics, Rabbi Moshe Luzzatto.

He taught that the “angels were praised for their enthusiasm” - as they “dashed back and forth like lightning.” These are the very same angels that we are told to emulate on Yom Kippur by not eating or drinking, as the angels do not eat or drink.

But Rabbi Luzzatto continued, “in truth, human beings are just that—humans, and not angels. It is therefore impossible for us to have the might of the angels. Nonetheless, we should strive to get as close to this level as we possibly can.”

This is the essence of the high holy day contradiction.

We are presented with an unrealistic model. Neither can we abstain from food and drink forever. Nor can we divorce ourselves from all of our flaws totally or immediately. Sure, we mustn’t linger or dwell in the past or it will leave us paralysed, but we have to be sincere in our moving forward also.

Like Rabbi Luzzatto, I acknowledge my limitations as a human. Nevertheless, I continue to reach towards the high intentions of the high holy days.

Although I may not be able to move as quickly from transgression to transformation as the angels, nor make the run towards fulfilment and away from frustrations as quickly as my son, for the sake of my son and our next generation I cannot give up.

In the year to come, may I have the strength to keep looking and moving forward. May I continue to strive to build a world that will focus on its hopes rather than dwelling on its failings.

May we all grow in our strength and our energy, our zest and determination as we fortify our longing for what can be rather than lingering in what has already been.

May this be a year of joy and one of dreams fulfilled.

Wishing you all a shanah Tovah u’metukah - a sweet and happy new year!

Wed, 6 December 2023 23 Kislev 5784