27th Elul : coming back to where we started

27th Elul

“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with

new eyes and extra colours. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”

― Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky

The Jewish year is about continuing our journeying and returning. The very word for year – Shanah – is a Hebrew root that means both to repeat and to change. Our festival prayer book is called a machzor, from the root meaning to return – or to be part of a cycle. The festivals come around each year, inexorably reminding us of how life has and has not changed since the previous iteration, what we have and have not done, who is no longer with us, how we have been impacted by the days and months we have just lived through.

But the cycle is not circular, rather it is spiral. The festivals come and go but each time we are in a slightly different place, a slightly different time, we have moved on in our journey. We cannot bring back past times or lost opportunities, we can only acknowledge the loss and resolve to use the coming time rather better. Yet Judaism connects us to time – both times past and times present. When we celebrate a festival we are sharing the experiences of generations before us as well as those celebrating across the world. Lighting shabbat candles and ushering in the 25 hours of peace is said to give us a taste of the World to Come. Much of what we do in our ritual is about remembering – bringing forth the stories of our past and embedding them in our present.

As we spiral through time we look back at our history, bringing our stories and our memories with us, and we look forward to a future we hope to be part of shaping for the better. And as the new moon of Tishri will be seen in the sky we can see both past and future in its light.

We journey and we return. We bring some of our memories with us – and some of the memories of our people that we have learned to embody. And we leave behind some of the things we need to leave behind, facing a future with the resolve to do differently.

We go away and we come back. We see the places we came from in a different perspective, with different understanding, and we see the places we can go towards differently too. As Pratchett so wisely remarked, “coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving”.

21 Elul: knowing our worth as God knows our worth

The Psalmist asks “Eternal God, what are human beings that you should care for them, mortal creatures that you should notice them?”

The question is carefully posed.  We recognise that we are indeed fragile presences on the earth, our lives barely impacting in time or space, yet we confidently assert that God notices us and cares about us.  We wear celebratory white during this season of penitence because we know that God will forgive us if we sincerely repent.

Our tradition provides us with a strong sense of ourselves. We are at one and the same time both “dust and ashes” and “the beloved children of the Sovereign”.  We are mortal and yet we are bound up in immortality. We are fully individual and also we are a small part of a whole creation.  It takes a particular view of the world to be able to hold both all the opinions at the same time, yet the Jewish mind is asked to somehow encompass them all, just as our liturgy speaks of God in a variety of ways all at the same time. And it is this dynamic tension that traditionally nurtures our distinctive identity and sense of self.

Yet how easily could we agree with the Psalmist today? Are we able to put a direct question to God? And even if we are comfortable with that relationship, would we dare to remind God that a precondition of the conversation is that God must pay attention to us and care for us? For many of us the easy familiarity of the covenantal relationship is lost and we struggle to find a bridge to that place.  This is what the month of Ellul is for, and it is also some of the work of the High Holy Days.  We may no longer be sure of God; we may wonder about the purpose of prayer. And yet part of us doesn’t want to let it all go; we want to return to that clarity that gives meaning to our lives. The Psalmist had many doubts and fears, but he knew his worth in relation to God.  It is time for us to reclaim that knowledge, to search ourselves and to begin to really know ourselves. This understanding is the foundation of the bridge we build into the future, the bridge we build back to the knowledge of God.