"Pave a road, pave a road, clear a path!"
The High Holy Day season is a time to confront the reality of our mortality. It is an occasion to carefully weigh and measure what is most important to us, knowing that we only have a limited time on this earth. This is the season of teshuvah, the time to turn away from attitudes and behaviors that are harmful to us and to others, and to return to our core values and ideals.
This process of heshbon nefesh, of "soul searching," is a daunting task. Can we change? Can we actually take the necessary steps to become the people we want and need to be? Can we "clear a path" and "pave a new road"? The message of the High Holy Days is a resounding yes -- change is possible. One powerful expression of this conviction is the rabbinic teaching that teshuvah was actually created before the world came into being. Life, say our ancient sages, would be impossible without the possibility of change, of growth, and of transformation. It is, therefore, woven into the fabric of existence.
But change is possible only if we are willing to acknowledge that we need to change, that life as we are currently living it is in need of repair. As the theologian Martin Buber writes, "We can be redeemed only to the extent that we can see ourselves." Opening ourselves to the rough edges of our lives is no simple feat. We know the elaborate lengths to which we can go to avoid dealing with what is most challenging, troubling, or destructive. How often do people need to hit "rock bottom" before truly investing in a process of teshuvah?
This is one of the reasons we read the Book of Jonah on the afternoon of Yom Kippur. Jonah is a model of avoidance. He is instructed by God to travel to the city of Nineveh to warn the people that God will punish them if they do not repent. What does Jonah do? He runs in the opposite direction! It is only after he has been thrown off the ship he boarded to try and escape God and is swallowed by a great fish that he confronts his Maker; he does so from deep within the belly of the beast.
"Where are you?" is one of the essential questions in the Hebrew Bible, and continues to echo throughout time. What do Adam and Eve do after they eat the forbidden fruit? They hide from God, who then calls to them, asking "Where are you?" As Buber writes, "Each of us is Adam and finds ourselves in Adam's situation. To escape responsibility for our life, we turn existence into a series of hide-outs." But such hiding, as alluring as it may seem in the moment, can last only so long and usually causes more pain.
While Adam and Eve sin and hide, they do respond to the Divine call and begin to take responsibility for their actions. As Buber rightly notes, "This is the beginning of the human way. The decisive heart-searching is the beginning of the way in our life." It is precisely this heart-searching that is at the heart of the High Holy Days. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur offer us the opportunity to come out of hiding, to honestly assess our current life circumstances, and to begin paving the way for the New Year.
Of course, in undertaking our teshuvah journeys, we must do so humbly knowing that we are limited in our powers of transformation. There are certain realities that are simply beyond our control, including, most basically, our mortality. But this fact need not lead us to inaction; rather it should engender a refined process of discernment in which we think carefully about when, where, and how to act and when to leave things alone. Reinhold Niebuhr gave eloquent voice to this challenge in his now famous Serenity Prayer: "God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other."
I view the High Holy Days as a great gift in this regard. Our ancestors bequeathed to us a compelling ritual framework in which to do the hard work of self- and communal assessment, knowing that this task should be done more regularly, but that it is often ignored or taken up only in fits and starts at other points during the year.
As we enter this New Year, it is my prayer that we will have the courage to come out of hiding and engage in an honest process of teshuvah. May our efforts on Yom Kippur help us to clear the impediments from our paths and pave new roads in the days and months ahead.