Jewish life is a tale of cycles: the cycle of the week from Shabbat to Shabbat; the cycle of the months from Nissan to Adar; the cycle of the year from Rosh Ha-Shanah to S’lichot – the service of ‘forgiveness’, a few days before the New Year that ushers in the Yamim Nora’im, the ‘Days of Awe’. And within the cycle of the year: the cycle of the weekly Torah readings, which begin with Creation and end with the death of Moses – and then go back to the beginning again; and the cycle of the major festivals, the chaggim, the three ‘pilgrim’ festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot: the Hebrew word, chag, like the Arabic word, haj, denotes ‘pilgrimage’, and reminds us that in biblical times, our ancestors, an agricultural people, would make a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem with the fruits of their labour three times a year; in the spring, the early summer, and the autumn.
We also speak of the ‘life cycle’ from birth to death. But the life of an individual is not a cycle; and, indeed, the life of the Jewish people is not a cycle: yes, we repeat and repeat, again and again, year after year, but no year is ever the same as the year before. Interestingly, the Hebrew word for year, shanah, comes from a three letter ‘root’, the consonants shin, nun hey, which means both to ‘repeat’ and to ‘change’; and so we repeat the cycle from year to year, and each year is also, utterly new.
But the passage of time is not simply a fact of life, which intrudes on the cycle of our sacred rites; Jewish life is also a tale of our journeys from the past into the future; from the time that our first ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, left their land, their kindred, their family home, the Jewish people has always been consciously and deliberately on the move. Paradoxically, while we continually look back, retrace our steps, reiterate our stories, re-read the Torah; we are also always on a journey towards tomorrow: Jewish teaching exhorts us to ‘remember’ the past, in particular, our experience as slaves in ‘the house of bondage’, in order that our remembrance of oppression and persecution may lead us to direct our efforts to pursuing justice, seeking peace, and repairing the world. Jewish life is less a cycle and more, a spiral, as, each year we, both, repeat and change, forever spiraling towards the future.
So, here we are again at the turn of the year; we have done it all before, and yet, a New Year beckons: May we all find the courage, to look forwards with hope – Shanah Tovah!