This is a time full of new beginnings. A New Year, 5784. And a new chapter in the life of Mishkan Ha’am. We’ve begun our congregation’s 2nd quarter-century and this is my first holiday season serving as your rabbi. What an exciting threshold we stand upon.
For those whose lives revolve around an academic calendar, these holidays have come right on time. The school year is starting. Students write their names on fresh notebooks with new pens and sharpened pencils. They slot subject dividers into spring loaded three-ring binders. They run fingers along the fresh spines of new books, or look at the notes left behind by a previous owner. Professors proofread and distribute syllabi that stand ready to provide answers to questions even before the students imagine asking them. Lesson plans are refreshed or designed anew. Instructors prepare for the predictable and hold space for the inevitable surprises.
Personally, I was always thrilled in the period of unspoiled perfection at the head of the year that was about to unfold. Not unlike the moments before the first boot crunches fresh or a pair of skis slices fresh tracks through the powder. Everything is just right and I can always almost imagine it will go perfectly. How do you feel in these great moments just BEFORE things start?
But, of course, perfection cannot last. The snow is churned up. A page tears in the new book. The computer crashes. There are endless questions about information that’s RIGHT THERE IN THE SYLLABUS. Is everything irrevocably messed up? Is it all downhill from here?
Fortunately, Rosh Hashanah doesn’t model this type of pristine or fragile beginning. Rather it lifts us up in celebration of another year ahead full of opportunities for reflection, repair, and resilience. Leading us through the 10 days towards Yom Kippur, the goal is to empower us to engage boldly with imperfections, failures, and flaws in our world, our relationships, and ourselves.
Perhaps you have heard the powerful teaching that the Hebrew word אטח kheyt, often translated as sin, is better translated as something closer to a miss — such as when an archer’s arrow misses its target. The reframe helps us see failures not as shameful flaws, but rather as unsuccessful attempts which we can work to improve in future opportunities. This is indeed so. But that’s not complete. There is much to be gained not only from working to do better next time, but also to learn about ourselves from our misses and mistakes.
When we are young, we more easily take failures in stride. Watch a toddler learning to walk. Each wobble or fall is an experience that helps train a more successful future mover. But at a certain age we tend to disguise our failures from others and even from ourselves. Over the holidays we will seek to reverse that cultural pattern. To get comfortable with the reality of imperfection. To spend some time looking at our missteps and encouraging one another to do so. To recover curiosity and resilience in exploring our mess ups – so that we may follow the curriculum laid down in the year gone by and learn from the gifts our failures have to teach us.
I look forward to this meaningful season with you all and a happy and sweet new year full of life and learning.
Rabbi Jonathan Malamy