By Jane E. Herman
“God gave Adam a secret—and that secret was not how to begin, but how to begin again.”
We are in the midst of a Jewish season replete with beginnings. On Rosh Hashanah, we marked the start of 5781. With the arrival of Sh’mini Atzeret this weekend, we will begin to pray for rain in Israel, and we will celebrate the joy of Simchat Torah as well, beginning, once again, the annual Torah reading cycle with a most aptly named parashah: Bereshit (In the beginning).
But there are few beginnings without endings. In fact, much of the imagery of this season is circular: Round challot, apples, and pomegranates on festive holiday tables. The natural world’s rhythms, from rain to dew and back again, in a cadence of seasons set by the universe. The singing, dancing, and circling that, but for the pandemic, we would otherwise do with our beloved Torah scrolls before concluding Deuteronomy and seamlessly beginning Genesis, yet again. In some ways, it is as if the whole of Judaism and Jewish life lives on a Mobius strip, circling around and around, with neither beginnings nor endings to be had.
How is it possible, then, for us to begin again, to wipe the slate clean, to pursue a fresh start, to recalibrate the inner GPS that guides us through life?
In fact, we have countless opportunities for beginnings, not only at this season, but throughout all the days and cycles and moments of our lives. As Rabbi Brad Hirschfield writes, “Jewish tradition celebrates the ability to start over throughout the year. In Jewish life every day, every week, and at many other times, we are given the chance to begin again.” Hirschfield goes on to explain that at each of these moments—in the daily morning liturgy, on Shabbat, and on multiple Rosh Hashanahs throughout the year—we are reminded of creation and thus “give ourselves the chance to start over.”
Indeed, in Shema U’Birkhotekha (Shema and Its Blessings), a section in the Shacharit (morning) service, we read: “With compassion the Eternal gives light to the earth and all who dwell there; with goodness the Eternal renews the work of creation continually, day by day.” Likewise, the Shabbat Kiddush includes this line, which echoes the one in the morning service: “In love and favor, You made the holy Shabbat our heritage as a reminder of the work of Creation.” And, just as Rosh Hashanah (1 Tishrei) celebrates the creation of the world, Jewish tradition gives us three additional new years to mark—15 Shevat, the new year of the trees; 1 Nisan, the new year for the reign of kings and, according to the Talmud, the new year of the festival cycle; and 1 Elul, the new year for the tithing of cattle (the fiscal new year)—and thus three more opportunities to make a fresh start during the year.
Taking this idea one step further, Rabbi Lavey Derby, director of Jewish life at Peninsula JCC in Foster City, California, describes a friend’s computer screen saver that repeatedly flashes this message: “Always begin again.” Calling the message “deep wisdom,” Derby writes:
Each moment could mark the end of the past and the beginning of something brand new. Each moment is fertile with hope [and] [h]ope is real and powerful. We are capable of change and growth, [and] with the next breath we can become new beings.
So, whether it’s a holiday during this season or another, a liturgical passage we read each week or one we recite day in and day out, or even a random moment in an all too busy life, each one of these occasions offers us a timely and timeless gift: the opportunity to adjust, to reroute, to find a new path, to begin again—bettering ourselves and our world before continuing on our way.