By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
The Jewish year balances between twin seasonal hinges. Pesach launches us into the spring; the Days of Awe launch us into the fall. Each of those festival seasons offers a doorway into deep introspection.
In the spring, we cleanse our homes of hametz (leaven). The word comes from the verb lichmotz, to sour or ferment. In my favorite Hasidic interpretation, hametz is that which has fermented: not only literal bread, but also the puffery of ego and the sourness of old narratives that no longer serve us. In the fall, we take on the work of teshuvah, repentance / return: turning ourselves in the right direction, discerning where our actions and choices have led us astray and how we can be better human beings in the year to come.
There's a parallel between these two seasons of inner work. And I think it's meaningful that they both happen at transitional times of year. As winter gives way to summer, and as summer begins to yield to winter, Jewish tradition calls us to do our internal housecleaning and to discern who we're meant to be. The heart and soul need regular tune-ups to keep us aligned with our highest selves and with our tradition's highest values... and we get to do those tune-ups together, over matzah ball soup and over the season's first apples, honeyed and sweet.
At the shul that I'm privileged to serve (Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams), our theme for the Days of Awe this year is "Come, Whoever You Are." It arises out of a short poem by the Sufi mystic Rumi, who died in the year 1273. Translated into English, the words became a song that's popular in many Unitarian Universalist communities. (At CBI, we'll be singing them in English and also in a new Hebrew translation.) Here's the poem in its entirety:
"Come, come, whoever you are / Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving / Come, come, whoever you are / This isn't your caravan of despair / It doesn't matter if you've broken your vows / A thousand times before / Yet again come..."
"Come, come, whoever you are" is a statement of radical welcome. Like the Seder's invitation "let all who are hungry come and eat," these words remind us to open the doors of our community-wide to all who seek spiritual sustenance at this sacred time of year. They also remind us of Judaism's fundamental message of welcome, originating with our patriarch Abraham, whose tent was open on all sides, welcoming to all comers.
Practicing that song this year, I find myself thinking: what does it mean to be a welcoming community? What feels easy about welcoming people who seem different from us on one axis or another, and what feels like a spiritual stretch? How can that stretch serve us as we limber up our spiritual muscles to do the work of teshuvah, the work of repentance and return and repair?
Lately the daily news has seemed filled with horror and heartbreak -- from mass shootings to the Amazon rainforest, "the lungs of the earth," burning. Despair can be difficult to shed. But Jewish tradition teaches that there is always hope, even in our darkest moments: indeed, especially in our darkest moments. Tradition holds that moshiach will be born on Tisha b'Av: the personification of redemption, entering the world on our calendar's darkest day.
It takes courage to enter the Days of Awe with hope for the year to come, instead of with fear for the state we find our world – or ourselves – to be. But in Rumi's words, this isn't (meant to be) our caravan of despair. We come together for the holidays not in a spirit of recrimination, but in a spirit of celebration. Again the world is born anew. In the words of the poet Mary Oliver z"l, what will we do with our one wild and precious life?
Wherever we go, may we feel (and be) truly welcomed in all that we are. And may that feeling of welcome strengthen us for the inner work of these awesome days, and for the work that is uniquely ours to do in the world.
L'shanah tovah: may we all be inscribed for a year of sweetness, and justice, and transformation. Happy new year.
Rabbi Rachel Barenblat is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams, and was named in 2016 by The Forward as one of America's Most Inspiring Rabbis. She is an accomplished poet and author, with numerous books and articles in national publications. Since 2003, she has blogged as The Velveteen Rabbi – follow her online at velveteenrabbi.blogs.com, where you can find links to her publications.