High School. First kiss. Graduation. College. First job. Marriage. Yesteryear. The good ole days.
Nostalgia is a booming business.
In recent years, social media has popularized what has come to be known as 'tbt' - throwback Thursday. On Thursdays, it takes one quick glance on Facebook to see pictures of friends with that crazy hair from high school, or a gorgeous wedding portrait from over 40 years ago. We use our present technologies to go back to the past. Apps, services and Web sites try and tap into our yearnings for yesterday.
There's a bad joke incoming, but nostalgia is just not what it used to be.
If I may borrow an analogy from Passover, on all other days we yearn to connect to the past. But on these High Holidays, we think of the past so that it connects us to the present. We do not only recall our previous memories - we yearn to find ourselves. Here and now. Today. Hineni - I am here.
For the next ten days, we gather together in prayer and song, in introspection. And on Yom Kippur, in starvation ... We don't observe these days of awe out of a sense of guilt. We don't come because of fear of some sort of divine retribution. On this anniversary of the world's creation, we are here to recreate ourselves,.
Rosh Hashanah helps each of us to take an accounting of ourselves as we are. Not as we wish we were, but as. we. are. It's fitting that our High Holiday liturgy uses images of clothing in referring to our stark nakedness before God and before ourselves. On these days, there is no artifice, nothing superficial.
Of course, our High Holidays do focus a great deal on the past. Tomorrow morning, one of the themes we keep in mind as we hear the shofar blown is zichronot - memory. We recall Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel throughout our ten days. We blow a shofar in memory of the ram Abraham sacrificed in place of his son, Isaac.
As we recite the confession of sin, the vidui, we think on the mistakes that we made in the past year. We think of the people we wronged, the relationships that need to be righted. But that is only the first necessary step. The second step is to do the t'shuvah that causes us to turn to the best parts of ourselves - improving, maturing, growing. As we take an intense account of our past year, we do so in order to authentically begin this year that starts right now; tonight. As Shakespeare told us, The past is prologue. But our focus on the past, on zichronot, is not nostalgia.
And that brings me to the semicolon.
Yes, that's correct. I'm going to talk about the semicolon, that pesky punctuation mark that semantically sits between the comma and the period.
Last year, I spoke about the dark side of the subjunctive, so I figured that I might continue along our path of grammatical exploration.
So let's talk about the semicolon.
A few months ago, I was going through my Facebook feed, and came upon an article about Project Semicolon. Intrigued, I explored further.
In the last several years, it has become popular for some men and women to place a tattoo of a semi-colon on their bodies, usually upon the hand or forearm. It is meant to be an inspirational symbol against suicide and self-harm. Taken from the Project Semicolon Web site, A semicolon is used when an author could've chosen to end their sentence, but chose not to. The author is you and the sentence is your life.
I read this and instantly thought to myself, This is so Jewish! Whereas this is a fantastic message to fight against depression, this is also a perfect message for us to hear as we start our new sentence; this new year.
The author is you and the sentence is your life. Do not end the sentence. As Deuteronomy commands us, Choose life.
Our prayers on Rosh Hashanah remind us that even as we look back on our lives, there is more to do - more words to be written. This also helps to answer why it is that Jews always say goodbye but never leave - there is always more to say!
Paraphrasing the second chapter of Pirke Avot, Although you can not finish the work, you must continue the work. There is always more to do, thought about, interpreted, felt. The stories of our lives are connected by semicolons. In a few weeks, as we celebrate Simchat Torah, we finish the Torah and immediately begin again. When Deuteronomy finishes, there is not a definitive conclusion that meets the reader. The way we read our Torah, Deuteronomy concludes with a semicolon.
Rosh Hashanah focuses our gaze to the present moment so that we can continue the sentences of our lives.
This idea is the fabric of our high holiday liturgy. Tradition teaches a midrash that it is during these 10 days that our actions will merit inscription into the book of life. This teaches us that regardless of our past, regardless what you have written in your book of life up until this moment, today you can do better. Tomorrow you can do better.
Mitzvah goreret Mitzvah - One good deed leads to another.
If Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur teach us anything, it is that it is never too late to change. Never too late to make amends. Never too late to learn. Never too late to do a good deed. Never too late to perform t'shuvah.
In the penultimate portion of the Torah, Ha'azinu, we read the following command. It is our 613th commandment, as it is the very last listed in the Torah: And now, write for yourselves this song, and teach it to the Children of Israel. Place it into their mouths, in order that this song will be for Me as a witness for the children of Israel. (Deuteronomy 31:19)
In his commentary of the Talmud, Maimonides explains that this song refers to the entirety of the Torah. According to his interpretation, each of us is commanded to write an entire Torah.
Think about the semi-colon; just as the Torah ends, God has Moses teach us to continue writing. The story does not end with the written books of Moses. There is a semi-colon, as we move seamlessly from the Torah that Moses wrote to the Torah that each of us will write.
I keep coming back to this image of the semi-colon because it's an image of hope against regret; moving forward instead of languishing in the past, doing in place of regretting. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur remind of this. They challenge us to keep writing the sentences of our lives, as we choose justice, as we choose hope, as we choose life, as we continue writing the stories of our lives.
This year, what will you write?