Last month I spent a Shabbat morning in Pittsburgh’s Beth Shalom synagogue, the community in which my wife grew up. That I was there is not unto itself remarkable – my in-laws live there, and given my desire to stay married, I visit Pittsburgh at least once or twice a year.
What made this trip different was the reason we were there. We were on a stopover on our way to Ann Arbor for the first of two August college drop-offs – the final two drop-offs of our four kids. Pittsburgh is about halfway between New York and Ann Arbor, so we drove to Pittsburgh on the Friday, planning to spend Shabbat with family and then move my daughter into her into her dorm the next day. Waking up that Shabbat morning in Squirrel Hill, I headed for shul.
For me, it was a deeply moving Shabbat service and not just because of the warmth of the community and their rabbi. I was married in the sanctuary of that synagogue. The kiddush after services was held in the same room where my wedding reception took place. Some of the people at services that day had no doubt attended our wedding. I was there because I was opening a whole new chapter of my life, en route to dropping my third daughter off at college, taking the penultimate step towards empty nesting. And yet what I felt was a wave of nostalgia, recalling that August day Debbie and I were married. The fact that I was en route to dropping my kid off at the same campus where I myself was dropped off so long ago only added to my emotion. The rabbi emeritus greeted me warmly, inquiring which of my four kids was being dropped off. I wasn’t about to get into names and age order, so I just said, “The Hamilton Kid.” I figured that like a million other YouTubers, he had seen the video of her bat mitzvah Adon Olam. He had. “Wow!” He paused. “College already? Her bat mitzvah seems like yesterday.” “You’re telling me,” I replied.
So many emotions present – the excitement of new beginnings and also a feeling of return. To Pittsburgh, to Ann Arbor, but really to something far more profound. That which began as two, then grew to three, then four, then five and six, had become five, then four, now three, and soon enough, would be back to two. Two hot August Pittsburgh days separated by nearly twenty-five years. New beginnings, but also a return to where it all began.
The name of this Shabbat, the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, is shabbat shuvah. The name comes from the first verse of the haftarah; it means “the Sabbath of return.” On the one hand, we have just celebrated the new year, Rosh Hashanah. This time of year is all about the new horizons and possibilities that lie in the year ahead, the hopeful promise that our future need not be determined by our past. And yet, as the name indicates, today is also about return. The root of the Hebrew word for repentance, teshuvah, is shuv, return. We return to community and to tradition, but it runs deeper than mere nostalgia. Our prayers, our rituals, and our recipes are vehicles to facilitate a profound spiritual return. On this Shabbat we seek to return to our better selves, our higher selves, the people we perhaps once were, but are, for some reason, no longer.
So here is my question. Is today about renewal or return? Are we opening up a new chapter or are we retrieving our past selves? As I sat in my Pittsburgh pew a month ago, so are all of us here today.
One way to frame the question comes by way of Greek philosophy – Plutarch’s thought experiment regarding the Ship of Theseus. According to legend, Theseus, the mythical Greek founding king of Athens, had a ship with thirty oars. How was the ship preserved? Over time, old planks were removed one by one, replaced each time with a newer and stronger plank. The question is, at what point, if ever, does the ship become a new ship? If every plank is a new plank, is the ship returned to its original condition or is it the creation of something entirely new? Philosophers have long understood Theseus’s ship to be not just about a ship but about people. We use this time of year to conduct an audit of the soul, heshbon ha-nefesh. We hopefully have replaced our bad habits one by one with sturdier ones. We are, on the one hand, totally new creations; we have, at the same time, returned to our original condition.
It is a useful image, a bit radical in its implications, but it doesn’t really help us answer the question at hand. Is today about renewal or return? For Jews, a more homegrown image that comes to mind is the Garden of Eden. We may not believe in the concept of original sin as our Christian brothers and sisters do, but the story remains a prism by which we understand the human condition. As I taught just a few days ago, Adam and Eve’s stay in the Airbnb of the Garden of Eden was a short one. Pleasant as it was, by day six – either due to sin or personal growth – they were told to leave and they left. By this telling, while Adam and Eve may have been created in the Garden, the human story really only begins East of Eden, kedem in Hebrew, where Adam and Eve took their first steps into their future. Whatever their state of grace, innocence, or naïveté in the hidden Garden may have been, it was a state of being that neither could nor should be accessed again.
And so too with us today. Having left the Garden, we neither can nor seek to enter it again. The most we can do, the best we can do, is to retrieve what the late Israeli philosopher Ernst Simon called a second naïveté, in Hebrew, temimut sheniyah. Our goal is not to return to Eden itself, but to East of Eden, kedem, a word that means both forward and backward. As my colleague Rabbi Robert Scheinberg has taught, it is why, when we return the Torah to the ark, we sing to God, hadesh yameinu k’kedem. Renew our days – not to Eden, but – to kedem, East of Eden; that is the place to which we return.
All of which brings us back to the image with which I began. The cycle, the orbit of my adult life, has returned to its beginning. My home has returned to quiet. A teacher and a preacher taking Shabbat walks through Central Park. So we were then, so we are today. I am well aware of the blessings of my life; I can think of far worse things than a return to the beginning. And yet, in all that is familiar, it is in the differences, not the similarities, where I find wisdom, growth, and joy. The passage of time and the photographs of those four kids on the wall, of course. But I am also grateful for the lessons along the way, the mistakes from which I have learned, and perhaps most of all, the mistakes for which I have been forgiven. I can remember Eden, but I have no desire to return there. I am excited to be on the outside. I am excited for what lies ahead.
And so it is, on this Shabbat Shuvah, for each one of us. We cannot turn back the clock. The choice to go back to Eden is not ours to make. But even if we could, I don’t think that is the goal. It is why our sages taught that more righteous than the person who is altogether righteous is the person who errs but does teshuvah, repentance. There are bruises we have inflicted on others and bruises that have been inflicted upon us. It has not all been pleasant, but it has made us who we are. Inaccessible as Eden may be, it still inspires, reminding us of the people we once were and the people we aspire yet to be. There are apologies to be asked for and forgiveness to be granted. Hopefully, the arc of our moral behavior will bend in the right direction. Hopefully, we will prove ourselves worthy of the forgiveness our loved ones have granted to us. “Teshuvah,” taught Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, the rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, “is not a simple return. We return to who we are meant to be but have not yet become.” That is the promise and the challenge of this Shabbat and this season.
A parting image. I began by describing how in mid-August we dropped off our penultimate kid at college. On the final day of August, we dropped off our final kid, our son, and returned to an empty house. It was a bright, beautiful summer evening, and Debbie and I decided to go out for a drink to absorb the magnitude of the moment. On our walk home we saw a cluster of people gathered on a street corner, and we did that which one should never do in New York in such a situation: We stopped to ask them what they were doing. One of them, binoculars in hand, explained that the evening marked a rare astronomical occurrence, something that happens once every nineteen years, a Blue Moon. “Take a look,” she said, handing me her binoculars. As I looked through them, she explained that – for reasons I didn’t understand then and certainly can’t remember now – once every nineteen years, despite being physically distant, the moon both feels closer and shines more brightly than at any other time in the lunar cycle.
Debbie and I continued our walk home, taking in the lights in the sky, thinking about those lights to whom we gave life and who gave life to us. Distant as they were, they felt closer and shined more brightly than they ever had before. Back home to how it all began, we stepped through our front door to a new beginning. I can’t wait for what comes next.