A few months ago I visited Buenos Aires, the city of my birth, and went to attend Shabbat services at the Conservative synagogue in my parents’ neighborhood.
I arrived for the morning service and discovered that the rabbi – today the father of three sweet children – was one of the class of bar mitzvah boys that I prepared 25 years ago.
Congregants and guests began to arrive in throngs. That same Shabbat, two boys celebrated their bar mitzvahs, sons of families that I have known for years. To my complete surprise, I recognized one out of every two people sitting in the sanctuary. I met representatives of every period of my life. Beginning with nursery school, through elementary school, high school, my first jobs as a counselor and as a student rabbi, through the first congregation for which I served as a rabbi when I made aliya to Israel.
I hadn’t seen most of them for more than two decades, but quite a few looked at me and commented: “Hey Gustavo, you haven’t changed!” At first, I took this as a compliment; on second thought I was less enthusiastic. For truth be told, to see a person after 20, 30 or 40 years and to say, “You haven’t changed,” isn’t much of a compliment.
At the biological level, it has been proven that we are all entirely different people from who we were seven years ago. Every cell in our body (with the exception of brain cells and, in women, the ova) completely replace themselves every seven years, proving that the body that serves us today is not the same body that we grew up in nor even the body that we had seven years ago.
We are different people than we were in the past, and not just in the biological sense.
Our jobs might change. Our friends (and perhaps even spouses) are not necessarily the same ones we had in the past. The family grows and expands, though sometimes it contracts. Some are born and others, to our sorrow, pass away. So how can you tell someone they haven’t changed at all? One of the greatest differences between classical Greek culture and Jewish culture lies in the concept of time. The Greeks believed that time was circular, or cyclic. In contrast, Jewish tradition expresses a belief that time is linear while incorporating cyclic elements.
I feel that Rosh Hashanah successfully combines these two perceptions. On the one hand, Rosh Hashanah is a sterling expression of the cyclic nature of time. Every year has 12 months and we note the beginning of the new year. On the other hand, the life of a man exists on a line, and is not cyclic.
We live in a rapidly changing world. We see on a seemingly daily basis the manner in which we read books, meet and communicate with friends and spend our free time change in dramatic and startling fashion.
Yet, every year, we gather together in our synagogues, with the same melodies and the same shofar which has been blown for thousands of years. It seems to me that these days are a kind of refuge from the sea of change, a sea in which we are tossed about and lose control over time.
Five hundred years ago, the son of the farmer, shepherd or shoemaker knew – more or less – what time would bring. For the most part, he knew what he would do most of his days. Today, no such certainty exists. This is because the world, for a child six or 10 years of age, will be very different in 20 years.
A few days ago I heard an interesting interpretation written by Chidushei HaRim (Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Rothenberg Alter) regarding Moses’s stay on Mount Sinai the eve of receiving the Torah.
We know that Moses was on Mount Sinai 40 days when receiving the Tablets for the first time. This is clear: He had to learn the Torah, to raise questions and reservations and delve into the subtler points. But why did he do this again the second time, after breaking the first Tablets? The Chidushei HaRim says: “Because he was a new person!” A few weeks had passed since he learned the Torah for the first time – but man changes daily. The Torah that we studied two days ago will never seem to be the same Torah that we will study tomorrow.
Rosh Hashanah greets us every year with a familiar face. We know, more or less, what to expect during the next 10 days in the sanctuary.
If there are changes, they will be minor ones. Nonetheless, we enter these days as new creations, with new challenges, new expectations, new tests and new opportunities.
Because the truth is, even when we say, “Hey, you haven’t changed!” we know that it is only a cliché. We have changed – all of us, without exception.
May we all have a good and blessed year, may we be granted life, the blessing of peace and prosperity, and may we see the fruits of our labor.
With best wishes from all of us at Kehillat Netzach Israel in Ashkelon to you and your congregation.
Shanah Tovah! The author is the rabbi of the Kehillat Netzach Israel Synagogue in Ashkelon.