Shana Tova! I’d like to begin this High Holy Day season with a story as told by Rabbi Leora Kaye from the Union for Reform Judaism. I urge you to sit back, take in a deep breath, and relax!
There[i] once was a young girl who lived in Baltimore City. She loved our city. She loved seeing her neighbors, watching the dogs as they walked by, hearing the car horns, and riding her bike to and fro down our streets. Yet, each year, the girl looked forward to leaving Baltimore for her annual trip to visit her savta, her grandmother.
Now, the girl’s savta did not live any place like Baltimore. Her grandmother lived far away, an hours long car drive, deep in the country. The girl loved being with her savta because her home was so different from Baltimore. The sounds were different, the sights were different, even the smells were different. There were so many things to do, so many places to explore, and so many people to meet.
Most special of all, the thing that the girl most looked forward to, was an annual tradition, a train ride. Each year, her grandmother would come up with an excuse for just the two of them to ride the train together. The girl and her savta loved these train rides.
Year after year, they’d board the same train that always left the station promptly at 2:36pm. They’d sit in the same seats: left side of the train, second row from the back. They’d look out the same window and her savta would share stories about the places they passed. She would reminisce about the farms, the buildings, the people, and the community. Her savta would remind her of what had changed during her lifetime and what still stayed the same. It was an annual pilgrimage, a time to hold each other tight, to remember the past, and to focus on the present. It was truly the highlight of their visit together.
One year, as the girl arrived, her savta saw that the train schedule had changed. Instead of the 2:36pm train that they always took, they’d need to board a different train which left an hour later. “Savta, we always take the 2:36pm train! How could we not take our train?!” “Don’t worry bubbele, we’ll catch the other train train instead!”
But, as they boarded the new train, they saw that an older couple was sitting in their seats! The couple was moving quite slowly and had just gotten settled. “Savta, that’s our seats! We always sit on the left side, second row from the back!” “Don’t worry bubbele, we’ll sit in these seats instead!”
But, as the train began to leave the station, they saw that directly next to them, on the parallel track, was a very, very long freight train. As they looked out the window, all they could see was the cars of that train!
The girl became dismayed. “Savta, how can you tell me all of our stories if the train is blocking our view?” Even though the girl knew these stories by heart, she wanted to hear them from her grandmother and to look out at the farms and the trees and the people that she loved to see.
With a wisdom that only comes from being a grandmother, her savta gently touched her shoulder and turned her granddaughter’s face in the opposite direction. “Don’t worry bubbele, there is another side of the train! We haven’t even looked out this window, in this direction! I have so many new stories to tell you!” And so, grandmother and granddaughter turned their view, and saw a whole new world.
This evening, as we gather to welcome the New Year 5781, we know that our train is cancelled, our seats are taken, and a freight train blocks our view. We can’t celebrate Rosh Hashanah as we did in the past. We can’t gather in our meadow with our picnic dinners. We can’t hear the moving music led by Shir Chadash. Tomorrow morning, we won’t be able to fill our beautiful sanctuary, to kiss each other, hug each other, feel the majesty that only comes when hundreds of us gather in the same space together.
The stories, rituals, and traditions that have been a hallmark for generations of Jews and a staple of our Bolton Street Synagogue community are just not going to be the same this year.
Like the girl, we too can’t take all of these disruptions! We too are a bit dismayed, more than a tad saddened that this year’s Rosh Hashanah will be different. Although we can’t experience things as we did in the past, we do have the stories and memories. Rosh Hashanah is called Yom HaZikaron, the Day of Memory. Today, we are urged to remember the past and remember what’s been taken from us. We are permitted to mourn everything that we’ve lost, but we must not allow ourselves to become fixated on the past.
For our view is blocked. It’s time for us, at this moment, to change perspective. I’m not saying it’s easy. I’m not saying it won’t be a little bittersweet, but there is power and strength when we shift our perspective.
With that change of perspective, we can gain a new sense of creativity and learn about old traditions that haven’t been at the forefront of our own experience.
Tonight’s Erev Rosh Hashanah was not the same, but we would have never celebrated a Rosh Hashanah Seder prior to covid. Over the holidays, we’ll have other new rituals, new voices sharing their stories, new approaches to transform the customs of the past and make them meaningful to our life experience during covid. Tonight, we also recognize that because of the power of zoom, we can gather in community with friends and family from across the globe.
As we begin another new year, as we mark another notch in our Jewish calendar, may we not forget that many of the generations that came before us also faced struggle and challenge. They did not remain unmoved. Their change in perspective pushed them to transform our religion and our world. We possess the rituals and the traditions of today because they needed to create them. And so, we must do the same.
We can and must mourn that our view is blocked. We can and must focus on the memories of Rosh Hashanah past, but at this moment we must change perspective. For our future depends on it. We must plant new seeds that will uplift our Jewish community and allow it to flourish far into the future. It’s time to create new memories, new rituals, new stories for the covid and post covid world. It’s time to change perspective and recognize the blessings of our family, our community, and our world. It’s not easy, but it’s time to look out the other window.
[i] Retold from a version shared by Rabbi Leora Kaye https://reformjudaism.org/podcasts/stories-we-tell/stories-we-tell-look-other-way