“How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, thy dwellings, O Israel! As valleys stretched out, as gardens by the river-side; as aloes planted of God, as cedars beside the waters” (Numbers 24:5-6)
On Rosh Hashanah we listen to the blast of the shofar, dip apples into honey and begin a process of teshuvah – return. Defined in the poetry of Lamentations, we read that teshuvah is the work of returning to God, as it says “Return us to you God, and we shall return; renew our days of old.” Without going too much into the complexities of this theology, I believe that this is a process of returning to our roots, to our beginnings, and to the early source of our strength and nurture. This New Year we are invited to revisit our relationships with friends, families, homes or communities that provided these gifts to us– it is no coincidence that we eat with, visit and enjoy the company of many of these people during the holiday season. We are asked during Rosh Hashanah, to return to them, not simply for the sake of doing it, but to strengthen them, to be strengthened by them and to be oriented to the good and valuable that blossoms from them.
The process of returning to our roots is a personal project and also a communal one. In the western world this is a difficult task because culturally we are engrained to look forward in time, not backward, and to ourselves and not to the group. Shifting this orientation requires inspiration–there needs to be visible value (It can be a difficult task to convince someone not to think just for themselves and for those closest to them). However, I think valuing roots and valuing community can emerge by way of participation in and with them, and by hearing intimate narrative of those who have or still experience them. This is a project that we can embark on this coming year– I think this is a major and crucial stage in the teshuvah we are called to do.
Nine college graduates will be arriving to Gedera in just a few days with the Yahel Social Change Program to participate in this process in an inspiring way. They will live together, work together, reflect together and join a warm Ethiopian-Israeli community of friends and families in the Shapira neighborhood. They will jump into the roots of an unfamiliar culture, but one with shared ancient histories and narrative, coupled with a breadth of contemporary cultural links. They will be surrounded by Hebrew and Amharic, presented with the opportunity to daven from familiar siddurim, and note the unexpected references to Tupac graffitied on the city walls. Curiosity and openness will be key in uncovering both these cultural gaps and amazing intersections, enabling their investment in and discovery of community and roots.
Wherever one may be this Rosh Hashanah, I believe this type of return is a major part of the work of teshuva; many Yahel participants will model this for us in the coming year by jumping head-first into it. We are asked to go back to our roots, send out new shoots into the soil, and use them to soak in the water and nourishment around us to help us grow, individually and communally. So my hope for all of us this year, is that we may be blessed with strength, creativity and openness to go back as a way of learning how to go forward, together. May we all have a sweet new year. Shanah tova.
Ross Weissman is Yahel’s Recruitment and Digital Media Associate. He has studied at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, Yeshivat Hadar in New York and will begin studying this Fall for his MA in Creative Writing at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan.