In Hebrew, words are founded on roots made up of three consonants that contain the essence of the words' meanings. Those roots blossom into a wide variety of words when vowels, prefixes, and suffixes are added, and much biblical interpretation is inspired by the relationship between words that share a root. For instance, the first word in Genesis is beresheit, which means "in the beginning." The root of beresheit is the letters ר א ש (reish aleph shin), which means "first" or "head." This might sound familiar from yesterday's post, as ר א ש is also the root of rosh, as in Rosh Hashanah, or "head of the year."
I mentioned in that post that shana, "year," comes from the Hebrew word for "repeat." However, the root of shana, ש נ א (shin nun aleph), also leads to the word shinui, which means "change." As we begin a new year, we take stock of where we've been and how we want to continue, and we're faced with the opportunity to decide if we want to repeat or change our thoughts, words, and deeds.
Said Rav Yitzhak, "There are four actions that alter a person's destiny: giving tzedakah, crying out to God, changing one's name, and changing one's actions." And some say, moving. - Talmud Rosh Hashanah 15bThe rabbis at Sixth & I, the synagogue I attend, explain the above passage of biblical commentary like this:
"And some say?" The Rabbis don't question Rav Yitzhak's first four suggestions, so why are they ambivalent about whether packing up and moving could truly change a person's future? In many ways, physically leaving a place is the most straightforward way to alter one's circumstances. Why do they doubt moving's efficacy as a spiritual tool?
They may have realized what many of us also know to be true—wherever a person goes, she takes herself with her.
This is the struggle of the High Holy Days: in order to change our circumstances, we must, most often, first change ourselves.
To that end, here is a suggestion for your new year: Aspire to "move yourself" as the Talmud suggests—not in external circumstance, but in perspective. Be like Hillel, who said, "Do not judge your friend until you've stood in his place" (Pirkei Avot 2:4). Stand in the place of those around us, both close to us and far from us; try to inhabit their perspective, transcend our own boundaries, and in doing so find justice and joy.This is, without a doubt, a challenge for all of us. It is daunting to step out of our comfort zones, to approach issues from another's viewpoint, and to entertain the idea that a differing opinion can be valid. But change does does not come from a place of stability. It comes from doubting, from debating, from exploring. It comes from movement.
I included a quote from Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 at the top of this post because we're in the midst of Banned Books Week in the US. (Ironically enough, this novel about books being banned has been censored repeatedly since it was published.) Keeping the spirit of Rosh Hashanah and that of Banned Books Week in mind, I hope you will take advantage of this window of opportunity to assess the year that has passed and the possibilities for the one ahead. I hope you will examine how you might challenge the world around you as many of the books on the banned list have done. I hope you will seek out the second side of the question and in doing so, as the rabbis say, find justice and joy.