9 Elul 5778
20 August 2018
Several weeks ago Sue and I spent a Shabbat with the first congregation I served as a rabbi, in Weybridge, Surrey. The community happened to be marking its 50th anniversary during our visit to England. As we came into the shul on Shabbat dozens of people crowded around us. We hadn't seen some of them for 20 years, since we left for Australia, but it felt like it was yesterday. We really did feel as though we'd come home.
Experiences like these are bitter-sweet. It's wonderful to revisit places that are crowded with memories and to relive some of those memories with the people who shared the original experiences with us. But there is also a sense of sadness that those experiences can never be truly recovered. They are in the past and cannot be rewritten. Often they represent lost opportunities that we only recognise retrospectively. We say to ourselves, If only I could replay that scene to make it come out differently...!
Many decades ago the wonderful American novelist Thomas Wolf called one of his novels You Can't Go Home Again. The novel explores the sense of longing and loss we sometimes feel when we reflect on the distance we've travelled in life and how impossible it seems to recapture the innocence and promise of the past. Wolf's many books explore the theme of homecoming from every possible angle. He asks, Is it possible to return to the past, to recover what has been lost, to journey home?
Our inclination, with Thomas Wolf, is to resist the possibility of restoring the innocent relationship to life that we had when we were younger. We gravely doubt our ability to journey home. Yet, Judaism sees things differently. In a counter-intuitive way Judaism teaches that it is indeed possible to recover the innocence of the past and to relive its possibilities, to return home again (as Wolf puts it) if we wish to.
Yom Kippur offers us the experience of homecoming. We are given the chance to begin life afresh every year by making t'shuvah. But it's only possible to do this if we take up the offer. It takes effort to return home. The Buddhists famously tell us that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. The crucial act is to take that step. For many of us, the rituals of the Yamim Nora'im, the Days of Awe, represent that step. Indeed, the awesomeness of these days lies in their miraculous ability to reverse time, as it were, by giving us a second chance.
The Jewish path is a journey through life that welcomes each of us home, that offers us comfort and companionship no matter how far we may have wandered.
Wishing you shana tova um'tuka, and a safe and happy homecoming.
--Rabbi Fred Morgan