The late, great Chaim Potok began one of his most wonderful novels, In the Beginning, with the words ‘All beginnings are hard’. When I read the book many years ago that phrase struck me with enormous force – I can’t easily explain why…but at one and the same time it seemed to state something incredibly obvious yet surprisingly profound.
Beginnings are not easy – we embark on a job, a task, a journey and we have no idea how we will cope, how we will perform, how whatever it is with which we are engaged will develop, and whether we will discover the capacity to meet the challenges that come our way.
Sometimes, if we are wise, and if the opportunity presents itself, we do prepare for whatever it is we are going to undertake, so that we have marshalled our resources for whatever lies ahead and do not go in ‘cold’. But what do we do when the ‘beginning’ relates to something for which no preparation is possible? The only answer I can think of is that we fall back on our experience, and the common sense we have – hopefully – acquired in previous years. This may not save us from all the pitfalls but it will probably help us to avoid some of the worst ones.
The hardest beginning of all, naturally, is that of life itself. We are born into the world without any chance to prepare, weak and defenceless, and in the first weeks and months of our existence it matters not one iota.
Later on we rely on our parents to make our beginning easier, and it is therefore necessary to ask what kind of preparation they underwent in advance of this, the hardest beginning and the most significant change in any human life.
The answer is quite disturbing, for it is usually NOTHING, or next to nothing.
So many men and women become parents without having done anything like as much work as they should on who they are, or sought to establish a secure personal framework with parameters that will hold them and sustain them, before they launch themselves headlong into the upbringing of another human being.
No wonder there are so many dysfunctional and unhappy children in the world when we consider the ignorance and even inadequacy of their parents!!
On the threshold of a Jewish New Year, a recurring event which also marks a beginning of huge importance, let us ask ourselves how prepared we are for it. The honest answer – which we can keep to ourselves – will likely be rather revealing.
For most of us sleep-walk into the High Holy Days: suddenly they arrive, and we have given them no prior thought or made any preparation – and then we have the enormous chutzpah to expect them to be meaningful and cleansing, offering us a fresh start. Occasionally – if we are very fortunate – and partly for reasons completely beyond ourselves – they may do just what we want. Usually, however, they fail to kick start our lives or make us feel a sense of a new beginning, and we are left disappointed at best and at worst angry and resentful.
As we cast around for reasons to explain our chagrin we often, subconsciously, search for something or someone to blame. We didn’t like the rabbi’s sermons, we didn’t like the way the lay readers read, the choir was awful, the machzor was turgid and boring; or it was too hot, or too cold, or the seats were uncomfortable.
Anything and everything, in fact, except scrutinising ourselves.
An American Rabbi published a book a few years ago called This Is Absolutely Serious and You are Completely Unprepared, which expresses another great truth.
The Days of Awe, commencing with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur, are represented by our tradition as a very serious time indeed, a period during which our deeds are weighed in the balance and a decision is taken as to whether we may be confirmed in the Book of Life.
Only one thing can mitigate or annul the severity of the judgement against us and see us confirmed in the Book of Life, and that is teshuvah, repentance.
How do we ‘make repentance’? Well, certainly not by simply rolling up at the shul on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, reciting some prayers, afflicting ourselves a wee bit and then going home and picking up just where we left off before they started.
To make real teshuvah, to be able truly to make a new beginning in a new year we have to be prepared. We have to have set aside time for reflection and introspection, for appreciation of everything that is right about our lives and an awareness of everything that is wrong about them.
My beloved teacher and mentor, John Rayner, zTZ”l, wrote of this time in our Jewish lives:
This is the season of repentance, but it is not easy to repent. For we do not see ourselves as others see us, still less as God sees us. Self-love deceives us; pride makes us unwilling to admit the truth about ourselves. Our motives, we like to think, are good; our weaknesses excusable; our misdeeds due to forces beyond our power to control.
We would do better to recognise that it is we who cheat, distort and destroy – ‘we’, and not ‘they’; better to acknowledge that if the society around us is ugly with selfishness, falsehood and violence the fault must lie not in our stars but in us.
Let us then strip away the vanity and self-righteousness with which we surround ourselves.
Let us have the courage to say: we have sinned. Only then shall we be able to see our virtues in their true light. For there is goodness in us too: in us and in our fellow men and women. We have a yearning to be pure; to give, to help, to love, to build a better world.
May this good inclination draw strength from our worship during these precious days of penitence. May it help us to conquer the darker side of our nature and let the good in us assert itself more strongly in the year ahead.
Do this, and the High Holy Days will be meaningful for you: do this and you will find your atonement.
Beginnings may be hard …but do this and you will have made a very good start.
Rabbi Dr Charles Middleburgh
Dean, Leo Baeck College Ordained 1986
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.