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Rediscovery and Return

A Rosh Hashanah Reflection on Teshuva and the Joys of New Beginnings


Rosh Hashanah 2023 • 1st of Tishrei 5784

Rabbi Stephanie Kennedy


A few months ago, my parents called from Australia to tell me they were selling my childhood home. The home that bore witness to my sister’s birth and that still stored evidence of my childhood: old report cards, beloved books, scratches in the floorboards that I hoped my parents would never notice. Despite moving out over a decade ago, this news felt like simultaneously losing an anchor to my past and a safety net I had projected into the future. When they first bought that home, it was in a dilapidated state. But my parents dreamed and worked and shaped it into a warm and beautiful place. Parting with it felt like closing a chapter of collective memories, and I wanted the chance to go back to it before it was too late.


I took my 3-year-old daughter with me to visit, just the two of us on a quick 15-hour flight. With joy and curiosity, she transformed this journey into something bigger than just a farewell. I saw my homeland through her eyes – a world filled with wonder, laughter, and discovery. Together, we wandered the same streets and corners I had scraped my knees on while learning how to ride my bike. The playgrounds of my childhood now echoed with her laughter, and the familiar grandeur of Sydney Harbor held us both in awe. Returning with my child’s fresh eyes, what was once old became new.


On Rosh Hashanah, and throughout the month leading up to the High Holidays, we are called to engage in a profound act of returning. Throughout the next ten days until Yom Kippur, the term "teshuva" will echo in our hearts and minds. Teshuva, in Hebrew, translates to "repentance," but at its root, it means to "return."


One interpretation of teshuva from the Alter Rebbe is that teshuva isn't just about repentance for mistakes or missteps, but rather it is a call to bring ourselves closer to who we are meant to be (Iggeret HaTeshuva 1). To do teshuva is to embark on a pilgrimage back to the core of our being — to that space within us that remains hopeful, and pure. It's in this journey that we rediscover potentials that may have lain dormant amidst the hustle of our daily lives — dreams unchased, passions unexpressed, or connections overlooked. The work of teshuva is to believe we can do better. In a radical sense, it is a return to our potential.


In my experience, this definition of teshuva goes hand in hand with the traditional explanation of repentance. Like everyone else, I’ve made mistakes this year. One that has weighed particularly heavily was not following up more with a friend whose husband was seriously ill.


Towards the end of the Torah, we read about teshuva.


“Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart.” (Deuteronomy 30:11-13)


In Rabbi Shai Held’s commentary on this passage, he explains, “To repent is to turn inward. But, crucially, turning inward is not the final goal; on the contrary, we turn inward so that we may again — and more deeply — turn outward.”


I ran into my friend, the one whose husband was sick, at a Rosh Hashanah family event last Sunday. Once I pushed past my shame and embarrassment I was grateful for the opportunity to take responsibility for my mistakes and my poor communication and express my sincere regret. But it was the opportunity to reconnect, to recommit to the person I want to be that opened up a sense of possibility. Embracing teshuva is acknowledging our boundless capacity for growth and connection, not only with others but with the very essence of who we aspire to become.


Each night in Australia, before bedtime, my daughter would process all that she saw and heard with questions like, "Does the floor of Australia shake when kangaroos jump? Do wombats like having babies?" Sometimes I couldn’t contain the joy and the laughter that these questions brought me. On one occasion, she very sweetly said, “Mumma, I make you laugh. And when you laugh it makes me laugh too.” Laughter, in its many forms, often emerges from a blend of surprise and joy. The most well-known laughter in the Torah is that of Sarah. Upon hearing news of her impending motherhood at the age of ninety, Sarah lets laughter slip out. Her response can perhaps be understood as a burst of unexpected joy. Tomorrow morning we will read in the Torah the fulfillment of this joy - Sarah giving birth to her son Isaac.


And perhaps on Rosh Hashanah, more than any other day, we need to reread the profound happiness of Sarah because Rosh Hashanah is a period of uncertainty for the year ahead. Sarah’s laughter encourages us to approach Rosh Hashanah with fresh optimism and an openness to life's unexpected joys and wonders.


Set against the backdrop of a house bursting with memories, and enriched by the unexpected joy of experiencing Australia through my daughter's eyes, my journey back home spoke to what I see as the essence of teshuva. Every Rosh Hashanah offers us the opportunity to return to a new beginning.


Whenever I've returned home as an adult I’ve wondered about how my life might have looked if I had made different choices. If I had stayed in Australia, if I had pursued other interests. Even as I find joy and love in the life I have now, there's always the question of what would have happened if I had never left home.


Teshuva is an opportunity to imagine what our lives might become, instead of what they could have been. Rather than dwelling in regret, it's a recommitment to live intentionally. Teshuva is a possibility that has always resided within us. After all our exploration, as T.S. Eliot aptly put it, this is how we “arrive where we started, And know the place for the first time.”


May we all be inscribed for a year abundant in blessings, rediscovery, connection, growth, and boundless joy as we turn inward for the sake of turning outward.


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