Although the days are getting shorter, this time of year is full of new beginnings. A new school year is underway and the new Jewish year is rapidly approaching. I’ve been thinking of another moment of beginning, this one in the Book of Exodus, as our ancient mythic ancestors gathered in the wilderness after their escape from bondage in Egypt.
So much was new, then. The Israelites were grappling with their freedom, learning to come together around something other than their shared oppression. They were learning how to be in relationship with the Divine presence who led them to freedom. They were at the very beginning of their years of wandering in the wilderness. They were about to receive Torah, the sacred story that would bind them—and us—together in a chain of community and interpretation that would extend across generations and millenia.
In that moment, God said to Moses: And now, if you surely listen to My voice and guard My covenant, you will be a treasure to me (Exodus 19:5). A midrash, or rabbinic expansion on a biblical verse, teaches that the purpose of the word “now” is to emphasize the particular timing, that this is when God chose to give the people the covenant of Torah, since “all beginnings are difficult” (Mechilta 19:5).
Rather than highlight the exceptional nature of the beginning in Exodus, the midrash points out what it shares with all beginnings: the vast unknown, and all the challenges that can create. If we feel anxious when facing a new beginning, we can trust that the Israelites felt anxious as well. If we wonder whether we have what it takes to plunge in bravely, we can imagine that they felt the same. If we’re looking around for a way to make a beginning a little easier, for something secure we can hold onto as we go forward, we can be assured that our ancestors did as well.
Because beginnings are a time of difficulty, but also of great potential and possibility. We can learn from this midrash that, just as orienting around the sacred story of Torah made the Israelites’ freedom easier to embrace, so too can we find courage and comfort by leaning into the rituals and community events of this time of year.
What are the rituals that your family practices at the beginning of a school year or around the High Holy Days? What helps you to feel grounded as you try to embrace all that this new cycle has to offer? I know I’m looking forward to getting back into our routine at Kehilla School and to observing the High Holidays as a community. I hope to see you, learn with you, and sing with you before long.