Today, we seem to feel the effects of transition, transformation and change much more than ever before. In the time of our grandfathers, and even of our fathers, perceptible change would take decades, sometimes centuries; then time seemed to move much more slowly. Now, it is as if we are living in an accelerated pace, and things that happened only two years ago seem like ancient history. Technology provides a partial explanation for this, but there is more.
Changes involved in growth and development, are essential to the very definition of life. Not only do we need such changes; our lives depend on them.
Nevertheless, transition may be frightening or wrought with danger. The status quo gives us the illusion of safety, of known-ness. When there is movement and shifting about, however, things may break, or collapse, or simply be less predictable.
In any process of change from one stage to another, there is a moment that is indeterminate, an apparent void that has within it unlimited potential. This period is one of great risk, for in it, anything can happen. It can be quite brief, but if one hesitates, it becomes prolonged and, potentially, even more ominous. This happens, for example, in the short instant between walking and swimming. There is an either-or moment, in which one is no longer standing on anything firm, but is not yet swimming either.
The ability to transform is also the ability to learn new things. If we stick too firmly to our old notions, we will never be able to learn anything or to progress. When we learn something new, we must suspend some of our prior knowledge, in order to be able to integrate new information. Perhaps this helps explain why children are so good at learning languages: they have far fewer preconceived ideas. The human eye offers a metaphor for this notion: the only part of the eye that sees is the pupil, which has no color (i.e., no pre-set ideas); the iris, which has its own color, sees nothing.
Our ability to learn and change is also what enables us to do teshuva, to repent. Repentance is a transition that is effected in thought, in word and in deed. It is a transition from one world to another, one that has been created anew.
We know the power of Divine Words, for it is through them that the world was created. It was through the amalgamation of specific sounds that the reality of earthly existence was accomplished. And even though our words are the words of humans, they too, can effect true change.
“Although all of God’s creatures are products of the Divine Utterance, only we have the ability to respond, to answer in word and deed…” -Rabbi Steinsaltz
Repentance begins with thoughts and feelings, but words are the first external sign of repentance: the words of selichot, of the Ten Days of Repentance, and of Psalm 27, L’David, HaShem Ori veYishi, which we recite until Simchat Torah. The words are the opening to the void, to the nothingness that contains the possibility of anything, to the turning point whereby we can transform ourselves.
This time in general, and the time of the upcoming High Holy Days in particular, is filled with uncertainty and awe, and so it should be. The Almighty created the world in order that it be changed, and it is no accident that He has given us the ability, the desire, and the measure of insanity required to make those changes. Although all of God’s creatures are products of the Divine Utterance, only we have the ability to respond, to answer in word and deed, and to bring about the transformation and perfection the world so very much requires.
In so doing, we can participate with God in the continuous creation of the world.
With best wishes for a good and sweet year in body and in spirit,
Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz