Back to Basics

My friend and colleague, Rabbi Audrey Marcus Berkman, has given me the honor of chanting Torah on Yom Kippur afternoon at Temple Ohabei Shalom. It’s a short reading — just four p’sukim — but full of richness. The reading comes from Leviticus 19, the beginning of what’s known as the holiness code. In it, G-d tells Moses to speak to the entire community of Israelites in order to teach them why and how to be holy. The why is (deceptively) simple: the people shall be holy in imitation of their Creator. The how takes up many, many p’sukim to follow, but my portion is refreshingly basic: revere your mother and father, keep Shabbat, and do not turn to idolatry.

As so many things — family, work, nation — seem to swirl into ever more confusing and complicated duststorms, it is a gift to return, in this season of return, to core teachings. My daily life can sometimes seem a series of fire drills, panics, dramas, and interruptions upon interruptions. How glorious to focus my mind on basic reverence: for my elders, for my tradition, for my Creator.

On Sunday afternoon, Bill and I took the boys to the river to do a family tashlich. As we stood in a clearing in the woods, we talked about what we wanted to throw away from the past year and what we wanted to do better. What struck me — with both hope and rue — was how much our comments resembled those of years past. The things we want to do less of in the coming year — arguing, thoughtlessness, impatience, meanness — are exactly the things we wanted to do less of in the year just ended. Did we really do such a bad job at it the last time (and the time before and the time before the time before) that we have to try yet again this year? It is discouraging to name the same things year after year, to set the same intentions as the year before and know that I’m likely to be setting (or re-setting) them at the same time next year.

Shouldn’t we be keeping these basic intentions in mind throughout the year?

And yet I love the way our tradition builds this habit of introspection into the calendar and offers us this annual chance at realigning ourselves. These ten days of awe give us a wonderful opportunity to remind ourselves of what matters most to us, and to get back to our basics.​

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