Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Erev Rosh Hashanah 2016/ 5777 "Chadesh Yameinu K'od Lo Hayu"

Chadesh Yameinu K’Od Lo Hayu
Rabbi Alan Cook
Sinai Temple, Champaign, IL
Erev Rosh HaShanah
October 2, 2016

My father, in his spare time, likes to dabble in art.  He’s created some nice oil paintings, and back in the day, he drew the artwork for birth announcements for me and for each of my siblings.  He used to create fairly elaborate birthday cakes for each of us, as well.  Every year, he draws an original design for a Rosh Hashanah greeting card.  Sometimes the message is serious; other times it is more whimsical.  Many of the cards were very much products of the era in which they were designed: an early 1980’s card pokes fun at the novelty of personal computers, while a more recent card was a nod toward the shorthand phrases that have come into vogue as people spend more time sending text messages.

For my father’s seventieth birthday, my mother had a book created that documents these cards over the years.  Each family member received a copy, and I’ve looked through ours a few times.  To examine it becomes a fond exercise, as I reminisce about the different chapters in our family’s life that helped shape the themes and designs of certain cards.  Revisiting each card becomes a journey into nostalgia, as I harken back to bygone Rosh Hashanah celebrations.  I can never fully recapture those days, but I may reminisce about them.

“Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.”  So goes the proverb ascribed to the late Yankees catcher and master of malaprops, Yogi Berra.  The phrase may actually have been coined by actress Simone Signoret or others, but regardless of who said it, there is some truth underlying its wry humor.  Try as we might, no matter how strong our powers of recollection may be and no matter how acutely an experience might arouse a sense of déjà vu within us, memories are merely memories.  Once a moment has passed, we cannot fully recapture it.  As self-help expert Robert Holden cautions, we should “beware of destination addiction: the idea that happiness is in the next place, the next job, or with the next partner.  Until you give up the idea that happiness is somewhere else, it will never be where you are.”[1]  In other words, placing too much emphasis on pining for a place or a time that is ultimately unattainable may rob us of the ability to recognize the goodness already present in our lives.  As Rabbi Ben Zoma teaches in Pirke Avot, “Who is wealthy?  One who is happy with his or her lot.”[2]

Nostalgia derives from the Greek words “nostos,” meaning “homecoming” and “algos” meaning “pain” or “ache.”  It was once described as a medical condition—a severe form of melancholy.  Nostalgia is now understood to be an involuntary response to discontinuity.  That is, when we reach a juncture in our life where something jarring happens—a major change in status, or recognition of our own mortality—we delve into nostalgia as a way of attempting to stabilize ourselves.  It has been shown that nostalgic feelings can indeed create a palpable sense of warmth; those warm and fuzzy feelings you get when remembering a favorite childhood activity or the smell of your grandmother’s cookies are actually strong enough to increase your body temperature.[3]

Of course, Judaism is not a religion that shies away from occasional traipsing down memory lane.  Many of our prophets exerted their greatest energy preaching to the Israelites of their era that a return to Israel’s glory days was imminent.  And our liturgy, drawing from the book of Lamentations, emphasizes this theme when it proclaims, “Chadesh yameinu k’kedem,” most frequently translated as, “Renew our days as in the past.”[4]  The first use of the word kedem in the Torah comes in Genesis in reference to the Garden of Eden, which is situated kedem—in the east[5].  This may be a specific geographic locator, or it may simply be meant to conjure up an exotic, foreign locale, in the same way that the English word “oriental” was first understood.  Later, the rabbis used the word “kedem” as more of a descriptor of time rather than place, a longing for an idealized past.

As we seek inspiration to engage in the act of teshuvah, we beseech God to make things as they once were.  The very word teshuvah, used to describe the act of repentance is actually more accurately translated as “return.”  Just as lovers who have grown apart may seek to return to the heady days when their romance was first kindled, so do we strive to make our relationship with God as good as it was with our ancestors in days of yore.

This idealized notion of days gone by lies at the heart of these High Holidays.  The introspection that we are called to do as part of the act of teshuvah invites us to delve into the past: where, in the past, did we stray?  How did our ancestors deal with a moral problem or theological question, and how might we utilize that insight in our own lives?  What will it take for God to find us worthy—as individuals, or as members of a community—of being remembered for life and blessing, of being inscribed in the proverbial “Book of Life?”  The rabbis who created our machzor liturgy drew from the prophetic tradition and seem to suggest that if only every Jew could get his or her affairs in order and walk the proper path, we could somehow recreate some idealized point in the past in which we were all in God’s good graces and all was right with the world.

But, as Billy Joel has reminded us, “The good ol’ days weren’t always good; tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems…”[6]  Most of us appreciate the gifts that modernity has brought to the practice and appreciation of Judaism.  We would not wish to leave the diaspora; we don’t long for a restoration of the sacrificial cult or a return to the other elements of centralized worship within the Temple in Jerusalem.  We appreciate the advancements that progressive Judaism in the 20th and 21st centuries has made in egalitarianism, creating roles and safe spaces for women, Jews by choice, LGBTQ Jews, those who are differently-abled, and so forth.  We embrace a brand of Judaism that welcomes interfaith partners and spouses with open arms.  We believe in a Judaism that has updated its attitudes toward slavery, one that affords each of us the autonomy to determine which mitzvot heighten our appreciation of our relationship with the world and with the Divine.  And we recognize our responsibility to carry forward the prophetic imperative “l’taken olam b’malchut Shaddai,” to work as God’s partners in deeds of social justice that will improve our world.

 Additionally, we must understand that even the prophets who first exhorted the people to cast aside their wrongdoing and return to God, who painted rosy pictures of how wonderful life could be if their compatriots would only heed their warnings—these prophets never experienced anything even remotely resembling the idealized world that they described.  Instead, they lived in constant threat of conquest by the Babylonians, Assyrians, Egyptians, and other empires that recognized the strategic advantage of controlling the Middle East.   For these prophets, the word “kedem” as referenced in the lamentation, “chadesh yameinu k’kedem- renew our days as in the past,” did not represent a return to the wilderness outpost of Ur of the Chaldees, from whence Abraham first came, nor to any of the enclaves in ancient Canaan where our patriarchs and matriarchs made their homes.  It did not reference the forty years spent wandering in the wilderness, and certainly not the generations of suffering and servitude in Egypt.  Instead, kedem was used to describe the prophets’ version of utopia—a future messianic age when these enemies would be gone and all would live under God’s rule and protection.

And therein lie some of the difficulties with nostalgia.  As a personal therapeutic, nostalgia can be a useful tool, helping to calm an individual who is experiencing a sense of discontinuity.  Author and humorist John Hodgman goes so far as to contend that, “nostalgia is the most toxic impulse.”[7]  He argues that it is easy to become so wrapped up in longings for the past that one cannot relate effectively to the realities of the present.  Furthermore, as was the case with the prophets, the lenses through which we filter our nostalgic memories can so sharply distort things as to present us with an image that is entirely unattainable, as much as we may ache for it, and indeed may never have existed in the first place.  As author Thomas Wolfe put it, “You can’t go home again.”[8]  While an occasional foray into nostalgia is fun, we should not allow ourselves to become mired in longing for a bygone—or non-existent—past.

Better, I think, to focus on making our present as pleasant as possible, and to forge a bright future for our descendants and ourselves.  Perhaps our mantra for the High Holidays should not be “chadesh yameinu k’kedem- renew our days as in the past,” but rather, as Rabbi Mark Hurvitz suggests, we should say, “chadesh yameinu k’od lo hayu—renew our days as they never were before.”[9]  Don’t worry, Martha, I know the choir has rehearsed the traditional text, and I’m not going to change things on you; but I do think the new turn of phrase would better reflect what we are each attempting to do for ourselves in this High Holiday season.

Judaism has not ever been a static faith—nor, in my opinion, should it be.  We are constantly evolving in an effort to marry our values and ethos to the sensibilities of the time; as one scholar has put it, American innovations in progressive Judaism represent a “response to modernity.”[10]  To posit that any one era in our existence is the ne plus ultra or golden age of Jewish expression ignores the fact that our Judaism is richer because we continue to add to, adapt, and expand upon previous generations’ understandings of our faith and culture.  Would Rabbi Hillel or King David or Moses recognize the Judaism practiced today as akin to their own modes of belief?  Perhaps not; but I think they would recognize that our liturgies and customs owe a huge debt to the groundwork that they laid, and that we have widened the tent without any harm to its core structure.

Someone once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.[11]  Perhaps there are indeed instances where this axiom holds true, but I would suggest that a significant part of the act of teshuvah actually involves us doing the same thing—pledging to be better in the future—and anticipating different results: this year I WILL stick to that diet; this year I WILL break that bad habit.  We repeat the actions over and over, we continue to believe in the possibility of change, because we recognize the prospect of the future being better than the past, better even than our current reality.  Chadesh yameinu k’od lo hayu—Renew our days as they never were before.

This is not to say that teshuvah works like a “Get Out of Jail Free” card in Monopoly.  One may not purposely be a jerk throughout the year in the hopes that repentance during the High Holidays will wipe the slate clean.  Our tradition is clear on this: one who [willfully] sins and repents, and then sins and repents, saying, “I shall sin, and Yom Kippur will allow me to atone”—for this person, Yom Kippur is not sufficient to atone.[12]  But if one exerts an honest effort to do better, and nevertheless continues to “miss the mark,” he or she is encouraged to continue attempts at teshuvah year after year.  For with each subsequent year, we hold out hope that the individual will be able to truly reform and become a better person.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, has stated, “To be a Jew is to reply to the question ‘Has the messiah come?’ with the words ‘Not yet.’”[13]  We do not reject out of hand the prospect of a messiah or a messianic age; we hold out hope that such a day, an idyllic future, awaits us just beyond the horizon.  Through the process of teshuvah, we strive toward the self-improvement that we know is a necessary ingredient in perfecting our world.  And through the act of tikkun olam, we work as God’s partners to bring the world closer to wholeness.  As we engage in acts of social justice—lending a hand to those in need, standing up for those who are oppressed—we help to shape the world in the manner that God intended.  Chadesh yameinu k’od lo hayu—Renew our days as they never were before.

If you’ll indulge me another foray into pop music, I think we’d do well to recall the words of songwriter Stephen Stills.  In “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” made famous by Crosby, Stills, and Nash, we find the lyrics, “Don’t let the past remind us of what we are not now.”[14]  Stills is writing in the context of a romantic relationship that is ending, but his exhortation should still resonate with us all—if we remain fixated on the past, we cannot live fully in the present, and we will fail to be engaged in building a blessed future.
As we enter these Yamim Nora’im, these holy Days of Awe, I encourage you each to consider: what will you strive for?  How much greater can you be?  What difference will you make for yourself and for others?
The call of the shofar is a strong sensory memory for many of us, hearkening us back to our youth, when we first heard its plaintive call.  But it is also a herald of future possibilities.  May it sound the way to a prosperous and meaningful future for us all.
Hashiveinu Adonai eilecha v’nashuva.  O God, inspire us to turn back toward you, and we shall return.  Chadesh yameinu k’od lo hayu- Renew our days that they may be filled to overflowing with love, compassion, and holy work, so that we may be Your partners in creating a world that is better than we have ever known.

[1] Robert Holden, as found on
[2] Mishnah, Pirke Avot 4:1
[3] See, for example the episode “Nostalgia is Not the Most Toxic Impulse,” from the podcast Stuff You Should Know, released March 31, 2016
[4] See Lamentations 5:21 and liturgy
[5] See Genesis 2:8
[6] “Keeping the Faith,” by Billy Joel, from the 1983 album, An Innocent Man.
[7] See, for instance, Hodgman’s interview with The Pitch, retrieved from on September 15, 2016
[8] Wolfe, Thomas.  You Can’t Go Home Again (New York: Harper & Row, 1940)
[9] Rabbi Mark Hurvitz, email correspondence, September 2016.
[10] See Dr. Michael Meyer’s book of the same title.
[11] Variously attributed on the Internet to Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein, though the first instance of this statement in print does not occur until 1998, long after both gentlemen were deceased.
[12] Mishnah Yoma 8:9
[13] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Future Tense: How the Jews Invented Hope.  Posted 1 April 2008 at
[14] Stephen Stills, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” from the 1969 album Crosby, Stills, and Nash.

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