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(Just like) Starting Over

Rosh Hashanah, like other festivals in the Hebrew calendar, contains a duality. It celebrates both change and repetition. Its themes of repentance and resolution presume linear time while its status as point zero of the annual calendar rests on a conception of time as circular. Indeed, even the festival’s name is dual, with the word שנה denoting both change and repetition.

This year, many are focusing on how different things are. Many of the new year’s wishes I’ve received so far have included phrases like “strange,” “not the same,” and “unprecedented.”

Sure, there’s a lot about life under lockdown that’s unusual. But over these last months, I’ve been struck more by the things that don’t change. Things like whom and what you can rely on, and whom and what you can’t. Things like ingrained conceptions of work and learning, which resist change even when the need for it is obvious and urgent.

It’s tempting, in light of such continuities, to conclude, with Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr (1848), that, “Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose” – the more things change, the more it’s the same thing. Or as Ecclesiastes (9:1) put it centuries before, “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”

But such continuities are only part of the picture. It’s not that nothing changes. It’s more that few changes turn out to be as novel or as radical as they initially appear. Many a promising start turns out to be a false start, leading us back to square one.

Rosh Hashanah’s duality invites us to reject superficial novelty, to overcome our tendency to repeat ourselves and to work harder to change in ways that are real and lasting. May we have the wisdom, courage and strength to do so.

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