As the New Year of 5776 grows closer, we consider the theme of T'shuvah, Return. During the High Holy Days, we have the opportunity to go back to our true path, to become who we really are. The shofar is sounded during the month of Elul that precedes Rosh Hashanah every day to call upon us to make the trek to our "home base" of character and to the practice of the values which are essential to our lives.
This past Sunday, members of the Jewish communities of El Paso and of southern New Mexico and Ciudad Juarez, our neighbors across the border, met at Border Monument 1, a location in Sunland Park where there is no fence or wall between our two countries. The white monument that marks the boundary between the United States and Mexico at that spot became the gathering place for members of the same people. Those who spoke two languages had an advantage, but we had other ways to communicate. Margot Leverett and I played Hinei Mah Tov, Dodi Li, Eileh Chamdah Libi and Hava Nagilah in the minutes before the ceremony began. Rabbi Steve Leon of Congregation B’nai Zion, Rabbi Ben Zeidman of Temple Mount Sinai and I presented a prayer or reflection and then sounded the shofar. In my case, Margot and I joined together for a vocal and instrumental rendition of the folk melody of Avinu Malkeinu before I sounded my shofar calls. Gino Lysander, son of Juarez Rabbi Ariel Lysander, presented shofar calls from his side of the very permeable border as we met for those precious moments. Then we all combined our breath power for a coordinated T'kiah G'dolah. Prayer, song, ritual, tradition and heritage were our common language that united us at that place, a site to which we will hopefully return next year.
Sunday's encounter reminded me of at least part of who I am - a member of the Jewish people, an extended family of history and faith with ancient roots that has a way of transcending borders.
Throughout the year, our shared values emerge from our worship, our rituals and our study, and they find expression in our actions.
The Torah portion for this week, KI TAVO, describes a ritual which the Israelites were commanded to observe once they entered the land that would eventually be their home. They were instructed to go to their central holy place and bring the first fruits of their harvest. That action was only part of the task they were called to perform. They had to recite out loud a formulaic outline of their history, which went something like this:
"My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to the Eternal, the God of our ancestors, and the Eternal heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery and our oppression. The Eternal freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm, and awesome power, and by signs and portents, bringing us to this place and giving us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, Eternal One, have given me."
The presenter of the first fruits was commanded to leave the basket, to bow low in a humble gesture as the basket was presented, and to share the contents with the Levites serving in the holy place and the strangers in the community.
This passage is like a mini-Passover, in a way. This very section of the Torah is interpreted in detail in a traditional Passover Haggadah. I believe that this paragraph mirrors our own lives in many ways at times when we are thankful and want to show our gratitude.
At those moments, we may recall every step of the journey that brought us to the point of being able to share a gift with the community.
We may recall specific challenges we have faced, which may have included illness, loss of a job, an unexpected necessary move from one place to another, the death of a loved one, and changes in our relationships that took away support that once gave us strength and hope. At those times, we looked for new sources of vitality and optimism. Perhaps we silently uttered a prayer to God for help through that difficult passage. Maybe the prayers worked. Or it could be that those words spoken in a state of near-hopelessness began the process of our return. Reaching out to God and to people whom we knew would willingly assist us enabled us to stand up straight once again. Then we could finally say "Thank you, God for bringing me to this moment" and offer back to our community the gift of our support and talent and spirit. And we would do so with humility, as if we were bowing low out of a sense of awe at our own return and renewal.
Arriving at that moment of gratitude and promise requires our commitment to take steps along that path that leads towards our home. Such a moment of personal triumph comes more quickly when we open our ears, eyes and hearts to perceive the call of our own faith, perhaps from a still, small voice inside of us that is always there to assure us that we will yet reach our destination. During this month of Elul, in the weeks preceding Rosh Hashanah, the shofar calls us back home, back to who we are and to who we can become. Now and throughout the year, may we join with our community to pray, to sing, to gather with joy, and to support one another in our quest for renewal and return.