It was 1991, the end of August, as I seem to recall, and I was leaving the United States for the very first time in my life. At that very moment, I was looking out of the window of a very large airplane, where I had been seated window seat in the middle of the airplane.
We were ready for liftoff. As the plane ascended slowly, the skyscrapers of New York City started appearing smaller and smaller until the point that there was no real difference between anything or anyone below.
For me, it was a silent goodbye to a chaotic childhood in desperate need of a healthy change and a better future. And the good school I was enrolled in, was Neveh Zion, a school for so-called “at risk” teenage boys, whatever that meant. In my case, it was to shield me from falling into the abyss.
I was feeling a mixed bag of emotions of fear and excitement. I was going to Israel, the land of my heritage. However, besides the name, I was unfamiliar with that country. I didn’t speak the language nor did I have any inkling as to what life was like there. But, a resounding voice, buried deep inside of me, told me that I was heading in the right direction.
After a fifteen-hour flight, which included a refueling stopover in Athens, I finally arrived. I exited the small terminal to find crowds of people holding balloons and flowers in anticipation of soon seeing their returning loved ones. A jealous voice inside me spoke up and said, wouldn’t it be nice if someone caring and loving was waiting to greet me? Wasn’t that exactly what I needed right now?
In response to that, my inner voice assured me that not to worry for one day, I too will have many family members waiting to greet me here as well.
I continued to look for transportation amongst the public transportation options when a fellow student introduced himself with a friendly smile as Jonathan, and offered to share a taxi to the school. I felt my inner voice winking at me, as if to tell me, everything will be alright.
Waiting for me at the Administration Office was a clean-shaven man with a warm smile, who introduced himself to me with a firm handshake as Joe. I remember thinking to myself that he was the coolest Rabbi I ever met. Just a simple no frills friendly Joe.
The student body was a real mix of personalities and backgrounds, many of whom I had recognized from back home in Brooklyn. Immediately, I was able to identify the groups: In one corner were the hockey-playing jocks and in another corner were the guys with long hair, who were into heavy metal music. My group was the Brooklyn street kids, wearing leather jackets, and speaking a kind of Jewish – Italian -English.
In addition to the familiar groups, there was now a few new ones as well. A Los Angeles group told us gang stories that made the streets of Brooklyn sound like an amusement park. Everyone was working hard to keep up their facade of toughness and strength so as not to be embarrassed about just how scared they were of being five thousand miles away from home, with a return ticket many months down the road.
Slowly, however, the sincere warmth of the staff and the second-year students helped us to let go of our coping defense mechanisms and accept ourselves for who we really were.
It was now Rosh Hashanah. A new year was starting and I felt cleansed of the dirt, grit, and darkness and was ready to slowly allow myself to connect with my inner core, once again.
In this week’s Parsha Nitzavim, Moshe tells the Jewish people that everyone is gathered here today from the water carriers to the wood choppers. He imparts the essential elements of Judaism: peoplehood, responsibility, and intentionality. Chasidus explains that this week’s Parsha is always read before Rosh Hashanah since the word today connotes the day of Rosh Hashanah. Water carriers and woodchoppers resemble the fact that, on Rosh Hashanah, the diversity of levels of classes of citizens is forgotten. We are one group waiting to crown their creator as King of the Heavens and the Earth.
The blowing of the Shofer is a level of communication that is pre-verbal. It’s simple and uncomplicated, like a child’s cry. This is all part of the process of returning to our inner infinite core. A place before things complicated our relationship with the divine. A place where we can allow ourselves to be our authentic selves; vulnerable yet confident, caring, curious, calm, and compassionate.
Have a wonderful Shabbos and a Happy and Sweet New Year inscribed in the book of life!