On the opening page of her new bestselling memoir, Michelle Obama writes:
“I think it’s one of the most useless questions an adult can ask a child: What do you want to be when you grow up? As if growing up is finite. As if at some point you become something and that’s the end.”
This question of becoming is one that resonates on this final Shabbat of 2018. I think one of the blessings of living with our feet in two calendars is that we can, in fact, take our new beginnings where we can get them; celebrating the start of the new year at Rosh Hashanah, and looking to the turning of the calendar on Monday night for inspiration as well.
Michelle Obama’s book has been a critical and popular success, selling nearly 4 million hardcover copies in 5 weeks.
Beyond the celebrity, beyond the admiration so many hold for her,
I think the popularity may have something to do with the hopefulness that the title provides.
Becoming. An active verb. A state of being. She writes:
For me, becoming isn’t about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. I see it instead as forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self. The journey doesn’t end.
The journey doesn’t end. And in fact, looking to our own Jewish tradition, another journey is just beginning.
There is something powerful about the alignment of our secular calendar and our Torah reading for this week. On the cusp of a new calendar year, our Jewish story has already pushed forward to a new book.
Shemot, or Exodus, begins this week- and with it, the stirrings and the yearnings that make for the journey ahead.
Our Torah models beautifully for us, how to make a new beginning— one that is connected, one that remembers.
The book of Genesis ends with the story of Joseph’s death— the beloved son of Jacob. With Joseph’s death, we close out one family history—a lineage that began with Abraham setting forth for parts unknown, and ends with his great-grandson Joseph asking that his bones be brought back to that once unknown land, when God remembers the Israelites and brings them out of Egypt.
The very last line of Genesis reads: Joseph died at the age of 110 years; and he was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt.
In the great tradition of marking endings and beginnings, we say “chazak chazak v’nitchzek”— be strong, be strong- and we will all be strengthened.
And I like to imagine that when we say those words out loud, they act as a seal on the stories that led to that moment: that we mark endings by remembering, and integrating all of the moments that preceded it into ourselves.
And so this week, our Torah invites us to practice making a new beginning. Turning the page from Bereshit– our beginning, to Shemot— to those names.
Time passes, and things change— but the very first line of Shemot reminds us of who we are and where we come from:
וְאֵ֗לֶּה שְׁמוֹת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל הַבָּאִ֖ים מִצְרָ֑יְמָה אֵ֣ת יַעֲקֹ֔ב אִ֥ישׁ וּבֵית֖וֹ בָּֽאוּ׃
These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household:
These are the names of your people.
Listing off the names of the tribes, the opening lines of Shemot are a powerful reminder that where we come from, matters.
We learn a few lines later that the generation of Joseph and his brothers have died off, and since then, this people has been prolific, multiplying in number. The story of the children of Israel has evolved, from the time of Joseph as right-hand man to Pharaoh, saving Egyptians and his family alike from famine- until now.
In fact, there’s a new king in town, and this Pharaoh isn’t so sympathetic to the Israelites. In place of the initimacy and closeness of Joseph and the previous Pharaoh, this new king imposes harsh conditions and cruel slavery upon the Israelites.
Their story has evolved, and it’s not so pretty.
So what is the lesson in all of this unfolding?
I believe it has something to do with names.
The Hebrew name for this book we call Exodus is Shemot— meaning names.
The story of our becoming hinges upon the names
of those we journey with,
those whose journey’s led to our own,
and to the future generations whose journeys will begin
long after ours end.
It’s within this very first parashah of the book of Exodus, that we encounter Moses— the boy in the basket in the reeds, who will grow up as a Prince of Egypt.
It’s not long before the story of our people, and the story of Moses collides, and we find Moses seeking freedom— and seeking God.
I would pause here to remark that endings and beginnings are often a little fuzzy: blurring one into the other.
The ending of Genesis seeps into this new book, even as we encounter new realities, new kings, and new leaders.
There’s a lesson in all of this becoming— and it is modeled beautifully for us in a conversation between God and Moses.
Moses said to God, “When I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is God’sname?’ what shall I say to them?”
God answers Moses: Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh,
I will be—Ehyeh.
I will be—Ehyeh.
I will be that I will be.
In other words: I will always be becoming.
Perhaps we can take our Torah portion this week as an object lesson in transitions: in how to move between endings and beginnings freely; knowing that the lessons of our past selves, and our past journeys may indeed serve us well. But then again, we are always free to become; to grow into some yet-unimagined version of ourselves.
There’s a beautiful reading in our prayer book, Mishkan T’filah, which echoes this lesson for us beautifully:
“Once or twice in a lifetime, a man or woman may choose a radical leaving, having heard Lech L’cha – Go Forth. God disturbs us toward our destiny by hard events and by freedom’s now urgent voice which explode and confirm who we are. We don’t like leaving but God loves becoming.”
We, who are created in God’s image,
have an opportunity each and every day to become:
to become more deeply ourselves,
to become more loving, more patient,
more content, more concerned—
to become, and become again.
As we get ready to turn the calendar page once more,
my hope and prayer is that 2019 will bring greater peace, deeper love, and radical compassion to all creatures of the earth.
In the Sephardic tradition, the (evening) prayers on Rosh Hashanah open with a beautiful liturgical poem – Ahot Ketanah.
Each stanza of the Ahot Ketanah poem concludes by saying “Tikhleh Shanah V’Kileloteha — May this year and all of its curses come to an end.”
The finale of the poem is “Tahel Shanah U’Birkhoteha — May this year with all of its blessings now begin.”
We then greet each other by saying Tizku L’Shanim Rabot – May you merit (to live) many years.
The response to this greeting is Tovot u’Neimot – may the many years indeed be good and pleasant.
And so for all of us: Tahel shanah U’birkhoteha. May this new year with all of it’s blessings, now begin.