Last week was an emotional milestone for my family: My wife and I dropped off our oldest son at college for the first time. It was an experience filled with many emotions, including sadness about letting go and excitement about the possibilities that lie ahead.
I’ll never forget the first day of school, years ago, when my son was still in elementary school. Two of his younger siblings were starting new schools, which were significant milestones for them; he, on the other hand, was beginning “just” a new grade, which seemed inconsequential at the time. During family breakfast, my wife and I paid extra attention to the younger kids and each of us planned to attend their first-day assemblies that morning. At some point, my son looked up from his cereal and said, “Today is the first day of school for me too, you know.”
At the time, I think he just wanted — and certainly deserved — some parental attention. I don’t think he realized how profound a point he was making. Regardless of how significant a transition might or might not appear, it is a big deal to start something new, and he was feeling it. Beginnings can be exciting, full of potential and possibility. They can also be scary, as we prepare to face new challenges, unexpected twists and turns, and some level of uncertainty.
I always feel this combination of emotions as the summer winds down and we head into Labor Day weekend. There’s a sense of loss that summer is over and some regret about the plans and expectations that did not come to fruition. There’s a sense of accomplishment about the reflection and preparation I have done, and hope for improvement and growth in the year ahead. There is anxiety about the start of another school year for my children, exponentially increasing intensity at work, and the Jewish High Holiday season. It can feel like we’re about to get on a moving train — maybe even a rollercoaster — and there’s no turning back!
One of the profound Jewish spiritual ideas that I draw on during times of transition is the notion of hitchadshut (renewal). Last weekend — the day we brought our son to college — was Rosh Chodesh Elul, the first day of the new Jewish month of Elul, which leads up to the High Holidays. Our tradition celebrates the new month as if it were a new year, marking cycles of the moon and the passage of time just as we mark the end and beginning of each week. We even acknowledge renewal each day. In the morning, we express gratitude and wonder that the sun has come up again and our natural world continues to be renewed. Today is the first day of the rest of our lives.
The idea of hitchadshut means nothing stays the same, which is frightening and liberating. The fact that we are beginning again, that we get to begin again, means that our future is not predetermined by our past. Tomorrow doesn’t have to resemble yesterday, and we can shape who we want to be and how we want to live as we move forward. What a gift, and what a responsibility.
What will you begin, or begin again, in the year to come?
Rabbi Marc Baker
About the Author
CJP President and CEO Rabbi Marc Baker is an educator, writer, and leadership mentor who is devoting his life to Jewish learning and building Jewish communities.