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The Art of Return

In Xander Miller’s lyrical novel of Haiti, love and determination, “Zo,” the destitute orphaned protagonist travels the island finding work wherever he can. Ravaged by malaria, burning with fever, he is rescued by a pair of fishermen and sets sail with them to Grande Anse, his birthplace on the southwesternmost part of the island.


“It was the first return of Zo’s life, and though he didn’t have parents or anyone to return to, it was still grand and he would remember it forever (page 14).”


I wonder if ever I experienced so powerful a return, one I would remember forever. 


On her first trip to Baltimore, I took Debbie to the home where I was born. I don’t remember feeling anything. We passed the original Ner Yisrael campus but it had so changed that it failed to stir any emotions. It was difficult to believe that my grandparents’ home, a place of such sanctity, could exist as a regular house. There was sadness but definitely no sense of returning.


No, I can’t think of any place in my life that would be experienced as an important return. No place but certainly some times. The sense of the familiar can be a welcome embrace. 


Rosh Hashana prayers and tunes, no matter where, are as powerful as Zo’s boat trip down the coast of Haiti to his birthplace. More than his home, Rosh Hashana prayers are a time machine back to standing under my father’s Tallit as we listened to the Shofar. Eating in a Succah, no matter the location, is a return to the lap of my grandfather. A Seder plate returns me to the earliest memories of my life, celebrations of questions and questioning.


Rosh Hashana 1983 did not transport me back to my youth. I didn’t recognize the tunes or even many of the prayers as the synagogue in my home, The Sepharadic Center of Saratoga Ca. was not the place for the weepy tunes I heard and sang every previous year. The singing was joyful. The poetry, profound and understandable. The first night of that Rosh Hashana offered no sense of return, only displacement. I couldn’t rely on tunes and words to connect me to Rosh Hashana as I knew it. I had to construct the vehicle of my own return.


I was working for an electronics company. I had never previously worked in an entirely secular environment. All my friends had moved from the area. I was alone. I had none of the external spiritual resources to which I was accustomed.


“At the center of his endless fever, Zo saw that he was without origin, like the wind. He’d blown through Grande Anse without leaving a trace… (17).”


I had students and congregants with a thirst for knowledge and a hunger for an authentic relationship with God. Their passion for a transformational Rosh Hashana provided the perfect building material for a return to the holy Rosh Hashanas of my past. 


The most important ingredient of my origin, the desire, was fully present. I had everything necessary for a powerful return to Rosh Hashana and a powerful Return, as in Teshuva. I had an opportunity to Return to my essence. No externals. None of the surface components. The essential building block; a desire to connect with the Creator. It was the most intense Rosh Hashana of my life up to that point.


This year of Covid, many of us will be forced to pray alone. We will have to affect our return to the Day of Judgement, our Return to God, without many of the things we believed essential; a congregation, certain prayers, the tunes, family, friends, Torah reading…


We can still make it a grand return to Rosh Hashana, an unforgettable Return to God, a return we will remember forever, if we focus, not on the externals, but on knowing that which we most seek, and doing so with a whole heart.


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