To Reflect and Renew - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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To Reflect and Renew

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Wednesday, September 1, 1999

Rabbi Aaron Panken 

(Originally written for Kesher, September 1999)

It is not long now before we will hear the haunting strains of that most challenging of High Holy Day prayers --- unetaneh tokef --- "who shall live and who shall die; who by fire and who by water?" No Rosh Hashanah can pass without these words provoking a chill in my soul that is colder than any other prayer ever brings forth. This prayer is a reminder that we, who seem to be masters of our fate in so many ways, are truly in the hands of a greater power when it comes to the bigger decisions. No matter what we say or do, the most important choices and actions always remain beyond our feeble human grasp.


This has been a year full of reminders of that heavy reality. What human being can fathom a society where some turn to violence: where the tragedy of Colombine High School competes with the sickness of a Buford O. Furrow Jr. and other racists for media attention? Who can comprehend why others, instead, turn to acts of loving kindness and feed hundreds at a soup kitchen or provide solace for those suffering in our communities and hospitals? And who can truly understand the personal triumphs and trials we each face in our own moments of transformation?


Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur form the perfect duality in which to grapple with such essential human questions. Rosh Hashanah is the time of newness: the moon is new, the year is new, and we, in turn, have the ability to be new --- to renew --- ourselves. Yom Kippur, a day when we forego participation in the everyday aspects of this world, gives us the perspective gained from stepping outside our lives and viewing them from the outside. It is a powerful combination, for it allows us to reflect on what is, and to move toward what can be.


As we move into this new year, our hope is that we all find a way to reflect and renew, helping, one by one, to change our communities through our newly achieved perspective. In the words of our Machzor: May it be God's will that 5760, this new year, be one of renewal for us and for all the House of Israel, for life and peace, for joy and gladness, for redemption and comfort. For all those in the HUC-JIR family, all our best for a fulfilling and healthy new year.


Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates leaders to serve North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, museums, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding.