By Rabbi Lavey Derby, PJCC Director of Jewish Life
The sixth century Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously taught, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” This was his way of saying that nothing is constant and everything is always in flux. Change is a central feature of life. It can be exhilarating, frightening, exhausting, or relieving. It can spark sadness or happiness, resistance or grasping. The more we reflect on this, the more we notice that the only constant is change itself.
Beginnings and endings are the bookends of change. In the same way that endings imply a new beginning, a new beginning implies an ending. Our experience appears cyclical. As daylight turns into the darkness of night, and back again, as the waves constantly ebb and flow, as an inhale is followed by an exhale opening to the next in-breath, so too with our experience. Everything comes to an end, and with every ending come a new beginning. We may initiate some of life’s beginnings and endings, yet many happen in their own time, beyond our control.
Often new beginnings are joyously celebrated, and endings are mourned. New beginnings are sweet, filled with expectation, with hope and the promise of change; endings may bring sadness or grief, and sometimes relief. Both beginnings and endings are liminal moments, filled with ambiguity, as we transition from one state or experience into another without knowledge of what the next stage will bring. These threshold moments invite introspection, as we reflect on our past and visualize our desired future.
This self-reflection is particularly pertinent as one year ends and another begins. The celebration of a New Year transcends all faiths and cultures, even if they celebrate at different seasons of the year and with different traditions and customs. The Jewish High Holy Days, the Hindu celebration of Diwali, Chinese New Year, and the Gregorian New Year as well as other New Year celebrations, all invite self-reflection on the cusp of a new year. The common contemporary custom of making New Year’s resolutions stems from this self-reflective process of looking backward at who we have been and forward to whom we want to be. It is a practice focused on identity, personal meaning, and renewal based on the simple yet fundamental belief that we are capable of change. We do not need to be stuck in habitual, conditioned behaviors. We need not repeatedly engage in the same, damaging behaviors, a pattern that Freud termed a “reputation compulsion.” This belief affords us profound hope.
My friend Laura has a screen saver on her computer that flashed the words “Always begin again.” This is deep wisdom. Every moment we have the freedom to choose different behaviors, a different path, even a different identity. Each moment could mark the end of the past and the beginning of something brand new. Each moment is fertile with hope.
Always begin again. Hope is real and powerful. We are capable of change and growth. A great Jewish spiritual master taught that it is incumbent upon each individual to believe that with the next breath we can become new beings. In the chrysalis of self-reflection we can be transformed. The possibility of personal renewal is the great mystery of being human.