by Daniel Kieval
What is the shape of time? This question may sound strange, but it actually guides us to understand the process of teshuvah, our great task at this time of year.
In one dimension, time is circular, repeating in endless cycles. “And the seasons they go round and round…” Every year in the natural calendar, the same seasonal patterns repeat at the same times. In the Jewish calendar, we observe the same holidays, rituals, and rhythms each year. In the process of teshuvah we return to our self, coming home to who we were before we drifted away over the course of the year. Every Rosh Hashana, as we return to that moment in the circle, we return to the self we have been on every other Rosh Hashana; the days are cosmically connected by being the same point on the circle.
Yet, we are also moving forward along the arrow of time. Life is always in transition, and no moment ever recurs again exactly. Winter may return to the same spot in the same forest, but the trees are a year older, and some branches have fallen, and new ones have emerged. We return to ourselves each year in teshuvah, but we are also in a different place: we have had new experiences, made new mistakes, learned new lessons. Every Rosh Hashana is entirely different from every other Rosh Hashana. In the Jewish conception of time, we are always moving toward a better world, the Olam Haba, the “world that is coming.” Joanna Macy calls this movement from our current state of affairs to the world we envision the Great Turning, a “shift from the industrial growth society to a life-sustaining civilization.”
So is time a circle or an arrow? It is both. Time is a helix, the shape you see on a corkscrew; it moves forward along a line, but circles around as it does so. Each Rosh Hashana, we are aligned with all of the Roshei Hashana of past and future years, but we are also in a unique place in time, that never was exactly before and will never be exactly again.
Teshuvah, then, needs to recognize both processes. It is a returning, coming back to ourselves year after year no matter where we’ve been. And it is a turning, perhaps even a Great Turning — turning away from the mistakes and triumphs of the past and turning toward the next steps in our ultimate mission: to bring about the redemption of the world.
Daniel Kieval is finishing three years of work as a Jewish environmental educator with the Teva program in Falls Village, CT.