Stripes, Not Squares by Cantor Mary Rebecca Thomas

When I was a child, I often thought about infinity. I remember spending time imagining the vastness of the universe, of time and space, and my place within it as both infinitesimal, while still being at the center of my very own story.

It was not until I grew older that my sense of life and purpose became more narrow, much more driven by day to day choices and limitations. The expansiveness and limitlessness that I understood as a kid became narrower and narrower over years, and I more confined by my choices. Sometimes, children have the ability to grasp that which is profoundly abstract in ways that grown-ups simply do not.

When I was a child who thought about infinity, the weight of the garnet-covered Gates of Repentance in my hands at the High Holy Days was a reset button that quickly brought me back in to conversation with God and the Jewish people through time and space. I looked forward, year after year, to spending time with that book in my lap, next to my grandparents, in the sanctuary with the skylight, a few pews away from cousins or friends and to hear the cantor sing and the rabbi preach. The quiet grandeur of the language, the majesty of the Autumn sky, the mystery that I felt at each word spoken or sung — for me, it was a catapult to connection with something so much greater than myself.

Mishkan Hanefesh, the Reform Movement’s High Holy Day prayerbook, offers this translation from the words of the great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai as a spiritual grounding:

And why is the tallit striped and not checkered black-and-white like a chessboard?
Because squares are finite and hopeless.
Stripes come from infinity and to infinity they go
like airport runways where angels land and take off.

In 31 Hebrew words the poet captures on the end of a pin the sentiment that has grounded the High Holy Days for me each and every year.

How quickly our lives can transform from the stripes of youth into checkerboard squares of adulthood.

Imagine that you stand on one square, surrounded on all sides by the abyss that is either black or white, unable to move to your right or your left, forward or backward without risking loss to the magnificent unknown. The edges of your square become like a great wall, keeping you from freely moving to your promised land across just a few rows of light and dark.

One could become immobilized. One could become stuck.

Oh, but to be a stripe! To move freely forward and backward in growth and development, to flow along a spiritual superhighway that connects to our ancestors, to days when the Temple stood, to days when God spoke as a cloud covering a mountain-top, to a time in the future-world that may reach a perfection, peaceful and whole, to the span of our very own lives spent infused with meaning and working to be our best selves.

When we pray this holiday season, we can choose to use the silence, prayers, messages, and tools of teshuva to break free from the confines of any squares on which we might find ourselves. We can use this time of introspection and communal gathering to enter back on to a spiritual runway that will lead us toward the life we wish to lead.

Wishing you all a sweet New Year ahead, filled with the blessings of shalom and sh’leimut – peace and wholeness. L’shanah Tovah Umetukah.

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