Posted on September 10, 2021
A Song of Ascendings.
שִׁ֗יר הַֽמַּ֫עֲל֥וֹת בְּשׁ֣וּב יְ֭הֹוָה אֶת־שִׁיבַ֣ת צִיּ֑וֹן הָ֝יִ֗ינוּ כְּחֹלְמִֽים׃
When the Eternal returned the returners to Zion, we were like dreamers;
Our mouths were filled with laughter then,
Our tongue with song…. We were so happy.
שׁוּבָ֣ה יְ֭הֹוָה אֶת־שְׁבִיתֵ֑נוּ כַּאֲפִיקִ֥ים בַּנֶּֽגֶב׃
הַזֹּרְעִ֥ים בְּדִמְעָ֗ה בְּרִנָּ֥ה יִקְצֹֽרוּ׃
Return our returners, God, like floods of water through dry wadis!
Let those who sow with weeping, reap with joy.
The ancient poet of Psalm 126 wrote of a return from exile, remembering—or imagining—a time when all would be restored to the way it is supposed to be. To Zion, Tziyon: not the state of Israel as we know it now but the imagined place, physical and spiritual, from which the Jewish people had been banished and to which they longed to return. We were sent away from our home—and our sense of home and safety, the poet writes, and we were condemned to the hard life of exiles who must till unfriendly soil, dreaming of the harvest we believe will come. And, when we return, it will be with such joy! With song! And dancing!
Each year, we cycle around again to this Shabbat between the Days of Awe, calling it Shabbat Shuvah in honor of this time of t’shuvah, repentance. It’s called this because it’s the Shabbat right in the middle of our t’shuvah journey (the same root as shuvah): the journey of reflection, repentance, and seeking forgiveness from others and ourselves that we undertake between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
But, it’s also called this (maybe) because it is a Shabbat of dreaming of returning from exile. Each year between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we get to ask ourselves: what has our exile been? And: what do we long to return to this Shabbat Shuvah, this Shabbat of Returning?
We have been exiled from each other. From God. From our sense of safety. From our sense of hope. From our sense of self.
In this time, of course, it seems obvious that our exile in the last year and a half has been the exile of the pandemic. We have been exiled from normal life in so many ways, exiled from our temple building and from being in full community together. It was such a joy to be in the presence of many of you on Rosh Hashanah. But, it has also been with the grief knowing that just a few months ago we thought we would be able to make a full triumphant return into the sanctuary, and that instead, we were still apart, and we are still tilling the hard soil of pandemic life. And in the grief that we worked so hard to keep ourselves and each other safe but that so many have been lost.
There is another exile, though, that is so present for me tonight, on Erev September 11th, 20 years later. I am sure that all of us who are mid-20s and older have such clear memories of that day.
I was lucky. I did not know anyone killed that day. I know that many of you did.
I think that many of us were exiled that day from the idea that we carried deep within ourselves, without even knowing we carried it, that this place, this guldeneh medina, was safe and that the democracy here was untouchable. And it has often felt like exile ever since, with the 24-hour news cycle that started that day and never stopped, and the trespasses that have happened again and again to our feeling of safety.
Or: maybe it was incredibly naïve of me to think that way. Maybe everyone hits a realization like that sooner or later—that the dream we were living in was just a dream. I know it was easy for me as a white, typically abled girl from a relatively affluent family to have believed I lived in a Zion-like land where most people were safe, until those planes flew into those buildings, and suddenly those buildings came down, down, down. A song of descending.
When we mourn for the victims of 9/11, twenty years later, we are mourning for those who died in those unbelievable moments, in the planes and in the buildings they hit, and those who died or bear wounds because of rushing to help or of living too close. We are also mourning for our innocence as a country, and for the horrible things we have done in the name of trying to get back to that time of safety and security that never really existed in the first place for so many in our land. Breathtakingly, this has been compounded all the more so by the fallout from the pullout from Afghanistan, where America entered in the name of what happened that day, twenty years ago. With it, we are all the more exiled from our sense of ourselves that America does what is right and creates democracy wherever she goes.
But, as always, our tradition teaches that sowing in this state of tears is not where we end. Though we cannot return to a mythical Zion of America that never really existed, we still carry the image deep within us: the world shel ma’alah, the world as it is imagined on high, the world as we dream of it, knowing that only through our dreaming is there a chance that we may join together and make it so. As we name our exile, we can begin to name the ways we can return from it.
Though we connect on screens tonight, we are together in our dream, under the same stars, the same sliver moon a few days after Rosh Hashanah.
As we return here to this Shabbat Shuvah that comes every year, we may roll from light to darkness to light and back, returning again and again to life and energy renewed: once again to each other. To God. To our sense of safety. To our sense of hope. To our sense of self.
Though we till and sow in tears, may we gather in our harvest in joy.
 Translation based on Rabbi Richard Levy, “Psalm 126,” Songs Ascending: The Book of Psalms: A New Translation with Textual and Spiritual Commentary by Rabbi Richard N. Levy, Vol. 2.