Turning Forward

As Harvard students, we may find it easy to fit the same mold we did in high school, or last year, or two years ago—to stick to the stale shape that got us here and became a benchmark for our success. It is simpler to cling to last year’s accomplishments and dreams, dwelling in the past, than to create new ones to reflect on in the future. But as this Rosh Hashanah taught me, and as any time of reflection and restoration without religion can teach, we don’t have to live according to what’s behind us. Instead, we ought to focus on what’s ahead.

I wake up on Rosh Hashanah, and the emergence of the New Year hits me much like all the days before. After another night of four hours of sleep and two alarm-snoozes, I get out of bed to cram for my Chinese quiz and think drowsily of the readings I need to catch up on.

On my way out the door, I check my phone on a whim and find an email response from my Chinese professor, telling me that I am free to miss today’s quiz and attend temple services instead.

Cursing under my breath to bemoan the hours I have spent studying and knowing I am already an hour late for synagogue, I throw on a dress. I write a to-do list for the day on my way to Memorial Church and promise myself that I will leave services at noon, an hour early, to prepare myself for section later today.

I open the door to the rabbi’s voice. “There are times for work, and there are times for rest. Today is a time for reflection and release.” I find an empty pew and put my phone on silent, but I keep it in my hand.

I watch friends embrace around me, and I wonder if my parents are also at temple. I let my mind unclench and sing the songs of my childhood with people whom I do not know. Together, we stand and listen as the ram’s horn bellows in the New Year; we are told that the 30 notes it cries are meant to sound like tears.

It is 12:05. I place my phone against the wood behind me and settle into my seat as a woman—whom I cannot see from my spot behind a pillar—takes her place before us to speak.

Because I am tired and I cannot see our sermonizer, I close my eyes as she tells her story. On this day four years ago, as a freshman in Canaday E, she learned of her grandmother’s death. After trying for days to write something about her grandmother’s long life as it came to a close, she realized that she knew only bits and pieces of her grandmother’s experiences—nothing about who she was at her core. She could relay their shopping outings in detail but nothing about what her grandmother believed, or how she loved, or why. And soon it was too late.

Our speaker then recounts a famous Rosh Hashanah passage about how on this day, God is said to write the fates of all those in the book of life for the coming year: who will live, and who will die, who by fire, and who by water. She first notes the strangeness of God dwelling on our finitude, but then poses the question: “We have such trouble imagining the infinite. Don’t you think the infinite had trouble imagining us?”

This musing may seem non-secular in context. But there’s more to it than just the religious. I consider my last year unfathomably small, in the scheme of the infinite, but powerful in the context of my annually evolving story.  

Rosh Hashanah is a day of repentance, or teshuvah, which literally means “turning”—towards the coming year and a better self, away from last year’s transgressions. After the speaker returns to her seat, the rabbi reminds us to not be discouraged if our list of things to improve resembles last year’s. We are imperfect beings, and we continue to look forward. We can leave or take beliefs and traits from our past, but we cannot bring the past to our new year.

Though the High Holy Days have now ended, this sentiment should last longer than two fall weeks. As we ease into the year, the moment has come to find new things that define what we believe, and how we love, and why. The moment has come to try a new class in a wacky and fascinating discipline, to forgive an estranged friend, to transform our past selves into who we have become.

It’s time to turn forward.


Rachel C. Talamo ’18 is a Crimson editorial comper living in Weld Hall.


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