There is a line in today’s Haftorah which always prods me into the work of the coming season:
‘Pass through, pass through the gates, turn towards the way of the people. Build, build the highway, remove the rocks. Lift up a banner for the people.’
Historically the verse is about the return of the Israelites from the Babylonian exile. Spiritually it’s all about Teshuvah.
Passing through gates is about having the courage to set off, a dissatisfaction with accepting that the way things are is the way things always will be. The greatest barrier to personal growth is habituation – we become so used to the mediocre or the genuinely poor that we no longer realise the way things are is only one option for the way things will be. We suffer an internal Stockholm Syndrome, so confused by our oppression that we become comfortable with whatever messed up jumble of failings and shortcomings are our current loadstones. First pass through the gate.
Turning to the way of the people is about the source from where we can derive sustenance and growth. Reading biographies of the great is fine. There is inspiration to be found in every religion and even vibrantly anti-religious icons can serve as muses. But we are Jews. There are truths that can only be found in our own narratives, teachings, prayers and rituals. I like the apocryphal story of the Jew who sought eternal bliss atop some great mountain with some great Guru only to be told, ‘Go back to your mother.’ If the goal is to live to our fullest we need to turn to the way of our own people to work out who we must be.
Building up the highway and removing the rocks both refer to the process of change. Some of the rocks are deeply embedded and take prising out, others will be easily flicked aside as soon as we bring our attention to noticing them lying in our path. Building the highway is about creating easier opportunities to be better.Mitzvah goreret mitzvah teach the Rabbis (Pirkei Avot 4:2) – one Mitzvah drags another behind it. Build up pathways of decency; practice being kind, giving charity, speaking kindly. Before we know it our lives will be transformed.
Lifting up a banner for the people is a plea to become an ancestor. We focus too easily on our history, but this verse calls on us to inspire others, specifically it calls on us to inspire others to greater love of commitment to Judaism. The word for ‘banner’ – nes – is the same word for ‘miracle.’ We are called on to demonstrate something miraculous; that we are here, that we care enough to do more ourselves and in so doing we inspire others to do more along with us.
‘Pass through, pass through the gates, turn towards the way of the people. Build, build the highway, remove the rocks. Lift up a banner for the people.’ It could change your life.