You may have seen and heard that two weeks ago, our dog Lucky got away from where he was supposed to be. I’m not going to get into the whole story, because the details aren’t important, but the short of it is that he was on what we now call his “walkabout” in Ardsley and northern Yonkers for six harrowing hours. He was found, he’s home, all is good.
I don’t use the term “walkabout” loosely. The walkabout, specifically, is an Australian aboringinal rite of passage in which an adolescent lives alone in the wilderness for a period of time. It is meant to spiritually aid the transition into adulthood. You could argue that “walkabouts” exist in some form throughout many cultures. Rites of passage often include a youth taking the time to wander and explore on their own, realizing their own resilience and strength during that time. When they return, their status in society changes, with the internal change being recognized by the external community.
To be clear, I don’t think Lucky experienced a spiritual change as a result of his time wandering woods, backyards and the pool at Sprain Ridge Park (that is eventually where he was found, believe it or not). But certainly the whole Young family felt the drama of his absence and the exhale and elation of his return. We also feel sobering gratitude every time we look over at his relaxed, sleeping body taking up the whole couch.
The return, in this case, was a literal one. Yet with the High Holy Days looming, the metaphor is not lost on me.
This is the time of year when we might recognize how lost we are. It’s the season when we realize that we’re halfway to Stew Leonards when we really should be back up at Ardsley Middle School. We’re way off the path and we’ve lost the scent. Yet with some redirection (can you hear a voice calling your name?) we can get back on track.
Or rather than being “lost,” perhaps you are experiencing a “walkabout year,” in which you’re discovering your passions and path. Year two of the pandemic is most certainly categorized by shifting careers and reevaluating relationships. As we come back from isolation, we’re finding we are changed internally and we’re figuring out how to manifest those changes in how we work, love and relate to one another.
The High Holy Days are the perfect time to reflect on this. There is a true genius to the fact that the High Holy Days are an autumnal celebration. Could the rabbis have known it would so perfectly match the way our modern world works?
After a summer apart, and in a lull of Covid numbers, the High Holy Days are a homecoming from our individual walkabouts. But it is more than a re-entry. This is also the time of year when we look around and realize we are not alone in the work we are each doing internally. Sure, this season is about tefillah, teshuva and tzedakah (repentance, prayer and charity will temper the severe decree!) but it is also about kehillah - being part of a holy community.
This week’s Torah portion speaks to this. If you’ve been around services a lot, you’ll know that I’m strangely fond of the many laws the Torah contains in regard to oxen. It’s weird, I know.
Well, we get more this week. Namely…”If you see your neighbor’s ox has wandered off, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your neighbor. If the person who owns the ox does not live near you or you do not know who [the owner] is, you can bring it home and it shall remain with you until the owner claims it; at which point, you shall give it back. You shall do the same with that person’s donkey; you shall do the same with that person’s garment; and with anything that someone loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent. If you see your neighbor’s ox fallen on the road, do not ignore it; you must raise it up out of the road together.”
First of all, boy does my family relate heavily to this section. I was astounded at how many people - our friends, Woodlands members and complete strangers - went out to look for Lucky in the rain. And certainly, every time I said thank you I got a “of course! What else could I do?! That’s what neighbors are for” in response.
But there’s a different sort of connective issue here than just “be a good neighbor.” Rather than writing laws about finding lost oxen, the Torah is really writing laws about the responsibility we have to one another. It is telling us that it is not ok to feign ignorance, or to claim we don’t have the time or means to help one another out. Our moral code believes that another person’s loss should never be our gain. Think about the implications for that in how to run our businesses, how we allocate tax dollars, the laws we legislate and the policies we promote. By protecting each other’s assets and rights, not hoarding them or taking them for ourselves, we create a community rich in resources as well as goodwill. Returning things - whether it’s physical objects, money, favors or smiles - is a spiritually transformative experience.
When we reclaim or restore something that’s been lost - whether that’s a pet or a sense of purpose or the goodwill of our fellow - we cherish it even more. We act in ways that not only safeguard its falling by the roadside, but also amplify its importance in our lives. When we make a return in the form of a genuine apology, we not only repair the relationship, we transform it in a way where all parties feel seen for who they truly are.
As we barrel closer to the High Holy Days, I pray we can build the holy community the Torah dreams of. May we cherish one another’s journeys as much as our own and find the openness within our hearts to be able to feel the gratitude and transformation upon our return to God and eachother.