Many of you know that I grew up in Binghamton NY, a small town of about 46,000 people just over the PA line, almost 4.5 hours drive directly north of Baltimore. I haven’t lived in Binghamton since 1982, the year I graduated from high school, and so for the majority of my 50 years I have lived in other places, and in fact at this point Becky and I have lived in Baltimore longer than I lived in Binghamton, but still in my mind, and I think in my heart, Binghamton is and always will be the first thing I think of when I think of home.
Common wisdom teaches that ‘you can’t go home again,’ but by a simple twist of fate our oldest, Talia, decided to go to college at Binghamton University, and so over the last year and a half I’ve been back to Binghamton a number of times, after not having visited there in over a decade. Each time I go I feel compelled to take a few extra minutes to drive by the house my family and I lived in, or the field where I played my high school soccer. It is where I grew up, where I became who I am today, where I formed my values and my sense of what is important in the world – it is home. And what I want to argue tonight is that you actually can go home, that in fact sometimes it is even necessary to do so.
I imagine many of you are familiar with the rock star Sting. He was the bass player and lead vocalist of the Police in the late 70s and early 80s, and after the group broke up he went on to a successful solo career. Sting was one of the most prolific voices in rock, releasing on average an album every other year during a twenty year span. But then something happened to him, and for whatever reason, he couldn’t find the creative juices to write new music. A year went by, then two, then 5. He made some music during this time, recoding other people’s songs, collaborating with other artists, but he didn’t write a single original song. Eventually 10 years would pass, and in recent interviews Sting said that he just thought he was done – that he had nothing left in the tank, that he no longer had the ability to write a new song or have an original thought.
But then, for some reason, he started to think about the town he grew up in. An industrial town in the north of England, where the street that he lived on led right down to a shipyard where some of the largest ocean going vessels in the world were built. Sting recently gave a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talk, one of those short speeches about creativity that are video taped and put up on the internet. In the talk he described the way that his writer’s block ended – as he began to think about growing up, the small town he lived in, the colorful characters that lived there, the songs just started to come. Some mornings he would wake up, and an entire song would pop right into his head, lyrics, music, all of it, as if it had been bottled up, just looking for a way to get out. In a sense, he was able to rediscover his creative ability, to rejuvenate his song writing, by going home.
One of the things that was interesting about Sting’s talk was that it stood in stark contrast to most other TED talks. The vast majority of them – and there are now close to 2000 posted on line – are about the future. The speaker describes an idea or a technology that is being born, that is forward thinking and change oriented and progressive. In this way most of the talks reflect our obsession with what is up and coming, what is new, what is around the corner, what is the next big thing. But Sting’s talk was the opposite. Instead of looking forward into the future, he talked about going back to the past. At the end of the day the future is guess work. But the past is known, it is familiar. It is sights and smells and textures that are ingrained into our minds. It is people and experiences that have shaped us, defined us. A grandmother’s gefilte fish or brisket. A grandfather reciting the kiddush. Melodies – like Kol Nidre – that we’ve heard time and again.
It is a bit strange when you think about it – we approach the holidays AS IF they are about the future. We talk about the beginning of the year. We wish each other a good year, that the next 12 months should be filled with blessing. But the holidays really aren’t about the future – they are about the past. The Rosh Hashanah scriptural readings are about the history of our people, Abraham and Sarah’s struggles, Hannah’s longing for a child, and Rachel and her love of the Jewish people. On Yom Kippur we read about the ancient Temple rituals in Jerusalem that brought meaning to the lives of our ancestors, and we recite the Yizkor prayers when we recall those with whom we’ve shared our lives who have passed from this world to the next.
And in our private prayers we think about the year that has gone by, about our lives, our relationships and accomplishments, but also our mistakes and regrets. We remember the shofar as it sounded when we were children, or sitting at services with our parents and grandparents. In a sense, you might say we spend our time in shul during the High Holy Days going home, going back to times, traditions, to ideas, to values and memories that are inside of us, but that might get lost in our day to day lives. But they are there. And we do need them. And one way to recover them, to find them again, is to go home.
That is exactly what Sting discovered. He found his creative muse again by going to the past, by going home. It was real to him, it opened up his mind and his emotions, it reminded him of his own essence, of values that he was raised with, of people that he knew, of ideals that had formed him that he lost track of over time. He didn’t go to his home town physically, he went there in his mind. But in that journey he found a true sense of rejuvenation, of renewal, of creativity and meaning and purpose about his life.
And that might be the key to it all. He didn’t go back to the past to live there, to stay there. It wasn’t to soak in nostalgia and remember the good old days. Instead he went back to find himself. To look at his childhood with the eyes of an adult, and with those eyes to have a deeper and fuller understanding of the events that shaped his life and his character. But then, with that deeper knowledge of who he was and where he had come from, he was able to move forward into the future with a stronger sense of where he wanted to go, of who he needed to be, and of what songs he needed to write. In some powerful and important way it was going home, going back, that enabled him to go forward, and to move into the future.
Life does have a way of taking you in different directions, blowing you off course. Dreams can be lost, lofty goals abandoned. Once loving relationships may sour and fade. Health once so abundant that we were indifferent to it can change to aches and pains and very much worse. Time, so plentiful, that we didn’t mind killing it, may suddenly seem to be rushing away. Sitting in shul on Kol Nidre eve, as we do year after year, helps us remember that this can happen to all of us, in the course of a single year. How much more so the course of an entire life?
Yet there is something reorienting about going home. At the end of the day the idea is very simple. When you go forward, do so with a backward glance. Don’t ignore the memories – don’t leave them behind. Bring them with you, return to them again and again, let them remind you of who you once were, and of who you wanted to be. Be empowered and strengthened by what you’ve overcome, by what you’ve learned. Move forward, but look back.
There is a short story, written by the British author Sumerset Maugham, called the Colonel and His Lady. It tells the tale of a stodgy old British colonel and his wife. They’ve been married for many years, and each morning they sit together at the breakfast table barely speaking to one another, sipping coffee, as he reads the papers. One day the Colonel is surprised when a package is delivered at the door, filled with newly printed books. He is astonished to learn that his wife has written a short novella, but he is entirely uninterested in it, and doesn’t bother to even see what it is about.
Some weeks go by, and one night he is at a party. An old acquaintance asks him if he has read a new book that everyone in literary London is talking about, a short novella about a woman who has a passionate affair with a dashing younger man. The Colonel replies that he hasn’t heard about it, and the man pulls a copy out of his pocket, and the Colonel recognizes the cover of the novella that arrived at his door, that his wife has written.
He takes the book, and he rushes home, stays up all night reading it. It is indeed the story of a passionate love affair between the book’s author and a handsome, caring, noble young man. The Colonel is incensed. He waits at the breakfast table for his wife to come downstairs, and when she does he confronts her. “How could you do this to me? Not only to have an affair, but to write about it, everyone in London knows, and I am a laughing stock.”
She denies having an affair, but he presses her and presses her. “Who is the man?” he wants to know. “At least tell me that.” And finally she looks at her husband, the stodgy old colonel, and says “It is you. The book is about you, the way you used to be. It is about those first years, when we fell in love, and the life we had, how happy we were.”
And there the story ends, the future left unresolved. But I would like to think that with that memory recaptured the Colonel and his wife revived their love for each other and renewed their relationship with a sense of meaning, purpose, and hope. Exactly what we all wish to find on Yom Kippur.
Kol Nidre is an evening that stirs memory. It is an invitation to go home, an opportunity to draw strength from the past as we look forward to the future. There are new songs to be written, and tonight we are reminded that we can write them. Kol Nidre is both memory and hope, past and future. It is itself an ancient song that opens the door to a new year.
Lets walk through that door together. Into a year of hope and health, of courage and strength, of family and friendship and peace. But the last person through, don’t close that door – leave it open. When we look back in the year ahead, we will be able to see – and to feel – its warmth and light –
may that blessing be part of all of our lives – amen