In December of 1965 the folk/rock group the Byrds released their second album, entitled Turn, Turn, Turn! The record’s title was taken from its first released single, with its memorable chorus “To every thing (turn, turn, turn) there is a season (turn, turn, turn,) and a time to every purpose under Heaven.” The lyrics, originally penned by the great Pete Seeger in the late 50s, are loosely taken from the 3rd chapter of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes. On December 4th of ’65 the song hit number one, holding that spot for three straight weeks.
The turning image in the song reflects the mood of the biblical text. The author of Ecclesiastes urgently feels the swift passage of time, and struggles in that powerful stream to gain his bearings. Tradition teaches that the book was written by King Solomon in his old age as he attempted to come to terms with his own mortality. The author speculates about life and its meaning, about the coming and going of the seasons, the rising and setting of the sun. Is it simply cyclical, he wonders, repeating again and again and again, or is there meaning to it, does it work in a particular direction, ultimately enabling us to reach some place we are destined to be? If we are turning to whom are we turning, and for what purpose?
This is a time of year when Jews think a lot about turning, whether they even realize it or not. The start of a new year always brings with it the sense of time’s passage. But the idea of turning is also central to the process of teshuvah, a word we commonly translate as repentance. The three lettered root of the word most often means to turn, or to return, to come back to something, someone, or some place you’ve been before. This is what we all hope to do in the weeks leading up to the High Holy Days.
A wise rabbi once observed that turning doesn’t require much effort. It isn’t that you have to move a great distance – instead, you simply stop going in the direction you are going, and turn yourself so you are facing in a different direction. Sometimes it is that slight reorientation that can make all the difference in the world. Isn’t it true that life is often about the small things, the slight changes, often in attitude, that can make everything look different?
But there are two types of turning. We can turn to, or we can turn from. I sometimes think our initial instinct is to turn away. When a challenge arises, when a relationship grows difficult, when we feel estranged from faith and God, turning away is often the easiest path. We turn our backs, cast our eyes in a different direction, and in so doing shield ourselves from potential hurt and harm. This kind of turning may feel safer, but ultimately it leaves us lonelier, more isolated, less connected.
Turning to is more difficult. It often requires confrontation, either with ourselves, or others, or both. It asks us to open ourselves up, to face what we might be inclined to look away from, to engage when we might feel like shutting the door. But turning to has the potential to repair things that have gone wrong in our lives. Turning to gives us the best chance of making changes we hope to make, of rekindling friendships, reinvigorating relationships, and reinventing ourselves.
The Talmud teaches that there is a short way that is long, and a long way that is short. Too often in life we choose the short way and never reach the place we hope to reach. Choosing the long way can make the journey more difficult, more time consuming, more challenging, but in the end can give us the best chance of arriving at our intended destinies/destinations.