For many of us, autumn truly feels like the start of the new year, especially those of us with children who are heading back to school with their sharpened pencils and shiny notebooks, their stacks of new books ready to be consumed and studied, all stuffed into worn knapsacks. In less than a week, it will be Rosh Hashonah and we will gather with family, friends, and community to celebrate with the sweetness of apples and honey and to hope, both individually and collectively, for a good new year, to be inscribed into the book of life.
For me, the High Holy Days always signify a time for reflection, to unearth ways of being a better person, which always entails the rather painful process of examining where one fell short, where one might have acted differently, or spoken more carefully. Rather than cringing with regret or remorse, I see the Jewish New Year as an opportunity to engage, to enact changes, to look not only at surfaces, but to see more deeply.
Two poems by Rainer Maria Rilke speak to me during this time of reflection and change: "The Panther" and "Turning Point." Both beautifully convey themes of the potential danger of merely looking, of short-sightedness. "The Panther" dramatizes in powerfully concrete images that sense we all have of being imprisoned by our own failings. Even if we are not literaly behind bars, we can feel trapped by our own flaws and mistakes, hemmed in and isolated. "Turning Point" contrasts the chronic superficial looking at surfaces, with vision: truly seeing, feeling and knowing, with what Rilke calls "heartwork."
Here, enjoy these two excerpts; notice how juxtaposing these two poems only amplifies their meanings and power. To read the full text, go to The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke translated by Stephen Mitchell.
His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
has grown so weary that it cannot hold
anything else. It seems to him there are
a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.
For there is a boundary to looking.
And the world that is looked at so deeply
wants to flourish in love.
Work of the eyes is done, now
go and do heart-work
on all the images imprisoned within you...