Here in Israel, we celebrate Rosh HaShana, the Jewish New Year. As the annual holiday cycle continues its course, oblivious to our changed circumstances, we feel how everything is different. And yet the traditional themes of soul searching and scrutiny endure and are arguably more available to us this year than ever.
• Who am I?
• Why am I here?
• How shall I live?
• How have I lived until now?
• How have I used God’s greatest gift: time?
• Whom have I wronged, and how can I put it right?
• Where have I failed, and how shall I overcome my failures?
• What is broken in my life and needs mending?
• What chapter will I write in the Book of Life?
It seems to me that these are fundamental human questions. One does not need to be a practising Jew, or claim any other religious or spiritual affiliation, or believe in God at all, in order to deeply resonate with what is being asked. Most of us cannot live these questions on a daily basis, although the ideal is to do so. Yet, one of the things I love about the Jewish calendar, and the way it is demonstrably lived out in Israel, is the dependable annual invitation to engage.
2020 has been dubbed by some as a wasted year, a year of putting things on hold, cancellations and disappointments. But as our lives have shrunk – geographically, socially, and for many economically, surely our tendency to introspect has increased. Change helps us stop and think. Slowing down helps us stop and think. Being still helps us stop and think. Perhaps this year we will be more ready to engage with these fundamental questions of the season.
As a side not, tt is traditional to eat Pomegranates at this time of year as a symbol of fruitfulness, and because in tearing away the tough outer surface to reach the inner juicy sweetness,we are reminded to look inside ourselves and other people. It goes without saying that we highly approve of this custom!
It turns out that travel is a privilege and not a right, and I have been taken by surprise by the strength of my apparently congenital, almost physical need to travel. However, to state that travel matters, is different from asking why it matters. The more I think about it, I think that why travel matters is linked to at least some of Jonathan Sacks’ Rosh HaShana questions.
For me, the act of travelling, is in and of itself a change of perspective. We suffer from an inbuilt bias that the way we do things, personally or societally, is the way things should be done. Much of our lives are governed by unthinking habits and assumptions. When we actually physically experience other ways to live, when we are surrounded by people who think differently, and do things differently, questions naturally arise. In addition, sublime landscapes can powerfully change our perspectives by allowing us to experience our true smallness in the face of nature (Alain de Botton has an excellent essay about this in his ‘The Art of Travel’). For example, a couple of years ago, we visited the Simien Mountains of Ethiopia, which combine grand African-Syrian rift settings (of which Israel’s Golan Heights are also part), with meeting people whose isolated, technology free lives are so completely different from our own. We inevitably found ourselves comparing, questioning our own way of life, asking what the good life means, and considering how we relate to the concepts of time, boredom, happiness, success.
For me, one of the highlights of running Pomegranate is hearing from clients about how Israel and Middle East travel has changed their perspectives and assumptions on topics as diverse as problem solving and innovation, peace and interfaith relations, and matters of faith. This is why we work hard to ensure our clients have the opportunity to meet a wide range of people when in-country with us, in addition to seeing the sites.
I am grateful for the opportunity that Rosh HaShana presents to grapple with ‘big’ questions. I will be engaging with this year’s disappointments, my own personal failures, and ways in which I should be living better. But I also know without a shadow of a doubt that despite the challenges of this year, being deeply involved with travel will not feature on my list of blunders.
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