As I’ve mentioned before, my preschooler and I have very different understandings of what it means to binge watch something. I love binge watching a full season of a show in a week, or devoting all my television viewing to a single show that I’ve never seen. I spend the next several months only watching that, until I’ve completed all seven seasons. My daughter understands binge watching to mean watching the same thing over and over again. Her latest obsession: Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph. When she wakes up early in the morning before it is time to get ready for school, we cuddle on the couch and I dose off again as she watches the same movie one more time. While I enjoy the film, and appreciate the video game comedy (most of which entirely goes over her head), I still think twelve times in two weeks is a bit much for one movie!
During these Aseret Yamei Teshuva, these Ten Days of Repentance, I was watching it again with my daughter and was struck by the recurring video game-based humor of the movie that offered insight during these days of reflection. The premise focuses on the “real lives” of video game characters in an arcade. Much like Toy Story was for toys, Wreck-It Ralph imagines that after the arcade closes, all the video game characters come to life hang out with each other, traveling through the wires (a subway system) from stop to stop, from console to console.
Yet, they would joke that as long as they remained in their own game, they would not die. Even Fix-It Felix Jr. had a piece of ceiling crush him and yet, he reappeared, a reference to the many lives one has in a video game. And at the end of every day, once the arcade closed, the characters of each game, the bad guys and the heroes, even the bystanders, would straighten up the game so that it was ready for the next day when the next quarter was inserted into the console, when they would return to the beginning and start all over again.
I thought of this as we celebrated Shabbat Shuva this past Shabbat, the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Shabbat of Return. The name of the Shabbat is taken from the beginning of the Haftarah read that morning in which the prophet Hosea calls out:
Shuva Yisrael ad Adonai Elohecha, Return people of Israel to Adonai your God.
We are taught that we spend these days of repentance returning. But where do we return to? Unlike these arcade game characters, we do not return to the beginning. When we make mistakes, we do not get sent back to the beginning of level one to start our journeys over. We do not get extra lives to bring us back from mistakes. Yet, we do get a clean slate. More powerful than starting over and more practical than hitting the reset button, we get to return to something greater.
We do not – and cannot – return to the beginning of our journeys. Instead, we return to the truest version of ourselves. That means that we still have to clean up our messes and deal with whatever happened in the past. But it also means that we cannot change the past. Nor should we try to. Let the past stay in the past. We cannot return to level one. Instead we return brand-new as our authentic selves, wherever we are in our journeys in the game of life. May we take advantage of this opportunity to return to each other, and return to God as well.
Gmar Chatimah Tovah. May you have a meaningful conclusion to the High Holy Day season.
-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky