I just finished teaching my first class at North Tahoe Hebrew Congregation – on teshuvah, the act of turning to what is good, the best in ourselves, our true core, toward the Holy One. We read and pondered a number of quotes, from the Talmud, Adin Steinsaltz, Estelle Frankel and Alan Lew especially. The discussion was rich, personal and varied — if this is what I have to look forward to here in Tahoe, I have a happy future of learning and sharing.
We also read some of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov’s discussion about teshuvah, which reminds us to be gentle with others and gentle with ourselves; that it is easier to make change when we can remember and find the good in ourselves and in others. Sometimes we feel so bad about ourselves that we can’t remember all that we are, all that we bring to our families, our community, and sometimes, it takes a loved one to remind us. And we should not let Old Man Gloom fool us out of remembering these good qualities or good deeds.
Here are a few of the texts we discussed:
Certain sages go so far as to include teshuvah among the entities created before the world itself. The implication of this remarkable statement is that teshuvah is a universal primordial phenomenon; in such a context it has two meanings. One is that it is embedded in the root structure of the world; the other, that before we were created, we were given the possibility of changing the course of our lives. In this latter sense teshuvah is the highest expression of our capacity to choose freely¬–it is a manifestation of the divine in us.
Adin Steinsaltz, Kol Haneshama
I love the idea that teshuvah was put in the world as part of its root structure, like pi and e, because we would need it at a later point. Steinsaltz would agree with R. Jonathan Sacks, who tells us that teshuvah is the process by which we KNOW we are free, because we can change our behavior. We can stop generational cycles by our force of will. As one person in class noted, it’s not just about deciding to change, it is about the change of action itself. It is not enough to be sorry, we have to do something.
This is not easy – just wishing does not make it happen. But making the commitment helps point us in the right direction, and working on it every day makes change possible…
Teshuvah, which is about returning to the core essence of who we are, and shedding those qualities we have acquired that distort our essential being. Teshuvah is about returning, not repenting. It’s about figuring out how to get back to the best in ourselves that calls to the best in the world.
R. David Wolfe Blank
R. Wolfe Blank, z”l, urges us to see teshuvah as returning to the best in ourselves, echoing the Talmudic sages, who told us that “Great is teshuvah, because it brings healing to the world.” The sages were trying to encourage us to take the necessary steps, by appealing to our desire to make the world a better place. They also told us that doing the spiritual work increases a person’s life span, certainly another enticement. But it also seems like a reasonable consequence: a person who does their spiritual work, and leaves behind bitterness and fear (of all but God) is likely to suffer less illness brought on by stress. Try it…
“The implication is that we all have within us a reference point for wholeness to which we can return – a spiritual essence encoded within our souls that enables us to remember who we really are. Teshuvah is not something one does once and for all; rather, it is a lifelong journey, a journey of spiritual homecoming.”
Estelle Frankel, Sacred Therapy, p. 129
The High Holy Days offer us a kick start to doing the work, but we mustn’t think everything ends on Yom Kippur. This spiritual homecoming requires daily attention. Let’s talk about how to do that.
I look forward to more opportunities to study and pray and be together. Besides regular 7 pm services this Shabbat eve, we will have a Selichot Service and learning at 8 pm Saturday night, and then the panoply of Rosh Hashanah services. We will also have a potluck/Rabbi’s Tisch (Table) – singing and discussion – on Friday, September 30. I would love for you to come.