A true story, I’ve been told…
The summer after completing his military service in Israel, the young Micah Goodman, now Professor Goodman, went world traveling, as many Israelis do after their service is done. He was in Peru white water rafting, with an American river guide, and a Danish businessman and his wife. The businessman was quite formal, and had a strong sense of control, very much the high powered business man…
One day, the guide explained that they were ready to go through some Class Three rapids, what he explained were serious rapids, but with no rocks. So, if they chose, they could slide out of the raft and go through the rapids with their life jackets. It would take a matter of seconds, and then the guide offered one final piece of advice: go with the flow of the water, do not fight it, just let the water carry you.
Micah jumped in and within seconds had let go and navigated the rapids easily and felt wonderful. He turned to look behind him and witnessed the businessman struggling with the water and having a very hard time. When Micah asked him later – why did you do that? The businessman responded, “I couldn’t control my need to control. I couldn’t help it.”
He couldn’t control his need to control.
Anyone in this sanctuary have that issue?
That indeed is what Rosh Hashanah is about on some level: recognizing that if we try to seize control, if we try to fight with the water, we will struggle and could ultimately drown.
That’s one way of looking at the sovereignty language in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy – our father, our King, the Holy King, King, King, King.
When we think we are in control, when we can’t control our need to control, we get into trouble.
On Rosh Hashanah we have the opportunity to let go and realize that we are NOT in control, we get to relinquish our control and realize we WILL survive and maybe thrive. Indeed, we might get the ride of our life, if we can just let go.
We get to continue or even start our process of teshuvah.
Tomorrow morning we will pray:
On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed,
Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall live to a ripe age and who shall die before their time
Who by fire, who by water, who by plague, who by beast
Who shall be troubled, who shall be tranquil.
On one hand this sounds exactly right: from one year to the next, we don’t know how our lives will change, what will strike us or our neighbor. Look around you — if not you, than likely a few of the people around you have experienced one of the events I’ve listed.
This year, we lost past president Andy Barchas, after he lost his fight with leukemia.
We lost Nate Topol.
Several of us lost beloved family members: stepmothers, uncles, brothers in law.
We have family members or are ourselves struggling with cancer.
Many of us struggled with other health concerns – surgeries, accidents, illness.
We’ve dealt with mudslides, fires, smoke, earthquakes not too far away, indeed the first one I felt in a long time.
That’s just in our congregation. That you’ve told me about.
In our larger area, Truckee lost 3 or 4 young men to suicide, and Incline/Reno lost three. In a year. Not just the families, and friends, but the whole community has experienced some rocking and mourning. What this says about sadness, inability to cope, undetected or treated mental illness in our resort community is being explored.
That’s what life brings.
The prayer poem doesn’t actually say God decides, but does say that the books are open and our signature is on our page. For example, my colleague who died this year of lung cancer was a 40 year chain smoker. The young men who killed themselves: while there might have been ways we can all take some responsibility, they took their own lives.
And yet so many times, we can’t find our signatures among the small print on the page. Why pancreatic cancer, why aortal valve failure, why Asperger’s Syndrome?
So often we raise our eyes to the sky and ask, “Why me?” or “Why her?” or “Why my family?” when disaster strikes. And any answer to that question always seems inadequate at that moment. Being told it’s your fault or your daughter’s fault or that God needed your loved one in Heaven—doesn’t really work, does it?
Our High Holy Day prayer reminds us that we don’t really have that much control: we can stop smoking and still drown in a flash flood. We can put our phones down while we’re driving and still get plowed into by a car whose driver was still texting.
But it’s at the pinnacle of the prayer that we find the core of the Holy Days –we might all suffer one—or several—of the fates it lists, as so many of us have already. My aunt’s first husband died suddenly, before his time, of a heart attack, and right before she could sell their home, the last big LA earthquake red-tagged it, so it was worth nothing. Her daughter moved into my aunt’s new mobile home with her three young children, to escape domestic violence. All in less than a year. But my aunt is one of the most upbeat, kind, generous, hopeful people I know. She shows me what it means that we can soften the decree, or change our response to it, we can go with the flow of the water. According to the poet, t’shuvah, tzedakah and tefilah are the requisite ingredients to being able to accept our fate.
These words are confusing in translation – and indeed, English does a poor job of it. Tonight I want to keep the focus on teshuvah, and tease out what we are supposed to be doing to soften or sweeten the bitterness of the events that await us this coming year.
Teshuvah – from the Hebrew root shuv – shin vav bet, to return or to turn. We think of it, generally wrongly, as repentance as in Gates of Repentance, or Sha’arei Teshuvah. However, we have other words for repentance – charatah… which means to change our behavior, to do something different and new. Make yourself into a new person. Teshuvah is from the word la’shuv, to turn or return.
Teshuvah is about returning.
Given that our holy days spend so much energy on teshuvah, you might think that teshuvah permeates the bible, if not the torah, but you would be wrong…
Teshuvah in the concept of spiritual returning appears first in the last book of the torah, in Deuteronomy, in the portion Nitzavim, when we learn that after the catastrophe happens, after we are exiled for our sins, we read three verses about with happen afterwards… v’haya ki yavo’u alecha ki hadevarim ha’eleh habracha v’hak’lala… V’shavta ad-YHWH elohecha v’shamata v’kolo… v’shav YHWH …
When all these things befall you—the blessing and the curse that I have set before you—and you return to your heart amidst the various nations to which YHWH your God has banished you, 2and you return to YHWH your God, and you and your children heed God’s command with all your heart and soul, just as I enjoin upon you this day, 3then YHWH your God will return your fortunes and take you back in love. He will return you together again from all the peoples where YHWH your God has scattered you. (Dev. 30:1-3)
Three verses and a form of la’shuv appears five times. It is never considered a mistake or accident when one word appears so many times in proximity. But a moment to look at the importance of the repeated word. To return. To go back. Not to be a new person, but to return to your core. You return to your heart. Then you return to God. Then God returns your fortunes and returns you to Israel, and turns back to you in love… Return return return…
Remember, this whole book of the torah is about Moses teaching us what to do when we get to the land. The promised land. But he isn’t telling us how to fight the battles we will have to fight. He’s telling us how to hold onto the land once we win it. And the way we do that is to follow God’s teachings, God’s torah: do the right thing. Do the right thing. Getting the land isn’t the big deal, it’s keeping it that’s the big deal.
And the way we keep it is by NOT being like Egypt, not being the place where self and ego overwhelm responsibility to community. Because if we are, if we forget to treat each other like we each have a divine spark within us, then we will experience the plagues – those plagues we drop wine for at Passover – dam, tzefardayah… this time as victims.
Moses, our teacher, is also explaining that this return, this teshuvah, will happen after the great catastrophe, the exile and decimation of our people. He tells us that if we don’t do those right things, catastrophe will come and yet we will return.
Another key moment when we read about teshuvah in Devarim is the description of what a king should do, should people decide to have a king. So many things to notice about this: it’s not that God wants us to have a king, it’s that should we choose to have one, the king must have certain qualities:
- Must be from the children of Israel
- Can’t have too many wives, lest they lead him astray to other gods
- Can’t have too many horses, lest that force him to trade with Egypt
- Can’t be above the people – too haughty, too superior, too rich
So the king has been crippled militarily, without horses
Crippled diplomatically – because wives bring alliances
Crippled economically, by not being able to have too much money….
And the one thing the king IS supposed to do — is to write and study God’s teaching. Be observant, know the laws… be a student.
But our kings didn’t exactly do this, did they? Solomon was the exact opposite of what was described: he had his thousand wives (including concubines), his horses from Egypt and even his own city in Egypt! Rich as Croesus or Bill Gates – his cutlery was gold, and his palace was bigger than the temple he built for God.
And when he died, the kingdom was divided because the Northerners rebelled against his treatment of them, but waited until he died and gave his son no time to prove or disprove himself.
Indeed, Solomon’s inability to follow the path laid out for kings is the beginning of a direct line to the catastrophe itself, first the loss of the Northern Kingdom to the Assyrians and then Judah…
On a national level — what seems clearly to have happened is that Solomon, the wise king, became like Pharaoh, the epitome of the worst thing we could be…The worst, and so we needed to return.
Prof. Micah Goodman notes that the thing about Israel, for those of us who don’t live there, is that it’s much more than a place for us – we know that — but he means because it is NOT Egypt: it’s the antithesis of Egypt.
Egypt is about more than just slavery, it’s about dehumanization. Pharaoh was more than a tyrant, he believed he was a god, he believed he could control his environment, he—like Prof. Goodman’s business man—couldn’t control his need to control, he hardened his own heart. Egypt was a place where the ego was in control, not the heart, not the soul, not the divine spark.
All of this may seem esoteric and far away, but when you take just a moment to think – this is part of our foundational story. We chose to have a king because the period of the judges led to chaos. The king led to our exile. Both ways failed. But the bible doesn’t stop there. It imagines a way for us to return. That’s what makes it a document of hope, because it shows that if one way didn’t work, we can try another, and if that doesn’t work, we can try again.
So, for me, this year, I see Rosh Hashanah and the striving for teshuvah, as trying to return to my heart, to God and to Israel—not Egypt, and the exile of our souls from their core, from their center.
We can go back to the beginning and find our true, good essence, to reconnect to the divine spark. We Jews don’t believe in original sin, we believe we were all made with a spark of the divine, in the image of God – tzelem Elohim. But every day, we get a little—or sometimes a lot of—shmutz or dirt on our essence: a California rolling stop, a little gambling, a little gossip, snapping at the kids or the wife or sick mother or your brother, GMO or slave produced products rather than organic or fair trade ones, a smaller than reasonable tip at a restaurant, and your soul looks less than perfectly clear. T’shuvah is the act of turning back toward true north, sending your soul to the cleaners, and shaking off the shmutz. Maybe not taking on all your sins at once, but picking one that will make a difference.
The kabbalists suggest that you start with something really small – so that you can fool your yetzer hara, your inclination for evil (or laziness or the maintaining your status quo). Remember the scene in the movie Independence Day when Jeff Goldblum suggests that they give the aliens a cold – by implanting a computer virus into the mother ship? They wouldn’t notice such a small thing that would bring their shields came down. More Magazine ]had an article in July that suggested the same thing – if you think you want to start running, start only with putting on your running shoes. Don’t even imagine stepping outside yet. Just put on the shoes. Get used to it. If you want to be kinder to your loved ones, start with a small gesture. Even a smile when you were thinking of saying something that would not evoke a smile.
The 18th century Chassidic master, the Sfat Emet put it this way:
There is a point of holiness within each person’s heart… But over the course of each year, as we pass through life we are invariably coarsened and sullied by our errors and misjudgments, or simply by the travails of physical life. But our innermost self, the “veritable part of G‑d” that is the essence of our soul — remains untouched. Teshuvah is the G‑d-given ability to access and reconnect to that untouched self, reestablish our lives upon its foundation, to return to that basic goodness, to be the people we know we have the capacity to be.
That’s part of what these days are about: reconnecting with our original self, upon our firm foundations and innate goodness: to be the people we know we have the capacity to be, but just lost or forgot about.
Rosh Hashanah and the High Holy Days remind us that we can change, we can grow, we can persevere. How many of you have marveled at the process of a baby learning to walk? How many times does she fall down before she makes it across the room to her mother’s arms? Maybe a thousand times? How many times before we give up trying to change something hard? Three, four, ten? Many of us have lost that ability to get up again, to keep trying. We come back to Rosh Hashanah every year with that goal in mind. Let go of control, let go of the need to be sovereign. Ride the rapids and pick yourself up again.
May it be Your will.
 A fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and the founder of Ein Prat Academy for Leadership, an institute that inspires thousands of young adults from across the religious spectrum.
Marian Blanton says
Perhaps a lot to digest, here, on Teshuvah, Meredith. Perhaps too many references to wisdom texts and to scholars for an ordinary audience member to absorb, as s/he listens. Still too rich may be preferable to too sparse, right? Your sermons will never lack depth, texture, multiple connections to the central idea.