T'Shuva in Practice
Greetings from the hot, humid north! At our home in Vermont, I look out over
our pasture, with the cows grazing and trying to stay clear of the flies, and
the tomatoes ripening on the vine, and I can’t help but also see the draining
color from the green leaves on the trees. Yes, fall is on the way, and another cycle of
the summer’s abundance is drawing to a close.
As we prepare ourselves during this month of Elul for the
work of the High Holidays, I turn my thoughts to a challenging question: how is
it that I can ‘fix what I broke’ and not sink into the depths of despair at the
way that I have conducted myself this past year? I
want to look at this question from our mystical tradition, as that may hold
some clues for how we can discern an answer.
When I do something ‘wrong’, or, in the language of the High
Holidays, when I commit a ‘sin’ (in Hebrew, this is the phrase “ale chet, which
means, ‘to miss the mark with my bow and arrow’, and not in an absolute sense
of evil) what part of me do I damage? Which part of me is untouched by that
‘sin’? is there a pure part of me that
cannot be damaged by my actions?
A clue is found in the daily morning liturgy, which says:
“My G-d, the soul which You have given me is pure.” How can I say every morning that my soul is
pure? The Kabbalah explains that there are 5 levels of the soul, and that they
correspond to the different ‘worlds’ in which we live: the Nefesh (our bodies)
Ruach (our emotions) Neshemah (our consciousness) Chayah (the source of living)
and Yechidah (that part of our soul that is constantly in union with G-d). Only
the first 3 are experienced by us; the other two exist on a more ethereal
level, and it is these two upper realms that are unpolluted by how we conduct
our daily lives, and from which we draw
our strength and healing for doing t’shuva/returning to our paths of
When we think that we cannot do the deep work of t’shuva, we
are denying our deep belief in the power of free will, and our responsibility
to make the world a better place. Yes,
the world is full of what we may call evil, and, yes, we are deeply challenged
to make substantial changes to how we act in the world. But it is exactly the message of the High
Holidays that we are capable of such change, and that we will be forgiven our
iniquities precisely because we go through the process of self-examination and
the vow to do better in the year to come.
Finally, it is important to remember that we do all of this
in joy. There is a story that is told
about a Rabbi who comes upon a man who is praying during the Confessional part
of the services with such enthusiasm and joy; he is dancing and singing, with
tears running down his cheeks. After the
services have ended, the Rabbi approaches the man, and asks how he could be so
joyful in the face of the despair of self-examination. The man replies, “If I have to clean the
dooryard of my beloved, my work is joyful, for what kind of beloved would
accept the efforts of someone who is dour?”
So, here are just a few thoughts for the coming week, to
help you in your t’shuva work during this third week of Elul:
1) As you interact with people each day, be conscious of
what your face projects and to what extent it is an expression of your inner
2) At least once during the day, try to feel a connection to
your holiness, and let that shine out of your face.
3) Of the events of a day, how did the goodness in your
shine through? How did something not quite work out the way you had hoped? What
4) Begin to look at
where, when, and with whom you have experienced forgiveness. When did you forgive someone? When were you
forgiven by someone? Is there still some residue around those situations?
5) Clean out your closet.
Give what you don’t need or want to someone who does.
Enjoy your week!
Reb Jan and Reb Ed