Note: This piece is a bit odd, kind of a stream-of-consciousness thing. Take it as such. Take it as you will.
Prayer is a problem
Repentance is a problem
Here we go again. Elul, the month where we’re supposed to…well, what are we supposed to do? I mean, I know: We’re supposed to repent or something. But in practical terms, we don’t really talk about what to do. We act as if you just sort of decide to repent, and whammo! You’re a better person. Ok, to be fair, lots of books talk about the long and arduous path of repentance. But that kind of assumes we know where the path is, only that it’s difficult. We, right here, right now (or, me, at least) have a deeper problem. We don’t know where the path is. Like I said, we don’t know what to do. I woke up this morning, and said “ok, repentance!” but then…I was stuck.
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.” - Marianne Williamson
Maybe I should back up here. We don’t even know what repentance is. We’ve stopped discussing the big things. We think we’ve learned about them before, so now we know, but we don’t know. Repentance is big. Really big. So we just discuss the results of it, not the thing itself. Repentance is…well, let’s try the Hebrew. The word teshuva isn’t just “repentance.” It’s “return.” We’re returning – to somewhere where we were before, somewhere familiar. That’s important. That’s crucial. I think this occurs on two levels which are, as always, somewhat intertwined.
The first level is personal. We want to be what we were. Well, sort of. No one can go back to what they were, not ever. But there is a sort of returning, a returning of mindset, a renewal of spirit. They say that everything you ever need to know you learned in kindergarten. Sorry, but that’s not true. There are many important lessons that we learn after kindergarten, but I think we often ignore those earlier lessons in favor of the newer ones. This is a tragedy. There’s a constant refrain in our heads, “it’s not that simple, it’s not that simple, it’s not that simple”, like a contrarian cuckoo clock. Sometimes, it is that simple, and that bears noting. We still have to be nice, to share, to care about others. We still thank God for all we have. We still have to respect those deserving of respect. Fine, we should take the lessons we learned after kindgarten, but we shouldn’t for a minute forget the first ones.
The return to self is not a new concept. It doesn’t have its origins in modern psychology or philosophy. Way back in the Bible, it says “vehayah ki yavo’u alekha kol hadevarim ha’eileh, haberakha vehakellala asher natati lifanekha, vahasheyvotah el levavekha bikhol hagoyim asher hidichakha Hashem Elohekha.” – “And it shall be, when all of these things, the blessing and curse which I have given before you, come to pass, then you will return to your hearts among all the nations in which Hashem your God banished you.” (Devarim 30:1) Though the bolded phrase is often translated as something like “you will take it to heart”, or “you will reflect”, the fact remains that the literal translation is not just about consideration or even contrition, but return. Note that there is a narrative here, but it’s also an imperative. We must (must!) reach back in our memories. Remember what we were, once.
“There came a time when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” – Anais Nin
And now the scary part comes. Bearing in mind what we were, we must look at ourselves. Have you ever done that? I mean, really looked? Scary as heck, that is. I was in Arizona for 5 months recently. It wasn’t part of my plan, really, but there I was, living in Arizona, alone and on my own. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t surrounded by people. I wasn’t with anyone. And when you’re like that, you’re forced to look at yourself, to see the real core of the ‘you’, when everything else is stripped away. Like I said, it’s terrifying. Or it was for me, anyway. Try it.
Stop. Close your eyes.
Breathe out, and with it, release your environment. Let go of what your friends think of you, how much your relatives love you, all of the influences imposed upon you from outside yourself. If you can look at that person and allow yourself complete honesty and be satisfied, then count yourself among a tiny minority. But if not, and like I was, you’re confronted by something grotesque or perhaps just unsettling, seize upon that. You’re seeing a gulf between what you know you can be and what you are. Or seen differently, it’s a dissonance between who you believe yourself to be inside and who you are. It gets your blood pumping and your pulse racing. It wakes you up. This is crucial. The only way you can return to yourself is to realize both who you were, once, and what you are now.
And here, we get to the second stage, which arguably, is an organic part of the first, or even it itself, viewed from the other side. The next verse after the one quoted above states, “vishavta ad Hashem Elohekha vishamata bikolo kikhol asher anokhi metzavikha hayom, ata uvanekha, bikhol levavikha uvikhol nafshekha.” – “And you will return to Hashem your God and hearken to His Voice in everything that I command you today – you and your children, with all your heart and all your soul.” (Devarim 30:2). I think we also exhibit a deficiency here. How often do we think about – I mean really think about God as a lover, as someone who we want to make happy with every breath we take? The sources are replete with this idea, but do we truly think about it, or just dismiss it as fanciful language or the domain of only lofty souls? Because if we really truly believed, on some visceral level, that we had the potential for a love-relationship with God, wouldn’t we be acting differently, not just quantitatively, but qualitatively? After all, when viewed through that lens, Judaism is no longer a mere framework in which we fit our lives. It is life. And if, due to long-standing indifference, we don’t even feel the need for that love-relationship (let alone the love itself), then the heartbroken acknowledgement of that fact can still be utilized to propel us forward. Wanting to want to love God is already something positive. Maybe we have a full month of lead-in to the Yamim Nora’im (High Holy Days) to try and get from “wanting to want” to “wanting.”
“He who is satisfied has never truly craved, and he who craves for the light of God neglects his ease for ardor, his life for love, knowing that contentment is the shadow not the light. The great yearning that sweeps eternity is a yearning to praise, a yearning to serve. And when the waves of that yearning swell in our souls all the barriers are pushed aside: the crust of callousness, the hysteria of vanity, the orgies of arrogance.” – Abraham Joshua Heschel
So that’s how I understand teshuva, Jewish repentance. It’s about remembering what you stand for, reaching back to the “good old days,” whether real or imagined, and pulling that from the past back to the present. It’s about remembering the fundamental simplicity of the love-relationship we ought to have with God. Because we believe that for every person that is distant from him, God is standing, as it were, a lover scorned, looking hopefully for signs of our return. And hopefully, the momentum created when rising to the occasion and seeking His embrace can propel us even further than ever.
Postscript: I borrowed many ideas from various places here, though I would say that the main sources were the book Mussar for Moderns by R’ Elyakim Krumbein, and a short lecture given by R’ Reuven Taragin at Yeshivat Har Etzion in 2001.