© Arlene Goldbard 2002
In Jewish tradition, Elul, the month leading up to the High Holy Days, is a time of introspection. Jews perform a cheshbon ha-nefesh (soul accounting), inventorying our missteps and shortcomings so as to focus on our personal need for t’shuvah — turning, reorienting — redeeming our lives for the new year. Pain and pleasure are mingled: we wince, recognizing where we have taken the wrong path, then find ourselves delighted as life almost always offers an alternate route.
Conceiving the Inconceivable
This year more than ever, I find myself thinking that examining the little world of my own life isn’t enough. Our big world is in a fix. Many days, reading the newspaper is almost unbearable. Our fears are terrible, our social problems are dire, and most alarming to me, our image of possibility seems murky and dim. Not long ago, I was speaking with a dear friend, a conscious and constructive person who tries as hard as anyone I know to live in harmony with higher meanings. I was telling her about an organization I’d come across. “It had the most amazing mission statement,” I said. “Listen to this: ‘to bring awareness of the power of love and forgiveness to global issues.'” And what did my friend — my deeply ethical and kind friend — say? “Ha! Yeah, sure.”
It seems to me our society is in a very stuck place. Especially since the events of last September 11th, virtually everyone knows things are out of balance, distorted by greed, lust for power, and indifference. Virtually everyone knows that life would be entirely transformed if the six billion people sharing this planet suddenly began to apply any version of the golden rule (from Hillel’s “Do not unto thy neighbor that which you would not have him do unto you” to Rodney King’s “Can we all just get along?”). And virtually everyone finds this transformation inconceivable, not because we see ourselves as incapable of it, but because we doubt others’ ability to rise above the crude self-interest that sees other humans as means to an end rather than carriers of a Divine spark, fellow aspects of Spirit.
Our disbelief in the possibility of the Big T’shuvah manifests in many ways. There’s the pragmatic argument: “Don’t be naive! It’s impossible to get everyone to make that kind of change!” That seems true, yet history tells us that it requires only a significant minority to trigger social change; with spirit and determination, even a small group can tip the balance. There’s the argument from human nature: “C’mon, people aren’t altruistic; grow up and face facts!” But how altruistic is it to want to rescue our society — ourselves, our own lives and those of our descendents — from a future shaped by our mistakes?
Rav Kook (Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, 1865-1935, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel) saw t’shuvah as a seamless fabric, encompassing the little and big worlds at once (in this text, the word t’shuvah is translated as “penitence”):
General penitence, which involves raising the world to perfection, and particularized penitence, which pertains to the personal life of each individual, including the smallest constituents of special penitential reforms that the holy spirit can itemize in tiniest details–they all constitute one essence. Similarly all the cultural reforms through which the world rises from decadence, the improvements in the social and economic order through this redress of every form of wrongdoing, from the most significant to the most minute ordinances of later sages and the most extreme demands of ethically sensitive spirits–all of them constitute an inseparable whole.(Orot Hat’shuvah/The Lights of Penitence, Chapter 4, Section 3)
The stark truth is that in the end, the only thing that stands in the way of the Big T’shuvah is our limited idea of human possibility.
This season, religious communities across the U.S. are joining in an effort called “11 Days in September,” designed to support the whole-society cheshbon that will lead us to the Big T’shuvah. Rabbi Arthur Waskow, one of the organizers, has proposed these three themes:
- Crossing boundaries, affirming the compassion and sense of community that welled up on 9/11 and carrying them beyond the American border.
- Reflecting on the role of religion. What aspects of religion and of the world call forth religiously committed violence, and what aspects of religion and the world call forth religiously committed compassion?
- Uplifting the role of reflection in society, of pausing not just as individuals but as a community, in a rhythm of life that includes but is not solely about rushing ahead to Do and to Make.
Religious communities have a central role to play in the Big T’shuvah, because we are united in our commitment to strive for holiness, for compassion, connection, peace, and for justice. “Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live,” we are told in Deuteronomy 16:20. We come together on Shabbat and holidays to davven (pray), rather than resting content with private prayer, in part because declaring our commitments and hopes aloud helps give us the courage to enact them in the big world every day of the week.
My congregation, Eitz Or in Seattle, will take part in 11 Days in September by weaving remembrance of 9/11 into our High Holy Days, honoring the Divine in the living and the dead, calling forth compassion, reflecting on our missteps and our freedom to choose a better path. On 10 September, we will also hold our second Interfaith Peace Service, inviting leaders from Jewish, Christian, Unitarian, Buddhist, Muslim, and Baha’i paths to come together as they did last September 25th, offering prayers and blessings to elevate our spirits and inspire our action, bringing the Big T’shuvah closer.
T’shuvah is almost always described as a form of return — repentance, reorientation, redemption. But the 12th-century sage Maimonides saw it as a form of awakening occasioned by the sound of the shofar:
“…Arise from your slumber, you who are asleep; wake up from your deep sleep, you who are fast asleep; search your deeds, repent, and remember your Creator. Those of you who forget the truth because of daily trivialities, indulging throughout the year in the useless things that cannot profit you nor save you, look into your souls, amend your ways and deeds.” (Hilchot Teshuva, Chapter 3:4)
In this season of awe, may the shofar awaken us to the living possibility of the Big T’shuvah. My hope for our big world and for every one of our little worlds is expressed in the words of Rabbi Jonah Gerondi, 13th-century author of The Gates of Repentance:
The repentant sinner should strive to do good with the same faculties with which he sinned…. If his feet had run to sin, let them now run to the performance of the good. If his mouth had spoken falsehood, let it now be opened in wisdom. Violent hands should now open in charity….The trouble-maker should now become a peace-maker.
And of Rav Kook:
We are delayed on the path toward perfection and we neglect it, because we feel an excessive anxiety when the thought of penitence occurs to us. We feel anguished and feeble because of the disturbing impact of penitence, and for this very reason we push away from our minds this thought that is the source of every happiness, with the result that we remain straying in the wilderness of life. But this condition cannot last. We must gird ourselves with spiritual strength, with the might of the song of penitence. All its engendered distress must be turned to a vibrant song that revives, strengthens, comforts and heals. Then will we have penitence with all its associated reflections as one sweet, pleasant whole, in which we shall meditate always and according to which we shall order every step in life, for our individual and our collective good, in this world and the next, for the redemption of the individual and of society as a whole, for the renewal of the people and its return from captivity, as in ancient days.
May it be so. May we join together in this holy season to help make it so.