14th Elul: manageable teshuvah in bitesized portions

14th Elul

Reb Shmelke said “basing myself on the Talmudic tradition that if everyone repented together the messiah would come, I decided to do something about it. I was convinced that I would be successful, but, where to start? The world is so vast I shall start with the country I know best -My own.  But my country is so very large; I had better start with my town.   But my town itself is large, so I had best start with my street.  No, with my home.  No with my family. Reb Shmelke pondered a little and said “never mind, I’ll start with myself”  (Chasidic)

We stop ourselves very often from progressing, or from doing what we intend to do, by defining the terms of reference too widely. The month of Elul, the whole progression of the liturgical year from the haftarot of rebuke to Tisha b’Av to the haftarot of comfort to Rosh Hashanah, takes us on a journey – We ignore God’s warning and find ourselves in catastrophe. We are aware of God’s proffered comfort but find The Great Day of Judgment that is Rosh Hashanah awaiting us. We will spend the ten days of return trying to focus before Yom Kippur is upon us demanding the fruits of our work, and then Sukkot offers a breathing space……

Maybe we should just do our teshuvah in more manageable and less impressively indigestible chunks, so that we actually get some done.

13th Elul – purpose and meaning structured into our lives

Purpose and meaning, that which gives shape and direction to our lives, does not come out of nowhere. It is shaped by the stories we tell of ourselves and our forebears, by the writings of our historians and our prophets; It is taught to us in our homes and a variety of schools; That which comes to us through our faith tradition is rehearsed in prayer; symbolically enacted in rituals; and recalled periodically in a variety of services and liturgies. Our memories are strengthened by their being recalled and recounted, freshened and sharpened by how we use them.

Without a structure and a system for remembering and teaching, for measuring ourselves against who and what we should be, we ultimately cut ourselves loose from purpose and meaning and have to find roots wherever we can. Each of us must root ourselves in a sense of meaning and purpose if we are to live full lives, and our senses of meaning and purpose must themselves be rooted in something of value and credibility – our family hist­­­ory and its stories, our connection to religious tradition, to a system of values and morals, to our reasons for being – our own humanity.

So when we pray – B’sefer Hayyim nizakeir v’nikateiv lefanecha.Anachnu v’chol amm’cha beit yisrael, le’hayyim tovim v’shalom.

May we and all Your people the family of Israel be remembered and recorded in the Book of Life for a good life and for peace.

We are asking not for a simple accounting exercise in order to creep into heaven, not a weighing up of good and bad in the hope that we have been rather better than not, but that our lives are recorded and our memory maintained and refreshed so that we are better able to observe and take hold of the purpose and meaning of our individual and group existence, that our behavior will align more closely to who we know we could become – articulating the values of human dignity and social justice, of enacting good in the world.

12th Elul: repentance is not a substitute for responsibility

The official ideology of Yom Kippur is found in the words of Resh Lakish, a third century Talmudic sage, and can be found in the Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 86b–“Great is repentance, for the deliberate sins of one who repents become as inadvertent ones.”

In effect the argument is that Teshuvah, the action of repenting, causes the person to allow their real self to emerge, and as they move into a new direction they show that true self. The person therefore who sinned deliberately can be understood to have been not really themselves, and so, when they become their real self, those sins are clearly inadvertent – and inadvertent sin cannot be punished or judged in the same way as deliberately flouting the rules of behaviour.

It is a theology of new beginnings and a clean slate, teaching us that renewal is always possible; counteracting the guilt and despair we may be feeling about the bad choices we have made with the belief that good intentions for the future must redeem us and make up for the past.

It is certainly an attractive proposal, but the reality is that we can’t rely on Teshuvah to remake the world exactly as it was or should be. Teshuvah may be a potent force but it is not an all-powerful one. Even if it can change our deliberate sins into the more manageable and less terrifying category of inadvertent ones, it cannot erase the effects of those sins. If we were to truly face reality we would have to say that repentance is not, and never can be a substitute for responsibility. And more than that, we would have to acknowledge that some things cannot be rectified, however mortified and ashamed we may be to have committed them. What is done cannot always be undone, and the mark it leaves on our lives (and those of other people) will not be erased.

The word Kippur is related to the verb “to cover over”. When we try to make Teshuvah and to uncover our real and ideal self as we turn towards a good way of being in the world, we also cover over the mistakes we made and the bad actions we did. They do not go away, but we take away their power to hold us back, through our shame or our fear. I do like the notion of Teshuvah providing us with a new start, of the freshness of starting again unencumbered by a past that has the power to haunt us, but I shudder a little at the notion of a rebirth. For we are not in any way born again through our actions over the Yamim Noraim, we continue to live and continue to remember and continue to be the person who has real responsibility for our lives, but at the same time we cover over and leave behind the place that is stopping us from going forward into our new and more true way of being. Repentance is not a substitute for responsibility – repentance gives us the means to become much more responsible for who we are, and the power to use that responsibility to change not only ourselves but also the world around us.

 

11th Elul – The Book of Life is Open

The main theme of the days of awe is that of judgement, with one of the most powerful images being that used by R.Yochanan to prompt us into reflecting on how we are living our lives – that of the three books opened on this day, one for the utterly wicked, one for the wholly good, and one for everyone else. While the two extremes find themselves immediately “written in the book”, the rest of us have ten days to make a decision where our names will go.

I love this image, all the more so in a digital age when books are freighted with the symbolism of permanence that screens cannot provide. And to me the image is not frightening, not about a pre-ordained fate we will be unable to avoid, not in fact to do with God’s sentencing us, but everything to do with our being able to make a judgement and a record about how we are living our lives. To quote Bachya ibn Pakuda –“ days are scrolls, write on them what you want to be remembered.” The idea of our past experience not just vanishing into history but having a real impact on our present leads us to a number of different thoughts. Firstly, that memory matters. Memory is what roots us, gives us identity, shapes how we think and act. To have a book where Life is recorded and can be examined is to hold memory.  Second, that even if we choose to forget something, it doesn’t fully go.  I can choose to forget what I did, to hope that my denial will win the day. But the record in my “book” doesn’t forget. Which brings me to the third idea – that our actions do have consequences.  What we have done matters, and where it requires resolution the “book” is available to remind us.

I like the book of life precisely because it is a book. It is a permanent record but it is constructed in such a way that while we might carry it around with us it does not impede our progress. In a book we can turn over a new leaf, and begin again on a fresh clean page. The past still exists, it is not erased, but it does not have to be brought to mind. We can be shaped by our past without having to be distorted by it. It is, if you like, a symbol of having finished some business when we write on the new page – having made the reconciliation or the resolution, the past can be consigned to the past, visited when necessary without intruding too much into the present.

As a child I used to be afraid of the Talmudic prompt – would I make it? Would everyone I loved be written in the right book? Would they not pay proper attention and be punished by God for it in the coming year? How could God write the name and allow a terrible death to await an unsuspecting person?   And then I began to understand the powerful impetus to life that exists in Judaism – “choose life!” Says God, and I saw that we write our own books of life, they are quite literally aides memoires for us to read and see – am I choosing life? Am I behaving in an ethical and moral way? Am I trying to be a good person? Am I able to let go of negative aspects in myself and embrace more life enhancing ones? Am I learning?

The Book of Life isn’t there to scare us, it is there to remind us to get on with it. Every book has a final page and when the time comes we want it to be a book worth reading.

A choice each year to be inscribed into one of the two books isn’t a final choice, just as our book of life isn’t a new book each time. But some years we choose to hold on to our anger or grief or denial and stick there, not moving on, effectively dead, and other years we take the risk, let go, admit failure and  acknowledge fault and move on. And when we let go of the burden, record it and then turn the page, we are firmly inscribed in the book of life.

 

 

 

10th Elul – the sin of giving in to despair

In the vidui, the confession to be recited so many times at this season, we find the phrase “Al cheit she’chatanu lefanecha b’tim’hon ley’vav – For the sin we have committed before you by giving in to despair.”   It slips by almost unnoticed most of the time as we recite a catalogue of misbehaviours by rote. But is despair really a sin and can we repent of it and actively change our attitudes? R. Nachman of Bratslav is credited with crystallising the concept, saying “there is no such thing as despair” and even, on his death bed: “Assur l’hit’ya-esh  – It is forbidden to despair – never give up hope” (Likutei Moharan ll.78).

In our machzor the phrase comes in a set which includes the sins of plotting against others, hard heartedness, arrogance, and giving in to our evil impulse and secrecy.   It is a strange positioning – The giving in to despair is sandwiched between a sense of our own arrogance– literally eynaim ramot – raised eyes, and our own yetzer ha’ra – our selfishness and base inclination.  This placing seems to suggest that when we choose not to engage with reality, either by refusing to see what is around us or by allowing our internally constructed world view to dominate us – that is when despair creeps in.

Nachman also wrote Im atta m’amim she’y’cholin lekalkeil, ta’amin she’y’cholim le’taken: – If you believe that it is possible to break things, you must also believe that it is possible to repair things”.   So whatever we have broken in the past year let’s not despair, but know that it is time to repair by really noticing what is happening around us rather than living in the bubble of our own self constructed realities.

 

 

 

 

 

9th Elul – to value each day

In Psalm 90 there is a verse “Limnot yameinu, ken hoda, v’navi l’vav chochmah” – “teach us to assess our days so that we may bring to the heart some wisdom”  This verse is a powerful reminder of what we can do in order to make more of our lives.

The psalmist is reminding us to assess each day, to really appreciate and to treasure every one of them, and make them count.

Many of us are so busy just getting through each day, so many different events and activities to juggle, that we forget just how much of a gift each new day really is. Others of us try to fill the acres of time that stretch ahead of us as we get up, wondering how best to get through the day. Almost all of us rarely find the time to treasure our days, or to make them count. Looking back at the end of a week that has been frantic with activity we can rarely feel satisfied that we used the time well.

The morning prayer that traditional Jews say upon waking, before even getting out of bed is  “Modeh Ani lefanecha, melech chai v’kayam, she’he’chezarta bi nishmati b’chemlah, Rabbah Emunatecha.­­­­­“I Gratefully Thank You, living and eternal Sovereign, for You have returned my soul within me with compassion –great is your faith”

While Jewish prayer does not on the whole expect us to explicitly state any belief in God, it does have a dominant mode of gratitude and of thanksgiving. The tradition gives us the words to appreciate our lives, to be grateful for what we already have rather than to always be the petitioner for what we do not have but would like. That is not to say that our prayer does not include us appealing to God for things, but that this pleading is circumscribed and is far less frequent than the prayers of thanksgiving and gratitude. And on Shabbat the petitionary prayers disappear entirely, giving God (and ourselves) the day off from listening to our demands.

In the prayer Modeh Ani, we begin the day by being aware of our good fortune and appreciating it – we are alive, it is a time for fresh possibilities, anything can happen in this new day. And we end the prayer not by declaring our faith in God, but by asserting God’s faith in us. We make a statement of extraordinary power. Whether we believe in God is almost immaterial, for God believes in us.

Just as we do not consider the air which we breathe, yet breathe nevertheless; just as fish presumably are unaware of the water in which they swim,  Jewish prayer assumes the faith of God in us is a given, the environment in which we operate. All we are reminded to do is to appreciate each day, to be grateful for what we do have, and to use our time wisely in order to become our best selves, to build our best world.

Psalm 90, a psalm about the eternity of God and the fragility and mortality of humankind, asks God to help us to do the one thing we can really do to make our lives meaningful – teach us to treasure each day, to make every day we live in this world count for something. As we travel through Elul and contemplate the upcoming New Year, with days that may be filled with activity or that may stretch emptily out ahead of us, let this be our motto – to think about and to treasure each day, and to do something each day to give that day meaning and to make it count.

 

8th Elul: building bridges in all directions

8th Elul

The Psalmist asks “Eternal God, what are human beings that you should care for them, mortal creatures that you should notice them?” (psalm 8)

The question is carefully posed.  We recognise that we are indeed fragile presences on the earth, our lives barely impacting in time or space, yet we confidently assert that God notices us and cares about us.  We wear celebratory white during this season of penitence because we know that God will forgive us if we sincerely repent.

Our tradition provides us with a strong sense of ourselves. We are at one and the same time both “dust and ashes” and “the beloved children of the Sovereign”.  We are mortal and yet we are bound up in immortality. We are fully individual and also we are a small part of a whole creation.  It takes a particular view of the world to be able to hold both all the opinions at the same time, yet the Jewish mind is asked to somehow encompass them all, just as our liturgy speaks of God in a variety of ways all at the same time. And it is this dynamic tension that traditionally nurtures our distinctive identity and sense of self.

Yet how easily could we agree with the Psalmist today? Are we able to put a direct question to God? And even if we are comfortable with that relationship, would we dare to remind God that a precondition of the conversation is that God must pay attention to us and care for us? For many of us the easy familiarity of the covenantal relationship is lost and we struggle to find a bridge to that place.  This is what the month of Ellul is for, and it is also some of the work of the High Holy Days.  We may no longer be sure of God; we may wonder about the purpose of prayer. And yet part of us doesn’t want to let it all go; we want to return to that clarity that gives meaning to our lives. The Psalmist had many doubts and fears, but he knew his worth in relation to God.  It is time for us to reclaim that knowledge, to search ourselves and to begin to really know ourselves. This understanding is the foundation of the bridge we build into the future, the bridge we build back to the knowledge of God.