20th Elul – the great shofar sounds…

20 Ellul

Even though the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is a Biblical decree, it hints at something, i.e., “Wake up, sleepers, from your sleep! And slumberers, arise from your slumber! Search your ways and return in teshuvah and remember your Creator! Those who forget the Truth amidst the futility of the moment and are infatuated all their years with vanity and nothingness that will not help and will not save, examine your souls and improve your ways and your motivations! Let each of you abandon your wicked ways, and your thoughts which are no good.” (Maimonides Mishneh Torah, Hilchot teshuvah 3:4)

The shofar is a peculiarly powerful instrument. Its call pierces the air – we cannot ignore its sound.  It has been used to summon people for battle, as a warning, as a blast to terrify the enemy. It was heard at Sinai – though it is not clear who was blowing it. The ram caught in a thicket at the binding of Isaac was caught by its horn, from which comes the rabbinic idea that God instructed Abraham that his descendants should blow the shofar whenever they were in danger of divine punishment – the merits of the protagonists in the Akedah would be brought in front of God who would therefore forgive us.  Bible tells us to blow it to announce the New Moon of Tishri, and from that comes the idea that every new month is publicised in this way.

The sound of the shofar is also close to the sounds of wailing and of more gentle but insistent crying.  The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 33b) discussing the sounds has one tanna saying the Teruah means a wailing sound, the Sh’varim denotes moaning or broken sighs.  The Tekiah, the straight blast of sound, is both introductory and closing sound, to contain and to announce the sorrowful nature of the other calls.

The shofar does much of our work for us. It is designed to wake us up, but also to give voice to our fears and anxieties, and then to strengthen us in our battle to become our best selves.  There is a debate in the Talmud about whether the shofar should be bent or straight, and the implication is that the shofar represents the person who is approaching God – should we approach with our backs straight and, so to speak, look God in the eye while asking for forgiveness, or should we be bent with the weight of our sorrow at the sin we are carrying, and looking down to the ground?

There is no answer given – all shofarot whether straight or curved are permissible. Each of us, however we feel about ourselves, can come before God and under that divine gaze, be open about what and who we currently are.

 

 

19 Elul – reorienting ourselves in order to see our lives more clearly

19th Elul

No sin is so light that it may be overlooked. No sin is so heavy that it may not be repented of. –Moses Ibn Ezra

There are times when we might feel satisfied with our teshuvah, we have worked and reflected and surely that is enough. There are times when we feel that what we have done cannot be undone, and this weighs heavily on us and may sap our will to teshuvah.

But every morning we wake  up to a new day, the morning prayer reminds God and us that we were born with a pure soul, that creation is remade each day, that there is always a way back however many imperfections we may embody.

Indeed our imperfections are part of our humanity. We are not angels, we have free will and that includes the ability to make choices which are not necessarily the best ones for us or for the world.

The word for “sin” is freighted with meaning that is not part of the Jewish understanding. “Hata’a” is a term used in archery for missing the mark that is aimed at – and the arrow landing elsewhere instead. Teshuvah – return – is about reorienting one’s aim to get closer to the target, albeit further on in our life than originally hoped for.

Reflection, regret, re-orienting ourselves will help us in the coming year to become more of our best selves. There is nothing in our way but ourselves.

 

 

16th Ellul: the gates of repentance are always open

16 Ellul

In the introduction to “Orot haTeshuvah” (14:4), Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook writes: “The main reason for our failure to repent is that we do not believe how easy repentance can be”. He notes: “On the one hand, repentance is a divine command that is so easy to perform because the mere intention to repent is already considered repentance. Yet, on the other hand, it is an extremely difficult commandment because the act of penitence is not complete until it has been executed thoroughly in the outside world and in our own lives”

Tradition teaches that the work of teshuvah has two different strands. In Elul the focus is on the teshuvah known as “bein adam l’havero” – between people. When we reach Yom Kippur, that work is meant to have been done, we have reflected on our behaviour and made sincere apologies; where we can we have righted wrongs, or recompensed for them. Repairs have been made to the dislocated and torn relationships we have ignored or abused. We have sought forgiveness from those we have hurt, and we forgive those who seek our forgiveness for their hurt to us. This is important because Mishnah (Yoma 8:3) teaches:  “For the transgressions are between human and the divine, Yom Kippur atones; for the transgressions that are between human and human, Yom Kippur does not atone until one has appeased the other.” (Yoma 8.3)

The personal acts of atonement between human beings are the most critical for us – when we come to Yom Kippur the liturgy – with its collections of confessions, of reflections, of warnings and welcomings –will take us on a different path.

But the best guidance comes – as so often – from Maimonides. The process of Teshuvah is logical and clear for him. First we must reflect and think about what we have done. Then we must actively regret our actions, and move towards the other in order to repair the damage and apologise with sincerity. After that is the requirement that we reject our own behaviour, resolving to no longer choose to act as we have done before. We will behave differently when faced with the same opportunity to sin as before.

Rav Kook had it right – it is both extremely easy and extremely difficult to perform teshuvah. How we act in the world may not always match up with our intentions, and that is painful to acknowledge. But it is interesting to me that teshuvah is one of the seven things said by the rabbis to have been created before the world was created. It means that built into our humanity is the expectation that we will make mistakes, behave selfishly or meanly or thoughtlessly. Yet teshuvah is always available – as the midrash tells us (Midrash Rabbah, Devarim) “ Rabbi Channanya bar Papa asked Rabbi Samuel bar Nachman, what is the meaning of the verse (Psalm), “As for me I will offer my prayer unto You in an acceptable time “? He replied, “The gates of prayer are sometimes open and sometimes closed, but the gates of repentance are always open.”

Or in the words of Franz Kafka “Only our concept of time makes it possible to speak of the Day of Judgment by that name; in reality it is a summary court in perpetual session”  (Reflections on Sin, Pain, Hope and the True Way 1917-1929).

The opportunity is ever present that we can become our better selves small act by small act as the days go by. The month of Elul may prompt us, but every day is an opportunity for teshuvah – and we should take it.

 

 

 

 

15th Elul – teshuvah as transformation

15th Elul

Teshuvah – Repentance / Return to God is a curious phenomenon of Jewish tradition.  It is an act of mercy which defies natural law, a phenomenon that does not exist outside of this religious and spiritual realm.  For any other legal code, what happened – immutably happened, history is history.  Expressions of regret by the perpetrator may be greatly appreciated, but they do not have the power to erase the guilt or bury the act of transgression.  In fact, human justice embodies this very principle.  Once a crime has been committed, the mere expression of regret and repentance is not sufficient to protect the criminal from conviction, (though it might be a mitigating factor when meting out punishment).

Repentance, then, and its ability to wipe the slate clean and return a person to a state of purity and innocence belongs not to the realms of justice or of law, but to that of mercy.  God, in infinite mercy redeems our undeserving selves from the results of our actions, relying on our change of heart (“the cancellation of will”) to effect a change in history (“the cancellation of the act”). So Teshuvah is not ever to be seen as a right, rather it is a privilege given to us by a merciful God.

And rabbinic tradition does not leave it there. The Talmud tells us (Kiddushin) that teshuvah me’ahava (repentance out of love; i.e., heartfelt regret) results in the transgressions being transmuted into merits, whereas teshuvah miyir’a (repentance out of fear) results in transgressions being transmuted into shegagot – unintentional lapses, for which forgiveness is effectively automatic as blame does not attach in the same way as deliberate acts of transgression.

Think of that: Repentance that is done out of love – real true regret for our actions – not only seems to erase them from the book of punishment, it actually is said to transform them into positive merits.

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.

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.