My first Blessingway
Daily psalm

Teshuvah season

We've entered the month of Elul: it's teshuvah season.

Teshuvah (תשובה) is often translated as "repentance" or "atonement." Some translate it as "return," as in turning-back-toward God. My dictionary translates it as "answer, reply; return, repentance."

As a kid, I learned that teshuvah happened during the Days of Awe (the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur). I was instructed to find everyone I might have offended in the previous year and seek their forgiveness. That practice has its root in the Talmudic text (Tractate Yoma) which argues that for a sin committed against God, prayer and repentance can atone, but for a sin committed against another person, forgiveness must be secured from that other person before the prayer and repentance can do their work with God.

But there's more to teshuvah than apologizing to people one might have wronged, and the process of teshuvah begins before Rosh Hashanah. A month before, in fact. On the first of Elul. Which is today.

One of my favorite drashes (story/teachings) on Elul (אלול) is that the word can be read as an acronym for Ani l'dodi v'dodi li, "I am my Beloved's and my Beloved is mine." The Beloved here is God, and this month is set aside for us to think about that teaching, to learn to inhabit it.

There are forty days now until Yom Kippur. The Torah shows us forty days of Flood; Moses spending forty days atop Sinai; the Children of Israel wandering forty years in the desert. (For that matter, the Christian scriptures show us Jesus wandering forty days in the desert, too.) The Rabbis believed there were forty weeks between menstruation and childbirth, so forty was Rabbinic shorthand for (re)birth. They taught that it takes forty days for an idea to move from germination to fruition.

We have forty days in which to transform ourselves. The tradition breaks those days into two parts: the month of Elul, and then the first ten days of Tishri. Elul is a time for examining our actions, words, and thoughts. Elul is a time for purification, for clearing out the mind of its negativity and judgement -- which makes it possible to spend the first ten days of Tishri doing something deeper. The beginning of Tishri is for inward teshuvah; but first comes the month of Elul, for teshuvah in the outer world.

Teshuvah is a process of cleaning. Imagine a windowpane which hasn't been washed in a year. It's dusty; it's dirty; it's grimy. Maybe it's festooned with cobwebs. Maybe it's muddied. Though the sun may be shining outside that window, light won't penetrate until the glass has been made clear. Each of us is a windowpane, and though God is shining, we can't see that until we take the time to clear away what's clouding our vision.

Or imagine a small pond that boots have walked through, where animals have splashed around and stirred up the silt. Although the waters are naturally clean and pure, agitation makes them muddy. Each of us is a pond, and Elul is our time to calm the waters so that by Tishri we are clean and clear, able to discern the source of light shining into us, still enough that rays of light can penetrate all the way to bedrock.

Rabbi Miles Krassen, with whom I had the pleasure of studying last Shabbat Shuvah at Elat Chayyim, teaches that the heart's desire is to come face-to-face with God. This goes deeper than the intellect; this is the desire of the neshama, the soul. The purpose of teshuvah is to prepare ourselves to fulfil the deepest desire of the soul, to turn towards God.

And we can't turn towards God until we've done our own spiritual housecleaning. If Elul is a time for outward teshuvah, then it's a time to think about how we are in the world. Apologizing to people we've hurt is a good piece of that, but it's not the whole process. This is a time to ask myself: what patterns am I re-enacting with the people in my life which are hurtful or which obscure what's really important? This is a time to ask myself: how am I letting my own issues get in the way of relating the way I want to relate? This is a time to ask myself: is my ego preventing me from being the Rachel I want to be?

A surface reading of the Days of Awe tells us that this is the season to repent of our sins so that we can atone on Yom Kippur. But the English word "repent" carries different conotations than teshuvah; and "sin" carries different connotations than חט/chet. Some argue that chet is an archery term meaning "missing the mark." (As it happens, "Torah" can also be read as an archery term -- which can be translated as aiming-toward-wisdom.)

Miles teaches that our missteps and misdeeds (our occasions of missing the mark) originate in a shallow consciousness that is disconnected from what Really Is, e.g. God. It's not that if we sin less, we'll be closer to God: rather, when we become aware of ourselves as close to God, we'll be less apt to miss the mark.

But how do we become attuned to God? How do we purify ourselves? How do we learn to face in the right direction? The tradition has a lot of answers, and I hope to spend the coming weeks exploring them.

I'll close this post with one more metaphor. Imagine a tower that stretches infinitely high into the heavens. Inside the tower is a spiral staircase, with landings on every floor; at each landing, there is a window. The view from the lowest window is different from the view on the fifth floor, or the tenth, or the hundredth. As we climb the stairs and pause at the different levels, we see new things. Where on the ground floor we saw earth and stones, from the tenth floor we can gaze out over some landscape. After a long while we see stars. Maybe even galaxies. Eventually something vaster and more real than we can imagine: what the mystical tradition calls the ein-sof, literally "without-end."

Climbing that tower is a spiritual practice. The view is different from different landings, but that view is always God. God is everywhere; maybe hard to see from the "lower" levels, but there nonetheless. What changes, as we work to ascend that tower, is us: the perceiver changes, not the perceived. As we ascend we become able to see more of God...but God was fully there all the time, is fully there on every floor.

Climbing that tower takes focus, and our lives are full of distractions. It's easy to go haring off on tangents, to get wrapped up in work and responsibilities, emotional entanglements and personal challenges, in books and movies and the blogosphere, in the world. And that's okay; that's human. Judaism doesn't teach renunciation of the world: we're supposed to sanctify our ordinary lives, not withdraw from them. But it's easy to forget to sanctify. It's easy to become clouded.  The process of teshuvah helps us look around, remember where we are and where we want to be going, and take one more step towards the next window, the next insight, the next face of God.