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This week's portion: potential and reality

Reb Z on teshuvah

As I may have mentioned, I'm taking a course called Reading Reb Zalman this summer, so I'm spending a fair amount of time working my way through much of the Shachter-Shalomi oeuvre.

Right now we're reading A Guide for Starting Your New Incarnation: Teachings on the Modern Meaning of T'shuvah -- it's something of a companion piece to the Yom Kippur Katan book I reviewed a few weeks ago. This reading is definitely well-timed -- it's a timely way to prepare for the month of Elul and the process of teshuvah (contemplation and atonement) we're all about to embark on. What follows are a few teachings drawn from that text which particularly resonated for me.

(Incidentally, I recognize that this is the third post in as many weeks about Reb Zalman's work; my apologies to anyone who finds this tight focus repetitive. The blog tends to reflect what I'm reading and thinking about, and right now I'm reading an awful lot of Reb Zalman...)


The Rambam and many classical commentators take the verse "Chadesh yameinu k'kedem," "Renew our days as of old" (Lamentations, 5:21) to mean that teshuvah, re/turn, takes us back to the condition we were in before a particular sin. In this paradigm, only if you withstand the same temptation in the same situation again have you really done teshuvah.

Reb Zalman suggests that this is a limited understanding. "Papa says you broke the thing and the kid wants to make it unbroken," he muses, "but even if that were possible simply restoring that which was broken would not address the issue of what is my current proper relationship to my father." Restoring the past, in other words, is a) impossible and b) a kind of misplaced emphasis. We can understand k'kedem as a return to a deep original state, a kind of beginner's mind, and that's the deep message of teshuvah -- the need to return to our higher or deeper selves.

In reading about teshuvah, it's likely we will find ourselves immersed in language of good and evil, mitzvot and aveirot. Reb Nachman, for instance, has written about how our thoughts are actualized in our actions, and how every sin we commit touches all the universes in a destructive way. Valuable as these teachings are, Reb Zalman notes, they're quite binary, which may not be helpful to us. "The universe of discourse that seeks to understand the complexity in our lives in terms of good and evil yokes us to more of the same," he says. "In taking sides, I must identify the other with evil and myself with good." And maybe we need a more complex system than that.

There's a deep need to balance new understandings with old ones, perhaps especially in this work. "On the one hand, we have to bring from the past into the present and, on the other hand, in tension with the past, we have to try and find new ways as well."

One of my favorite passages in this text is about tashlich, the ritualized and prayerful tossing of our mistakes -- in the form of bread crumbs, usually -- into the waters. Reb Zalman writes:

Most people think tashlich is about throwing away. However, from an eco-kosher point of view, this no longer makes sense. Prior to ecology we thought that we could throw things away. Now we realize that we cannot throw anything away; that there is no 'away.' Instead, what we cast out needs to be neutralized, it needs to be made biodegradable, so that it can be recycled without causing additional pollution.

I've long been fascinated by the way in which the physical movement of tashlich mirrors an internal and spiritual movement. So I'm delighted by this passage and its understanding that what we cast away -- even in a spiritual sense -- enters the ecosystem of the wider world, and we need to be conscious of the impact of what we toss out. He continues:

Imagine that I've been overeating and I want to do t'shuvah. I make up my mind that I'll never overeat again, but it doesn't work and I continue to overeat. Why? Because I treat the overeating as my enemy. But originally it came as a friend, because at one point it was necessary in my life -- if I hadn't stored up when I did, perhaps I wouldn't have managed to live through a time that was lean in other ways. In order to let go of a habit that I acquired at one point, I need to say thank you to that habit...And now, with full appreciation, I know that I no longer need you and I can send you away. This is different from trying to kick it out. And this needs to be true for all the things we want to say good-bye to at tashlich.

(This is a teaching that comes through in Reb Arthur Waskow's work, too.) Defense mechanisms arise initially because they serve a purpose. Hoarding, for instance -- in the physical world, or in the emotional and spiritual worlds -- can be a response to a perceived lack, or the danger of lack. And there's a reason we develop that behavior! At some point it serves a purpose. And then at some later point, the behavior becomes calcified, and we lose the capacity to see it clearly, and then maybe we lose the capacity to change the behavior, too.

Elul, and the process of teshuvah our tradition encodes in the season we're about to begin, is the perfect opportunity to explore and change our hardwired responses and our behavior patterns. But just deciding to change something, without understanding what brought the chronic pattern into being, isn't going to get us very far. Real teshuvah requires us to look deeply into who we are, who we have been, and who we want to be.

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