Rabbi Gendler on Rosh Hashanah
This week's portion: where teshuvah can be found

Seasonal teachings from Rabbi Alan Lew

Last year, shortly after Yom Kippur came to an end, I dipped into the Elat Chayyim bookstore and picked up a copy of a book I'd been meaning to read for a while: Rabbi Alan Lew's This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation.

Back in 2003 when Velveteen Rabbi was new, I posted a brief review of Rabbi Lew's first book, One God Clapping. I've been meaning to read his book about the Days of Awe ever since, and when I saw it there on a table last fall I bought the copy right away. Of course, having just come through the emotional and spiritual challenges of Yom Kippur, I wasn't in any mood to crack the book then. But I promised myself I would read it when Elul rolled around again.

I'm reading it now, and I'm finding it both valuable and thought-provoking. And for that reason, I'm going to break with the way I usually review books here. Because I bought this book specifically in hopes of enriching my journey through teshuvah season, I don't want to review it after the fact; instead, I'd like to post about it a few times, and share what I'm finding powerful as I work my way through.

The journey I will describe in these pages is one of self-discovery, spiritual discipline, self-forgiveness, and spiritual evolution. It is the snapshot the Jewish people pull out every autumn of the great journey all human beings must make across the world: the journey from Tisha b'Av to Sukkot, from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, from birth to death and back to renewal again...

It's easy to think of the Days of Awe (or, in the locution I grew up with, the High Holidays) as a pair of holidays at opposite ends of a ten-day span. Two discrete moments in time, one majestic but joyful (apples and honey!) and the other kind of a pain (hey, it's a fast day.) But Rabbi Lew makes a persuasive argument that these days make best sense in the context of a broader journey which begins with Tisha b'Av and stretches through Sukkot -- and that this annual holiday journey is a microcosm of the cycle we enact in our lives.

He spends a while looking at one of the most memorable prayers in the high holiday liturgy, the Unetaneh Tokef prayer (which I blogged about in some detail last year.) On Rosh Hashanah, the prayer says, it is decided who will live and who will die. Rabbi Lew points out that this piece of liturgy is derived from Talmud, but with a twist. The original Talmud quote says that tefilah, teshuvah and tzedakah (prayer, repentance, and righteousness) will cause the negative decree to be torn up. The liturgy, in contrast, makes a different claim: that the three T's will transform the evil of the decree. The decree doesn't go away, but how we experience it changes. Or, in his words,

Spiritual practice won't change what happens. Rather, it will help us to experience what happens not as evil, but simply as what happens. Spiritual practice will help us to understand that everything that happens, even the decree of death, flows from God.

Over time, he writes, the Jewish conception of atonement changed from something propitiatory (animal sacrifice as a way of changing one's fate) to something internally transformative. Of course, this kind of transformation can't be enacted in a mere ten days; hence the sense that the Days of Awe work best within the context of the two-month period from Tisha b'Av through Sukkot. Then again, it's arguable that the real work of teshuvah happens on a much longer timeframe even than that:

[I]t became clear that this was a process that never ended, that rather it stretched out to the infinite horizon... The business of transformation was going on all the time. It never stopped. The two-month period in question was merely a time when we focused on it, when we gave form to something invisible that lay dormant yet was possible to awaken at every moment of our lives.

The process of teshuvah, properly-understood, is constant and ongoing. We focus especially on it between Tisha b'Av and Sukkot because we're not capable of pouring all of our energy into it actively all the time. (Not if we ever want to get anything else done, anyway.) But it's not a one-time thing. It's always present in us.

He also tackles a fascinating assertion made in the Talmud about the nature of teshuvah. In tractate Yoma, 68b, the question is asked, how can one recognize a ba'al teshuvah, a master of repentance? Rav Yehuda answers, he is presented with an opportunity to sin more than once, and is saved from it. Rabbi Yehuda adds, "With the same woman, with the same desire, in the same place." In other words, real repentance is only possible when we a) make a mistake once, b) are given the opportunity to make the same mistake again, and c) choose not to do it. But what if the circumstances in question don't repeat themselves -- do we then not get the opportunity to make teshuvah? Rabbi Lew brushes away that concern:

Don't worry...They always do. The unresolved elements in our lives -- the unconscious patterns, the conflicts and problems that seem to arise no matter where we go or with whom we find ourselves -- continue to pull us into the same moral and spiritual circumstances over and over again until we figure out how to resolve them.

...Spiritually we are called to responsibility, to ask, What am I doing to make this recur again and again? Even if it is a conflict that was clearly thrust upon me from the outside, how am I plugging into it, what is there in me that needs to be engaged in this conflict? Why can't I just let it slough off me like water off a duck's back, as I am able to do with so many other things?

Imagine waking up sufficiently to notice, and learn from, the recurring experiences in our lives. (The idea makes for great narrative -- the movie Run Lola Run, the X-Files episode Monday, the Star Trek: Next Generation episode Cause and Effect...) On an emotional level, we do return ourselves to situations from which we need to learn. And until we figure out what we're supposed to be learning, we're liable to wind up repeating ourselves. This time of year offers an opportunity to pause and do the work of considering where we're at, where we've been, and how we've been complicit in shaping the parts of our journey that we don't enjoy but can't seem to avoid.

Rabbi Lew writes,

The gate between heaven and earth is always creaking open. The Book of Life and the Book of Death are open every day, and our name is written in one or the other of them at every moment, and then erased and written again the moment after that. We are constantly becoming, constantly redefining ourselves. This doesn't just happen on Rosh Hashanah...And every day of our life is fraught with meaning and dread, not just the Ten Days of Teshuvah... And there is always a trial going on, not just the heavenly court that convenes at Kol Nidre on the eve of Yom Kippur...And our heart is always breaking, and the gate is always clanging shut...

This concatenation of ritual, this dance that begins on Tisha b'Av and ends on Sukkot...stands for the journey the soul is always on. It is a map, drawn by the soul, of the journey it must take, the journey it is already taking.

Good stuff. I'll post more as I work my way further through the book.

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