For ten days, the gates are open and the world is fluid. We are finally awake, if only in fits and starts, if only to toss and turn. For ten days, transformation is within our grasp. For ten days, we can imagine ourselves not as fixed and immutable beings, but rather as a limitless field upon which qualities and impulses rise up with particular intensity...
These are the words of Rabbi Alan Lew, may his memory be a blessing, in my favorite book to reread at this time of year -- This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation.
For ten days -- ten magical days -- the aseret y'mei teshuvah, "ten days of teshuvah" -- we inhabit a liminal space, a space of in-between-ness. We have entered the Days of Awe through the gate of Rosh Hashanah; we will exit them through the gate of Yom Kippur; but for now, we float in the middle.
For now, if we are fortunate, the experience of Rosh Hashanah (or the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah or the Torah reading or the experience of being with family and friends or the experience of not being with family and friends) has opened something up in us.
If we are fortunate, we are having moments of wakefulness, moments of realizing oh my goodness, this is my life, this is the only life I have. Moments of feeling the urgent tug toward change. Moments of knowing that whoever we have been, whoever we think we are, is not the only way for us to be.
Transformation does not have a beginning, a middle, or an end. We never reach the end of Teshuvah. It is always going on. We are awake for a moment, and then we are asleep again. Teshuvah seems to proceed in a circular motion. Every step away is also a step toward home.
And it may never be clear to us that the work of transformation has borne fruit.
Rabbi Alan Lew teaches that teshuvah, turning and re/turning and re-aligning ourselves in the right direction once again, is an endless process. When we stray from the path, make mistakes, get ourselves into trouble, our very predicament can become a gift, "the agent of our turning."
It is because we are imperfect that we are able to strive toward becoming better. It is because we are imperfect that we are able to imagine transformation and to pursue it. Even as we feel that our mis-steps are pulling us further away from the home for which we yearn, those missteps are also always the seed of our return.
[W]hy does the heart requires such an indirect approach? Why won't it just open wide when we ask it to? Why does it resist us so? We are sentimental about the heart, but the truth is, most of us spend a great deal of time and energy avoiding the heart at all costs. Really, we are afraid of what we might find there... The heart holds our suffering. The pain we most need to deal with is sitting right there on our hearts in plain sight, or else it is just inside its dark chambers.
I think that avoiding the heart is human nature. It is natural for the heart to ache. If we are paying attention to the world, we will feel sorrow. And we will also feel joy! But both sorrow and joy require attentiveness to the heart. And sometimes it feels easier to opt for pasting on a smile or numbing ourselves or both.
Every year is the same, because being human is the same. And every year is different, because the events of my life have led me to someplace new. This year my heart is caught between wanting to turn away from the grief of knowing that someone I love is suffering, and wanting to be present to what is even when "what is" is painful.
These ten days of teshuvah invite me to open the doors of my own heart, to walk inside, and to sit there with all of my emotions. With my hope and my exultation and my fear and my grief and my love and my sorrow and all the things I wish I could change but can't.
The great drama of this season is the drama of choice. The power of choice is immense. We can choose to let go of anger, boredom, fear, guilt, impatience, grief, disappointment, dejection, anxiety, and despair, and we can make this choice moment by moment, and we can make this choice in a broader way as well. We can let go of each constituent feeling as we become aware of it, and we can form a clear and continuous intention to let those feelings go.
This paragraph leaps out at me every year. "We can choose to let go..." When I encounter people who frustrate me, I can choose to let go of that frustration. When I get annoyed (with the world; with my child; with myself), I can choose to release that annoyance instead of focusing on it. When I meet my own grief, I can choose to feel it and then to open my hands and let it float away.
This is part of what I find in the Unetaneh Tokef prayer which we recite during these awesome days. (See Every day I write the book, 2005.) We do not know, cannot know, what the coming year will contain. But we can always choose the path of teshuvah, the path of sustaining spiritual practice, the path of reaching out to those in need. We can always choose.
I can choose to open my heart, to sit with what I'm feeling even when it hurts, to be awake to who I am and who I have been and who I want to be in the year to come. To acknowledge my failings not in a self-flagellatory way, but in a way which will be the "agent of my turning," in Rabbi Lew's words -- a way which will help me come home again.