Wisdom from R' Alan Lew for the Ten Days of Teshuvah
September 17, 2015
Longtime readers know that I maintain a practice of rereading Rabbi Alan Lew's This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared: the Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation at this season. I begin reading it at Tisha b'Av, and finish reading it at the end of Sukkot. That's the period of time which the book covers, and Rabbi Lew annually enriches my journey through those two months and through my own spiritual life.
One of the things I love about reading this book is that I have been underlining and making marginal notes in my copy for many years. There are passages I've underlined, and places where I drew exclamation marks in the margins. Blue ink, black ink, pencil markings. Each year my eye is drawn to the passages I marked in previous years, and often those passages still resonate for me. And each year my eye is drawn to something I haven't underlined before which is speaking to me in a new way this year because of where I am or what's on my mind and heart.
Here are some of the lines which leapt out at me this year.
First of all, we learn that Teshuvah can arise in the most hopeless circumstances... Most of us only embark on the difficult and wrenching path of transformation when we feel we have no choice but to do so, when we feel as if our backs are to the wall, when the circumstances of our lives have pushed us to the point of a significant leave-taking... Transformation is just too hard for us to volunteer for. Interestingly, God is depicted as the one who is doing the pushing here. We are in the predicament that has brought us to the point of transformation because God has driven us there. In other words, that predicament is part of the process. It is a gift, the agent of our turning.
It's easy for me to be glib about teshuvah, repentance / return. This year I am resonating with his point that sometimes transformation is most possible when we have exhausted every other alternative. Sometimes we aren't ready to change until we've tried everything else we can think of. Sometimes we only become ready to seek transformation when it becomes clear that the status quo is untenable. We may not know where we're going or who we're becoming, but we know we can't stay here.
We are sentimental about the heart, but the truth is, mot 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. We don't even know where it is or how we might find it, but somehow we understand there is a lot of pain there. If we are human, we suffer. 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.
In either case we are not inclined to look at it.
It's easy for me to be glib about the heart, too. How wonderful the heart is! How wonderful it is to love, to feel awe, to marinate in gratitude and joy, to be connected with other human beings! And yes, of course all of those things are wonderful. But they are not the only things the heart contains. They are not the only things my heart contains. Teshuvah -- a real re/turning, realignment, return-to-God -- may require me to look closely at sorrow, at grief, at loss, at anger. To accept all of those in me.
When we feel dead inside, it is often because there are old ideas we no longer believe in or haven't challenged in far too long, old feelings we really don't feel anymore but cling to desperately, afraid of what might happen if we admit we don't feel them. Without our realizing it, these things have suffocated us, crowding the life out of our soul. Sometimes they can be reinvigorated, refreshed, or reimagined. But sometimes they must be removed. We must simply let go of them. The altar must be emptied so that the light may keep burning.
Rabbi Lew writes beautifully in this chapter about the challenges of discernment. Sometimes, he writes, we delude ourselves into thinking that if we could just change X or Y thing in our lives, everything would be great -- and then we change X or Y thing and discover that life has not materially changed, because what needed changing was something internal to who we are. And sometimes we really do need to change X or Y thing. Sometimes we need to let go of ideas and feelings to which we were once attached but which are no longer alive The challenge is figuring out which one of these is true.
This is the work of this time of year. Somehow in between the workdays and the schooldays, packing lunch before the bus comes, figuring out what to cook for dinner, this is the work this season calls us to do. Right now, before it's too late. Not just because Yom Kippur is coming and we want to have done this internal work before we enter into that day of prayer and contemplation -- though it is and I do. But because this work is the gift of this season. And while I could in theory do it at any time, there's strength and comfort in knowing that others in my community are doing this work now too.