In this season of preparing for the Days of Awe, we are mandated to look deeply within with clear-eyed honesty and to admit to ourselves how we have “missed the mark” during this past year. We are asked not simply to note, but also to open, in compassionate awareness, to the pain we have caused ourselves and others.
This is the essence of teshuvah (return). Opening to our humanness, to the ways we fall short over and over, enlarges us as human beings and as Jews, making it possible to touch the truth of our lives, to develop spiritually, and to act with more integrity, justice and love.
Rav Kook, the great scholar, mystic, poet, and activist who served as chief rabbi of Palestine in the 1930’s, wrote in Orot Ha-Teshuvah, The Lights of Teshuvah: “Teshuvah holds a primary place in the teachings of the Torah and in life; all the hopes of the individual and of society depend on it.” He believed that the urge to teshuvah springs from our natural desire for shleymut—wholeness. It arises and is addressed first on the physical level—when we have violated laws of nature, the body, and morality—then on the spiritual and religious level—when we have fallen away from the precepts of our faith and right action—and finally at the level of mind. This final phase of teshuvah, he writes, “in which the previous are included, abounds in endless delight. It transforms all the past sins into spiritual assets.”
An amazing notion—that teshuvah, which begins in the awareness of where and how and with whom I have messed up, is ultimately a source of my deepest joy! In our just-completed year-long class, Living in Joy, we studied the Ba'al Shem Tov’s approach to dealing with challenging experience—the grief, fear, and anger engendered by loss. Since it’s most often when I’m acting out of grief, fear and anger that I hurt myself and others, the Ba’al Shem’s approach, which begins with “surrender” (hakhna’ah) to the pain of the moment and proceeds through “discernment” and “sweetening,” can serve as a spiritual prescription for the practice of teshuvah.
The surrender the Ba’al Shem calls for is not, I believe, a giving in or a collapse of will, but rather a subtle use of will to subdue our instinct to push away what is happening. If I can do this with compassion rather than with more layers of anger or fear, then, instead of distancing and freezing in patterns of hurt, anger, fear, grief, or envy, I have the possibility of discerning (havdalah) the Holy within the painful (as well as the pleasureable!) and of reconnecting with myself, my fellow beings, and with G~d. The Ba’al Shem calls this lifting up of pain and suffering hamtakah, or sweetening. We might also call it teshuvah. It is a commitment to constantly melt the internal "ice" that forms in response to insults or injuries or disappointments—to reopen the channels of Life Force, the inner flow of joy.
My friends, my practice for this month is to open in compassion to the flow of experience, however painful, to love and for-give all that is coming to me. Please know that if there is some way I have felt hurt by any one of you, it is my deepest intention to forgive and let go of that hurt. If there are ways I have hurt or disappointed you, I hope that you will find it in yourself to release that pain and restore the flow. If that involves sharing something with me, I am open to hearing and being with the pain, though this is indeed a busy time of High Holy Day preparations. To be together in deepest integrity and prayer during these coming holy days requires no less.
May this month of Elul stretch our hearts and minds, enabling us to see more deeply into the nature of Truth, so that we may live by its light. May the sounds of the shofar, blown each day this month and during the Yamim Nora-im, the Days of Awe, startle us awake, so that we may move onward clear-eyed, our mission and purpose exposed. May the compassion that binds molecules, may the love-in-many-forms that suffuses life, guide and sustain us in all that we do.