We spend this month of Elul doing teshuvah and cheshbon hanefesh – a personal accounting of our soul and our deeds from the past year.
That’s the start of the drash that many people will hear from rabbis at this time of year. As if to say – we all know how this works. We turn inward; do some meditation and mindfulness. Jot down some thoughts about the things we regret. And then we’re good to go. Soul accounted for!
This is not that drash.
I recently heard it put that: “Teshuvah may well be one of the most deceptively simple concepts in the whole of the Jewish canon. We dumb it down… But teshuvah is un-bearably difficult, and the seeming elusiveness real teshuvah can be downright tragic.”
So here’s the version of teshuvah I‘m grappling with:
Do you believe that deep within you is a fundamentally good version of yourself, cleansed of the messiness that the world layers on top? Untarnished by all of our misdeeds and human failings?
And do you believe – truly believe – that you have the capacity to embody that version of yourself? Not just to not mess up, and then to apologize for doing so. But to undergo a radical shift of character so that you return (in Hebreew, “shuv“) to being the kind of person who wouldn’t have messed up in the first place? And then to forgive yourself when you inevitably do?
That’s teshuvah. It is hard.
I want to ask: Can we do this on our own? Can we really just have this be a personal project?
We know where we want to go; who we want to be. But often, we have such a hard time knowing exactly how to get there. Our human souls are cast about by turbulent storms, and the path ahead of us often appears to be completely washed out.
Is it surprising that so many of us just want the children’s version of teshuvah? Or to just say to ourselves: “I can’t do it”
Real teshuvah demands we open ourselves to the vulnerability of having others present to our spiritual growth. Even this year – especially this year – teshuvah can’t be something that we do in the seclusion of our personal sanctuaries.
Three weeks ago, Stephanie, my wife, and I were driving home to DC from a trip to New York, and we got caught in the most frightening rainstorm I have ever been in.
The torrent that showered down upon us was truly unlike anything I’ve ever been in.
The stretch of highway we were on didn’t have streetlights. Only our car’s headlights could illuminate the road.
I was terrified. I slowed down, dropping to a sluggish 10 mph. Should we just pull over, give up, and wait it out?
No – who knows how long this will last, and it would be even more dangerous to get back on the highway.
4-way emergency flashers on, we kept crawling ahead.
What caused the most panic in me was that I couldn’t see the road lanes. There was no way to tell where it was safe to drive – no clear path in front of us. Our headlights were useless.
What I needed to do to stay safe – truly the only thing I could do to stay safe – was to keep my eyes on the taillights of the car in front of us, and follow their path.
I needed the people in front of us.
And the people behind us needed me.
We needed each other’s light.
I’m amazed that everyone on the road intuited this. Most people don’t have any sort of training or experience driving through a storm like this. But we all did the same thing: slowed down. Emergency lights on. Looked ahead. Looked behind. And kept going.
This is also how teshuvah can work.
Because we all inevitably lose sight of the road ahead of us.
Sometimes, we don’t even have the ability to get off the road of life, so we just keep going on ahead on autopilot – just the way we’ve always been. Going, but not really going anywhere.
What we need are the lights of the people in front of us. The lights that tell us when to slow down. The lights that say to us: “I’ve been where you’ve been. It’s scary, but I can help you find your way out.”
There is no conceivable way that Stephanie and I could have made it home safe from New York were it not for the path of taillights in front of us.
We need the lights in front of us. And we need to be the lights for others.
I think among the first steps in doing teshuvah is acknowledging that we’re not alone. That we have a responsibility not just to ourselves, but to each other.
Of course we are ultimately accountable for our own actions. But it’s not reasonable to assume that we can restore ourselves all alone. If this is really the monumental work of this season – if it’s really about storming our souls and cracking open our hearts, and discovering how broken and beautiful we are… how on earth can we be expected to do that alone?
Perhaps it’s because we were never meant to do it on our own to begin with.
In this week’s parashah, Moses speaks to the Israelites a kind of grand summary of what it means to have gone on the journey of entering into the covenant with God:
You stand this day, all of you before Adonai your God,” he says. “Your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer – to enter into the covenant of Adonai your God.”
The medieval Moroccan rabbi Chaim ibn Attar, the Or HaChaim, notices something important about this text: Why does the Torah have to give this extensive list of people, after it already said “all of you”? Wasn’t that sufficient?
His answer is that we need this more specific list, because the very meaning of the covenant with God is built on mutual responsibility. We need to know each other. We need to know by whom we’re surrounded, because we’re entering into a contract with each other where we have influence over our fellows.
When we mess up, each person is responsible – held liable – for the next. And it’s irrespective of hierarchy: when the elders err, it’s just as much the tribal heads who are co-accountable. We are all each other’s guarantors in this contract.
Even more so, the Or HaChaim teaches that “this is according to the ability that is found in each person.” This is not just a vague sense of emotional mutual responsibility. We actually have to know – practically – our own abilities and deficiencies. And the strengths and weaknesses of our fellows.
The kids’ version of teshuvah is to think we just need to apologize and promise never to do it again.
Today’s commodified mindfulness version is to think we can do it on our own with just a little meditation.
The inclination – this year especially – is to think we can do it on our own.
But the only way through the storm that is real teshuvah is by relying on the lights of others.
We’ll never see the road ahead of us without them. And don’t forget that those behind us are so dependent on our own illumination.