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Yom Kippur: Using Teshuvah to Heal, Grow, and Repair

10/14/2022 01:06:14 PM


Rabbi Ezray

Twenty years ago, I had a mild heart attack three weeks before Rosh Hashana. My predecessor, Rabbi David Teitelbaum of blessed memory, who was Rabbi Emeritus, stepped in to ease the burden on me by delivering a couple High Holiday sermons. It was such a gracious and kind act. I made it to synagogue and was blessed to hear him speak.

In one sermon, he talked about teshuvah, which he defined as returning to our best selves. He lifted up teshuvah as the most ennobling of concepts, for it asserts we can change. He thought of teshuva as a catalyst for a renewed self and repaired relationships. As we acknowledge and learn from our mistakes, speak to the people where there has been hurt, these actions become steppingstones to new and better places. We become the people we want to be. The example he brought was our need to take care of ourselves by being thoughtful about prioritizing health. It was an important and powerful message, like the sermons he gave throughout his career.

But here is how I heard it: “Nat: you haven’t taken care of yourself. Excuse after excuse, rationalizing all the reasons you haven’t made health a priority. And look what happened: a heart attack! Get it together!” He talked about self-care in a positive way, and I turned it into harsh judgment. I beat my chest for the sin of neglecting my health, sitting with shame and blame. I look back and reflect on how we confuse teshuvah with harsh judgment toward ourselves and others. We take an ennobling concept and make it hurtful.

          I bring this story in the context of my Rosh Hashana sermon which interpreted the prayer Unetane Tokef as God reading our stories; our fragility, humanity, and experiences. We author our own books, as the prayer says: v’chotam yad kola dam bo – everyone’s signature is in the book. The prayer teaches we can only control our response to life’s realities through teshuvah: turning inward and returning to our best selves; tefilla: lifting our voices; and tzedakah: turning toward others and caring for them. We possess the capacity to transform our fate, but we must thoughtfully understand these concepts.  Let that be the book we write this year.

Today I want to study how teshuvah is often misunderstood, as I did with Rabbi Teitelbaum, and to reframe it; so that our Book of Life will not be one of harsh and unfair criticism, but instead, one of growth, change, healing, reconciliation, and discovery.   

Let teshuvah be gentle and patient; rooted in compassion.  

Reflect on where we have missed the mark and celebrate our accomplishments.

Let our teshuvah work reflect upon the whole picture; digging deep, being curious, listening with heart, and knowing that change often comes in small steps and that each step brings new insight.  

As I look back on my cardiac incident, I realize that too often I want teshuvah to be quick and easy. I am a problem solver; here’s the problem and here is the solution. Problem: heart attack. Solution: a few stents, a new health regime, some changed perspective, gratitude, and on we go. Heart attack: rear view mirror. But life is not straight lines and real change doesn’t come in a flash. Maimonides wisely taught that sometimes teshuvah takes time. Real change needs to account for the fact that life oscillates, filled with complexity, from moments of order to loops, spirals, wobbles, twists, tangles, and turn-abouts. Let’s allow ourselves to process as we are able, at our own pace. In his book Life is in the Transitions, Bruce Feiler argues that the life quakes that inevitably come, usually without warning and often multiple simultaneously, take more time than we think they should to integrate and learn about. Through his research, Feiler teaches that the average length of a life transition is around five years, and some take longer. Let’s give ourselves time to unwrap the many pieces and behaviors connected to what occurs in our lives. 

We need time to face the collective life quake of these past few years. The disruption and upheaval we have experienced has upended our world. If we want to emerge with meaning and purpose, we have to sit with, process, dig deeper, and respond thoughtfully. It will take time. Re-visit and re-write. Listen to the stories of others as we re-orient and find deeper meaning. And know, that some things require immediate change, and we don’t have the luxury of time. Help us to know the difference and understand that even those things requiring immediate change often need time to be fully understood, integrated, and responded to.

As I explored teshuvah after my cardiac incident, I came to understand that sometimes I hide from, deny, or do not fully understand on a conscious level all the difficult emotions. Teshuvah required creating space for conflicting emotions and feelings. I heard Rabbi Teitelbaum’s words as condemnation because I was terrified about what happened; what it might mean and how I was going to deal with this new life reality. It was easier go to harsh self judgement and quick solutions rather than to confront real emotions.

Many of us have not learned to accept the emotions we experience. I needed to learn simply to sit with emotion. As someone who is naturally cheerful and positive and believes in creating blessing from pain, my deeper teshuvah was to create room for sadness, loss, pain, and uncertainty. Susan Cain’s book Bittersweet contends that American culture often does not allow room for sadness. We are taught to be cheerful and keep negative feelings hidden. We blame ourselves for sadness or not measuring up to the positive affect we feel people expect from us.  My response to Rabbi Teitelbaum’s sermon was actually about avoiding the emotions his sermon brought up. Let’s catch ourselves pushing away or negatively judging certain emotions. Let’s accept and process what is real.

Susan Cain points out the steep price of our cultural legacy of forced positivity: depression, avoidance, confusion. When we try to push away and deny sadness and sorrow – those emotions grow and come out in all kinds of ways.  When we create space to say, “I’m not okay,” doors open; often creativity and meaning emerge. We find pieces of light and purpose in unexpected areas. Let’s become comfortable with joy, sadness, gratitude, and anxiety all sitting together. We can be honest and share vulnerability in ways that connect rather than putting on an inauthentic affect. This is a key piece of meaningful and healthy teshuvah - seeking to find and act upon becoming our better selves.

This year, let the story we write for our Book of Life acknowledge our growth. I wish I could have heard Rabbi Teitelbaum’s call to health and not focus solely on the places where I fell short, but to celebrate the careful changes I had made, seeing I needed to pat myself on the back, place a gentle and loving hand on my healing heart, and not beat my chest. 

And then we dig deeper. As I dug deeper, I knew I needed to deal with managing stress if I was to return to a sense of wholeness with health. We know the connection between stress and well-being and most of us have work to do. I have dug into it: meditating, pausing to breathe, gratitude, awe, sleep, processing, boundaries, and rejecting perfectionism have been pieces of stress management I am learning about, but I’m not there yet. And that is okay. Honestly, the last few years with COVID, polarization, and other events in the world have been particularly difficult. I know I am not alone. I listen to your stories, and our children’s stories, of the stress, anxiety, loneliness, and sadness. The mental health crisis is real! How do we find balance? How might we manage stress?

I have no magic bullet, but the book I shared in my Rosh Hashana sermon, Oliver Burkeman’s, Four Thousand Weeks-Time Management for Mortals had some good wisdom. Burkeman argues that it is not about being more productive.  In fact, all our efforts at efficiency and use of technology haven’t helped! The more we get done, the more there is to do! Burkeman teaches we need to acknowledge that we will never finish all the things on our To Do list. He suggests accepting the discomfort of knowing this, then, truly prioritizing two, maybe three key items. Listen to his words: “Convenience culture seduces us into imagining that we might find room for everything important…but it’s a lie. You have to choose a few things, sacrifice everything else, and deal with the inevitable sense of loss that results.” It’s good advice, and difficult to do!

          The problem for me is that as I try to whittle the list to three things, numbers four, five, and six…feel like things that also must be done! How can I take them off the list?! So many things feel like a 10 on a scale of 1 to 10 in terms of priority.  I wish I could tell you I have figured this one out.

My teshuvah this year is continuing this work, continuing to try prioritizing and sit with the discomfort of important things not getting done rather than beating my chest for what has not been done.  

 Let’s allow awareness of where thumping our chests harshly and calling it teshuvah takes away from writing a beautiful book. Let’s internalize Rabbi Teitelbaum’s message: allowing our mistakes and pain to propel us to greater levels of wholeness. Start with these questions:

What hinders my efforts at teshuva?  

Where do I hit my chest too hard? 

What ingrained behaviors and misunderstandings of how life works stand in the way?

Know that God wants and welcomes our return and is patient. Emulate those qualities as we allow teshuvah to be a gift we embrace as we take one step, and then the next step.

Near the end of his life, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was asked his message to young people. He responded: “Let them remember that there is a meaning beyond absurdity. Let them be sure that every little deed counts, that every word has power, and that we can—everyone—do our share to redeem the world in spite of all absurdities and all frustrations and all disappointments. And above all, remember that the meaning of life is to build a life as if it were a work of art.” 

The books we write are works of art. May we write beautiful books in the coming year. G’mar Chatimah Tovah.

Wed, December 7 2022 13 Kislev 5783