days of repentance: 13 Elul

 “you shall not see the ox of your brother or his sheep or goat cast off and hide yourself from them;

you shall surely return them to your brother . . . you will be unable to hide yourself”

R’ Avraham Shaag asks the obvious question of this phrase from this week’s parsha (Devarim 21:22-23): why the odd near repetition of the phrase about hiding yourself? he answers his question by explaining that even someone born with negative character traits (ie, laziness, tendency to complain, stubbornness, etc) can acquire good traits in their place. it is done by “answering a call, either from their heart, or from their knowledge” and behaving contrary to one’s natural tendencies. in this case, if your tendency is not to get involved–but you know in your heart you should, or you remember this mitzvah from Torah study, or your mother would be soooo disappointed in you–break it by going out of your way to do this mitzvah……repeatedly if necessary.

that last part, the repeatedly if necessary, is learned from Chazal. they learn from the phrase “you shall surely return them to your brother” that you must return a lost thing EVEN IF THE OWNER HAS LOST IT BEFORE AND YOU HAVE ALREADY RETURNED IT….100 TIMES BEFORE!

the mitzvah is alive in every moment, so too is the obligation to do it alive in every instance. there is no such thing as “habitual mitzvot”…though there certainly can be mechanical repetition in frequently repeated “everyday” mitzvot in those who do not yet live in the moment. but repetition serves to ingrain the doing in you. it will become as natural to you as breathing.

R’ Shaag uses this verse to point out that this is how you change your tendencies. what’s more, we should look for like opportunities to ingrain better behavior in ourselves during Elul. we should stop our indifference to others, remove all hatred from our hearts, put aside preening arrogance, stomp out lashon hara, and stop doing the errors for which we are atoning now. then maybe by the time Yom Kippur has passed, the new good behavior will have become second nature for us (D’rashot haRash, I, #25).

thus, you will be unable to hide yourself.

t’shuvah can also mean “response” or “answer”. there are many people who will turn toward G’d in moments of great crisis or fear, or in the face of enormous personal loss.they seek answers in response to hardship. their questions will often be deep seated and challenging, and they may not always be ready for the answers. no light is as bright as that which comes out of the darkness.

but it is always possible also to find opportunities around you in the most humdrum aspects of life and in the light, not the dark. and they also can exert a powerful call…and answers that will break your ways beyond what you would have thought possible. the opportunities will be deeply concealed in your habits, or in your everyday reactions to the people around you, or the world around you, or in your underlying assumptions.  the problem is that you have to find it out. and it is hidden to you by its everyday nature…and yourself  may now be hidden in it.

the parshah gives you a hint. what are the routine goods you do now? 100s or 1000s of times? and what are the things you know you should do, but shirk? you know your deeds…you know your “routines”. what is their to answer?

ketiva v’chatima tova

days of repentance: haftarah of comfort 5

“for but a brief moment have I forsaken you,

and with abundant mercy will I gather you in”

this week’s haftarah, the 5th of the comfort haftarot, is only 10 lines long (Isaiah 54:1-10). but it is replete with imagery of the heretofore barren giving birth to children, so many, in fact that the sides of the tent of settlement will have to be opened to both the left and also to the right to accommodate the growing brood.

perhaps the lesson for us in Elul, in the course of t’shuvah, is to realize that the exile in which our “I” has been wandering is brief, just a “little holdup” in the much greater volumes of time during which redemption will come and, what’s more, become established and persist. indeed, post-exilic life is greater than the life to which end of exile might be thought to simply ‘return’ you to (54:1)…

“for more are the children of the desolate than those of the married wife”

hmm. is this in the eyes of the one time lonely person who has never married and never given birth? is it just ‘relative’ this way? perhaps….i know that my only daughter seems like an abundance to me. but i suspect that the message for the time of t’shuvah is that the fruits of the work we do this month will multiply beyond our expectations up to this point. all that turning inward will pay rich rewards that will not be contained by your personal tent.

we’ve said that your t’shuvah is individual….unique to you. but the bursting out of the rekindled flame within will exert powerful effects on those to your left and your right….on all those you encounter from this time on. but why are we surprised?

after all, we love ourselves more and rightly as we grow nearer to our mission, nearer to our G’d, nearer to the proper path, so when we love our neighbors as ourselves, what MUST happen? the “as oursleves” effect will be exponential! big love all round, say i. great big love, like the compassion of G’d for the ba’al t’shuvah, the highest form of human soul!

ketivah v’chatima tova

days of repentance:12 Elul

“and I was in the exile”

and so he was…Ezekiel was amongst the babylonian exiles, so this phrase can be read simply and literally. but the greater lesson for t’shuvah is gleaned when we read “I” as “ego”, or even self. read it as, “my consciousness was in the exile”, and you will see another aspect of t’shuvah. the reintegration within yourself and then also with haShem. R’ Kook phrases it as: “restoring the human being to being human”, which naturally means reintegration with G’d.

physical exile is dreadful….never to be undersestimated. but we are all of us more immediately acquainted with the exile that is estrangement from oneself, and from one’s community. so many jews these days are exiled from their home community, dispersed amongst the communities of nonjews without a hook to any jewish institution. and all of us to some degree seem to be exiled from ourselves…or at least from our better selves.

when we say that t’shuvah can also be understood/read as tashuv hei, or return of the lower hei of the Unpronounceable Name–the hei that extends into Creation following the vav–we probably should understand not only what the ba’al hatanya wanted us to understand…that we are to return the hei to haShem in Elul…but that the way we return the hei to G’d is to restore it to ourselves! it is, after all, clearly a spark of Divinity, and as every kabbalist knows, our very business on the planet is to restore Divine sparks to their Source, removing them from the klipot, the husks, that conceal their light.

“the soul of man is the candle of G’d, searching all the inward parts”

if we just let the Divine spark within burn radiantly, according to Proverbs 20:27, that spark is restored to being the tool with which G’d G’dself assists us in our self examination. t’shuvah movement toward G’d on our part returns us to our inward parts, and what do we find? well, if we are attuned to it, we will find the Presence of the Holy One bringing the search of ‘elul’ to our deepest recesses, our soul flickering against the walls of ourselves.

repentance doesn’t really cover the enormity of t’shuvah. not all of the work is a putting aside of chet and aveirah. it is also a removing the exile from within us….a reintegration of our parts and understandings.  t’shuvah is a homecoming within us and to our soul’s Source. and that is why every person’s t’shuvah is unique. it must fit our ego. it must be born of the spark we each have been granted. and it must be focused on our personal calling and mission in the world.

we speak often of tikkun olam, the repair of the world, thinking of it as action in the larger world. and so it is. but let none of us forget that there is internal tikkun to be done….and please, please don’t forget that   recognition and restoration of the Presence within ourselves is itself a tikkun for the rest of the world! restoration of the Presence anywhere in the world, including within us, is restoration throughout the world. how?  consider Sanhedrin 23a (jerusalem talmud) or 37a (babylonian talmud)….

“whoever preserves a single soul, it is as if he had preserved a whole world” 

QED. social action will never be enough. repair, return, revolution is individual. it is yours. your t’shuvah must be tailored to your walk with G’d. so what sort of practice hammers this home?  practice hishtavut, “equanimity”, or evenness of heart, soul and ego. do not let the judgments, or urgings, or insistence, or criticism of others alter your t’shuvah except as you yourself understand the words of others as well directed for your path. and remember that you are the only one, save G’d of course, who can clearly evaluate your focus on your individual mission. you need no accolades from the peanut gallery of the world at large….it is YOUR work, with G’d’s help.

days of repentance: 11 Elul

“t’shuvah can be read as  toshuv hei . the lower hei of G’d’s Name is manifest in our world. through t’shuvah we elevate and return the hei and everything it energizes to its true source”

so teaches R’ Schneur Zalman in Tanya (Iggeret haTeshuvah, ch4). if you remember your roots, you will recognize that toshuv hei is a returning hei, one that is leant us by G’d  from G’d’s very name to energize us. this, of course, makes t’shuvah very personal, for who would not be eager to return a tool to the lender? particularly if the lending of part of a good name…indeed, the very best name…is part of the value in the borrowing?  Elul is the month in which we strive to make right things between adam and adam. often that means nothing more complicated than taking stock of what you have and taking time to return what is borrowed, or to pay any outstanding debts, or simply to restore a relationship broken to a fixed state by taking time to apologise for wrongs and setting things aright.

it is all return….restoration….recompense…realization….and, well, revolution. revolution? yup. t’shuvah is nothing shy of spinning and also overturning of habits and paths and violations….we should end up reborn. at very least we should be revolting against what we have been, even if the revolution is more of a restoration. let’s consider a story related by R’ Menachem Mendel Futerfas, chabad mashpia (“person of influence’) in the former soviet union, who spent 14 years in the siberian gulags for the ‘crime’ of establishing cheders (‘jewish elementary schools’, essentially) for young jews in the USSR. upon leaving russia finally, he settled in as mashpia of the central lubavitch yeshiva in Kfar Chabad, Israel. he relates his own encounter with a former tightrope walker while they were in the gulag together….

the rabbi asked the tightrope walker about the secret to his art. “what does a person need to master to be a tight rope walker? balance? stamina? concentration?”

the tightrope walker’s answer surprised him: ” the secret is always keeping your destination in focus. you have to keep your eyes on the other end of the rope. but do you know what the hardest part is?”

“when you get to the middle?” the rabbi suggested.

“no,” said the tightrope walker, “it’s when you make the turn. because for a fraction of a second, you lose sight of your destination. when you don’t have sight of your destination, that is when you are most likely to fall.”

now is a time of turning for all of us (sharper for some than for others perhaps), and none of us is able to perfectly see where we are headed…so we must be tightly focused on the destination that we know in our soul is ultimately ahead, even though out of view. the ultimate return is redemption.

t’shuvah is to redemption as shabbat is to the world to come

but the path of redemption for our People, and for the world, is not a straight road that we can look down to its end. we can only glimpse glitters of the end by looking into our own souls as we work at our individual turning back to G’d. your focus in t’shuvah is a focus on personal mission….and not just your mission, but your shared mission….shared with haShem to whom you return.  the stronger your sense of personal mission, the better off you will be when the going gets rough. every moment of Elul can be (should be) directed toward your mission of return, and because t’shuvah isn’t something you do just once a year, but rather a way of living in Creation, everything you do in Elul and after should be dedicated to your mission in life.

so here is the practicum: what is your mission in life? what do you think your calling in the world is?

if this is a difficult exercise for you, then try to focus on what steps you will have to take to FIND your mission in life!

days of repentance: 9 & 10 Elul

“G’d would speak to Moshe face to face

just as a person speaks with a close friend”

so we learn in Exodus 33:1. but we learn later in Deuteronomy that no other like Moshe ever rose….who knew G’d face to face (34:10).  and there’s the rub. we ALL of us want to make like Moshe…no, no, that’s not it….we all EXPECT to be like Moshe Rabbeinu, speaking to G’d face to face….even though we also know from Torah, that even Moshe could only see G’d’s back when he asked to see G’d’s Glory (Exodus 33:18).

so, what is it, face to face, or face to back, or even

“you may not see my face. no one shall look upon me and live”

at Exodus 33:20ff, which is where we left off 8 Elul with G’d’s shadowing hand as G’d passed before Moshe, who was hidden in the cleft of the rock.

how many times have i heard someone say, “if only G’d would answer my prayer clearly”, or “if only i had a sign”…..then i would believe. well, of course, if G’d spoke to you directly, unambiguously, and face to face, you wouldn’t need faith, for you would only have observational science.  humans are about observational science much of the time. G’d, and the faithful individual,  is about intuitional science, to coin a phrase.

but the demand for observational data regarding haShem is the quintessential modern indicator of the presence of a belief in pirud (“separation”). so very many find it effortless to believe in pirud, but not in Presence. and it is the belief in separation from G’d that initiates the steps toward absence. it is the space created by belief in separation that gives breathing space to the ruach shtut, the spirit of folly, the temporary insanity that leads us to step away from the path and even accelerate toward aveirah, the crossing of  internal boundaries into actions evincing disbelief. as the cynicism, the negativity builds, the tiniest of separations will seem to become overwhelmingly huge. it will be utterly real to the creating beholder. it is this possibility that leads someone, in bratslaver terms, to believe that you can destroy without believing the you can fix simultaneously.

it all starts with an unintentional error born of our own nature. but the important thing to know is that our true nature is NOT negating and not cynical. we all know that by spending time with children…it is abundantly clear that cynicism is taught/learned. not that you won’t hear a lot of “no”, but this “negativity” is born of human selfishness…….so let’s talk about the yetzer hara and the yetzer hatov and that popular modern derivative, the ego. the 2 yetzers are the “negative (hara) inclination” or selfish impulse and the “positive (hatov) inclination” or selfless impulse. the word yetzer itself is from the same root as yatzar, meaning “to form, or build, or construct”. so our “inclination” in jewish terms is an innate will or impulse to form, build, or construct desire, and then to actuate it.

before we go further, let’s make it quite clear that haShem finds both inclinations “very good” parts of Creation (B’reishit 1:31), so we aren’t looking to get rid of the yetzer hara. this is important for t’shuvah (and kabbalah).

so what’s so all-fired good about the selfish impulse? well, without a little lust, people don’t couple and marry, they don’t have babies, they don’t have the same drive to build a home and raise and support a family. the selfish is survival centric, and that is very good.

uncoupled from a counterbalancing selfless impulse, though, it becomes what all of us know these days as egocentric. ego counterbalanced is inclined toward survival, toward strength, toward plenty…all of which are part of the Promise of G’d in the Land and as the natural reaction to right behaviour.  without counterbalance, though, ego becomes central and overwhelming, thinking nothing of the well being of any other, and thinking nothing of the effects likely to stem from any action constructed by greater selfishness.  ego is not evil per se, but it can easily become a tool for evil. and the root of the potential for evil is in the ego’s definition of “the other”.  there is me, and there is you. and i’m for me….the pirud, separation opens up. but

hear….G’d is One

human nature in Creation is to have a “working out” of things between 2 antipodes of inclination. and one can err on the “good” side too, mistaking the denial of desire as a greater good than a holy desire (eg, celibacy instead of kiddushin)….G’d is down with this be fruitful and multiply idea, after all.

but the yetzer hatov, the selfless inclination, gets at the central mitzvah

“love your neighbor as yourself”

the other is to be dear to you….recognize that her ego, his ego, is just like your ego. so we should all form, or build, or construct with others in mind as well as ourselves. it is the humble walk, which is not alone with G’d as we might prefer it. think about it, we are all equally required……the walk is crowded in its universal unity.

the ultimate expression of the worldview of separation is avodah zarah, literally “strange worship”, but usually rendered as idolatry. it is the error of thinking a bit of something is equivalent to the everything that is G’d. chassidut (chassidic theory and practice) sees the root of every evil act or negative construction as stemming from an idolatry. there is a substantial dollop of this sort of idolatry in the expectation that G’d answers to us to the degree that we be able to see his face and get a personal sign….if you want a material G’d, go build one….don’t expect haShem to do it for you.

and it is essential to t’shuvah that we get this idea of counterbalancing yetzers right because to live in the moment is very different from to live for the moment. for the moment is to limit the now to what is happening and what we desire. in the moment is to open yourself to the entirety of time that is in every moment…it is only on that scale, the comprising of past and future in the present, that one comes to dwell in the achdut, the unity of all things. the Presence is about the correspondences interconnecting all things, not their material distinctions.

“that evil confronts good gives man the possibility of victory”

which aphorism, attributed to R’ Yechiel Michael of Zlotshov, is very much in line with Zoharic teaching (2:163a) about the very purpose of our existence

all that the Holy One has made, both above and below, is for the purpose of manifesting His Glory and to make all things serve Him….indeed, the yetzer hara also serves the will of G’d

a practical way to get at this is to stop and ask at as many junctures as you can (you get good at it with time and practice): how does this thing i intend to do serve more than just my ego? then go further: how does this thing i intend to do serve others as much as it does me?  then go further still: how does this thing that i intend to do serve the Holy One, blessed be?  if you can’t answer these questions very well, then your path tends toward the idolatrous, toward constructing for you alone, which is not the way of the humble walk. it aint about the bit of something that is the focus of my desire, but rather about the EVERYTHING all together through my desire. egocentric practice is zarah, strange, in that it is not an expression of full-bodied human soul. generosity, with a healthy greed, is good. just plain greed is strange worship indeed.

you can ask the questions at many junctures every day, but you can also hold a kabbalistic mantra in mind to help you comprehend the reality of the Oneness of G’d which underlies all the rest of soulful practice, and also is the basis of t’shuvah:

ein od me’l’vado

(there is nothing else but haShem alone)

 

 

days of repentance: 8 Elul

“all the ways of man are straight in his eyes”

we learn this insight in Proverbs 21:2. but all the ways of humans are not straight in G’d’s eyes. some miss the mark, which is the root of the most common word for sin in Torah, namely, chet….as in the High Holy Day prayer, Al Chet (“for the sin..”). we recite this prayer, with its list of  “sins we have committed before You [G’d]” by doing or being in many different ways out of step in our walk with haShem. we repeat it a minyan of times…10 times during the course of Yom Kippur. each way of sin is a descriptor of a missing the mark, eg, “by foolish talk”, “by improper thoughts”, “by running to do evil”, “by casting off the yoke of heaven, etc. there must be about 50 ways to step away from your G’d. some go beyond “mere” misalignment and describe a deliberate crossing over a boundary, an aveirah, which shares the root not only of avar (the past) but also of “overing” , crossing a boundary with deliberation.

to do a mitzvah is to align and connect with the intention of haShem. when a person in a military force accepts an order, that one aligns herself with a superior officer, but also with the rest of the forces working to achieve a mission. it is all about alignment and connection for more effective results. mitzvot in Torah are not fundamentally different. when we accept them, and understand them, we act in concert with the other doers of tikkun olam (repair of the world).

so in a fundamental sense, every chet, every misstep, is an anti-mitzvah.

chet is being out of step, or out of line…fundamentally to walk Torah crookedly or from a distance. aveirah is to deliberately set out on a wrong route, perhaps not recognizing that the route is wrong, but going off course and out of bounds deliberately.  to disconnect from the corps is to stretch your spiritual supply lines, or to go off the grid entirely, and to get increasingly out of earshot of subsequent mitzvot….eventually, you will simply drop all calls.

the Midrash Rabbah relates that all levels of chet are expressions of a temporary state of heresy. chet is not an absence of G’d , but an internal failing of an assumption about G’d…perhaps that G’d is not intimately concerned with Creation, or that G’d has better, bigger things to do then to pay attention to some small peccadillo, or, more seriously, to believe that G’d does not exist. when these heretical attitudes take root, even temporarily, we are no longer in clear touch with our ultimate soul source….though we think our path is straight and well considered, we are operating with ever diverging gps data. and the way back becomes increasingly difficult to discern, even if we suddenly realize we are off course. eventually we all realize that we are lost. but up until that time, it is easier to ride the horse in the direction it is going. we can all harden our hearts in such a way.

“humans do not commit transgressions unless a ruach shtut (spirit of folly/nonsense) enters”

so teach Chazal in Sotah 3a. think for a second about your last kashrut violation…exactly what made the particular food item so much more important than walking humbly with G’d?  what were you thinking?  probably not about Torah, yes? probably that it wouldn’t matter to G’d, right?  whatever would give a person such an idea?  ruach shtut. the problem is that each bad decision draws others after it. and bad decisions settle into habit, tossing free will into the dustbin, replacing it with a preconditioned way of acting, thinking, and being. once you accept an error as being a precendent, you are trapped in your past and no longer in a free moment.

the aspect of t’shuvah practice that is directed to this is to control what you take in. if you spend hours listening to music about wobbling breasts and booty, well, you are likely to start seeing the world in similar terms. if you restict such shtuyot (foolishness) you are less likely to see the world so. we are touched by what we entertain ourselves with. the very high and difficult ideal is to always have words of Torah in mind, and heart and ear. we learned in the 4th haftarah of comfort just this shabbat past (Isaiah 51:16):

“and I have put My words in your mouth, and I have covered you in the shadow of My Hand”

days of repentance: haftarah of comfort 4

“my people shall know my Name…that it is I who speaks…hineni”

the haftarah this shabbat just past was the 4th in the series of 7. it is the haftarah of comfort that begins the outweighing of rebuke….there were 3 of rebuke, and now 4 (and still counting) of comfort.  in this text from the prophet Isaiah (51:12 -52:12) we have the call to know the Name of haShem. the unspeakable 4 letters about which we have been speaking since the 4th day of Elul.

it is G’d and G’d only who speaks and comforts the People now. it is direct. as it must be in t’shuvah, for when t’shuvah expunges the sin, the missing of the mark, the direct line to haShem is laid bare. and just as Avraham avinu ansered when G’d calls to him and tells him to lech l’cha, to go to/for/into yourself , G’d answers when called upon by Name by the ba’al t’shuvah, the one who is doing t’shuvah, and who is ready to live in the here and now…..hineni….”behold”, “here i am” …..hineni…..

“in the place where baalei t’shuvah stand,

even the perfectly righteous cannot stand”

hineni….answers haShem to the call of the ba’al t’shuvah, for the master of t’shuvah has drunk the dregs from the cup of trembling/staggering/shaking/bewilderment, the cup of fury (Isaiah 51:17, 22) and has returned to the straight and narrow, as it were….but not straight and narrow as in puritanical, but in the sense of ‘reserve’, b’tsniut, walking again humbly with G’d.

to the humble the answer is humble, as G’d G’dself  answers as simply as the awed Avram, who became Avraham with the addition of a little hei, a little t’shuvah, not as a one-time act, but as a way of life. the ba’al t’shuvah stands where Avraham avinu stood, for like Avraham, the ba’al t’shuvah is rebeginning. ever ready to hear the Voice of the One who Speaks.

so imitate the way of G’d by bringing comfort to one in need. don’t go in with the attitude of “buck up”, but rather with tsniut, with reserve, ready to answer a need with hineni, here i am…..

whenever you call me, i’ll be there…i’ll be around