days of repentance: 17 Elul

“y’yasher kochacha sheshibarta”

(you are to be congratulated for the shattering [of the tablets])

this is the astounding conclusion of Chazal (Yevamot 62a) concerning haShem’s decision to have a second set of tablets made by Moshe, upon which G’d G’dself would inscribe afresh “the words that were on the first the first tablets that you shattered“. this shattering is 1 of only 3 completely independent actions of Moshe that G’d praises, according to Chazal.  have you ever been praised for shattering something of value? for shattering something of great value? for shattering something of profound value?

well, yes. if you are doing profound t’shuvah, you are shattering youself in order to get to the essence of your Self. and this is praiseworthy. it is righteous.

“a time to act toward haShem”

we learn from Psalm 119:126. “toward” is usually translated as “for”, but the prefix means toward as well, and when so understand points to the basis for calling the shattering of person in t’shuvah a righteous act. when you are returing to G’d, which way are you going? well, toward G’d. it isn’t the full extent of “to” that matters, but the direction of  “toward”.  and in Elul all of us have the opportunity to recognize that it is a time to act in a direction leading unerringly toward haShem.

the shattering of the tablets is, in the eyes of the Meshech Chochma, a late 19thc/early20thc chassidic scholar,  necessary to demonstrate to the People Israel that there is only 1 source of holiness in existence: G’d G’dself. particularly if you consider that the People were, at the time of Moshe’s descent with the first set of tablets, engaged in worship of a golden calf, it is easy to see how dangerous bringing the tablets themselves to the gathering could easily have led to the replacement of the calf with the tablets. that might at first glance seem to be an improvement, but it is actually even worse. G’d intended the words to be holy revelation and not the stones, and it was abundantly clear to Moshe that the People were doing “thing” idolatry.

t’shuvah is correction of our mistaken making of things to which we cleave instead of cleaving to G’d. but we each must be Moshe to ourselves. we have to develop, in our efforts at t’shuvah, the instinct to know to shatter before our error becomes entirely stony barrier or substitution for acting toward G’d. but none like Moshe has ever arisen, we hold as “creed” in the prayer yigdal. but that was only in Moshe’s capacity as prophet. the action of shattering was taken by Moshe in his independent humanity. what it taught, and still teaches, is that now we can always recover from stoniness and shattering by preparing ourselves as new tablets

“I [G’d] will inscribe the words that were”

the words that were before we mistook them, or misplaced them, or engraved them ourselves in ways that created idols instead of revelation. paths that led us away from the walk with G’d. 

make like Moshe and shatter the hardnesses–it is time to act toward G’d!

 

days of repentance: 16 Elul

“my heart says, Seek out My Face, Your Face, G’d, i seek”

again with Psalm 27, already yet? well, we are saying it twice daily in Elul, might just as well study from it some, yes?

let’s consider the deeper meaning of the hebrew root pay nun mem, usually translated as “face” or “countenance”. panim is the hebrew for face, but it doesn’t mean the sort you put on in the morning….that you never go out without putting on—though it really should and could mean that in a spiritual sense. face in the hebrew sense is not the external thing that can become a mask, but rather it is the expression of our soul in inner holiness. the face always transmits our inner way, or at least it should–pnim/panim is focused on what our face should convey, and not how we use it to conceal our emotions, or mock, or grimace at external things.

“the wisdom of a person shines in the face”

as we learn from Ecclesiastes 8:1 gets at it. perhaps you have known someone whose face seemed to glow with spirit…if so you have into the person from the outside. no mask of concealment or manipulation, but only a true transmission out from deep within. such faces make us all feel better, more whole, more welcome. and i think it is because we see the the person with such a face is genuine through and through.
Abulafia and the Holy Ari both were famous for their ability to accurately read a person’s inner wholeness, their shlemut.  it is said that people passing them casually sometimes resorted to covering their faces when they passed either of them so that their hypocrisy would not be seen.  Abulafia pointed out that the shoresh haneshamah, the deep root of the soul, in every human was a tzadik in utter unity with haShem always. but too often our animal soul, more distant from the deep shoresh, and the basis of our immediate revealed self appears fragmented and imperfect.

when doing t’shuvah, you want to be sure that you give yourself credit for your accomplishments, no matter how small they may be, for at the deepest level the soul is always delighted by efforts to draw close to haShem on every level and in every way. chet and aveirah are not so deep as your shoresh haneshamah, so why should the stress and worry that go along with confession and turning be what is projected? be honest, brutally honest about your perfections and imperfections, but then allow your joy at what you gain through your t’shuvah work through your face. why? because you are doing just as well as all the rest of us. we all have more or less shlemut through our work all the time, but all of us, all of us, have gained something by way of the t’shuvah we have done in any moment. so don’t worry, be happy!

“as water reflects a face, one heart reflects another”

we jump from Psalm 27 to from Proverbs 27 (verse 19) to learn that it is our heart that should show on our face. and it takes real heart to do t’shuvah. THAT is what you should be practicing in Elul, giving the gift of sweetness of spirit in your smile, in your glance, in all the looks and reactions that can be gleaned from your face. after all, we learn from the prophet Nehemiah (8:10) the mitzvah of enjoying delights  and sending gifts on Rosh haShanah, but it is meritorious to do this mitzvah throughout Elul, so let your face reflect the sweetness and delight of your enriching soul……for we are all in need of joy in Elul.

“eat delights and drink sweets and send gifts to others in need”

days of repentance: 14 & 15 Elul

“one thing i ask, that i shall seek

many of you have been saying/singing/praying this fourth verse of Psalm 27 since the beginning of Elul, as have i. and now that we are mid-month, perhaps we can learn something new from this piece. we’ve said already that t’shuvah is a response, return, reintegration, even restoration in our relationship with haShem, and thereby with all that we know here in the realm of yesh, the realm of stuff, as i like to think of it,  or as more commonly translated, the realm of  something/somethingness. yet the prayer that is Psalm 27 seems to work somewhere between the horrors of yesh (much talk of being surrounded by thugs and other assorted enemies) and the aspiration for its opposite, the realm of calm and no-thing-ness of ayin (the desire to be ‘at home’ with G’d, a place we assume to be empty of thugs and cares, etc.). Psalm 27 is considered to be deeply involved with the realm of t’shuvah, as are the kabbalistic concepts of yesh and ayin.

perhaps we should take a little time with ayin/yesh so as to understand not only the Psalm we pray, but also because the understanding is foundational to t’shuvah in many views. we will keep it simple.

Creation posits somethingness that came out of nothing. this is yesh. it is the world we all seem to think we know and can touch and can share. on the level of human souls, the yesh can be understood as something like self-consciousness of self as an independent, separate thing. the ego, as we know it, is a fixed self-image…and as all fixed things in Creation, can exist only in the past as it flows up to the present moment. the ego is an experience, but not an experiencer per se. ego is not our innate self, but a construct we use in the Creation.

by contrast, ayin is the no-thing-ness that both preceded somethingness and also underlays it in the present moment. ayin is the consciousness of our integral wholeness, our simple being-ness, and our true self, which is completely compised in the Source. to be entirely in the moment is to be in ayin, for the ego of yesh can only ruminate about the present as a sort of shortened past…making a spur of the moment story of the moment. it writes a present that is a projection of predictable future.

ayin is no story. it is silence. it is hearing, but not speaking. ayin holds when we stop being m’daber, the “speaking one”. our ability to hear the Sh’ma’s message relies on our tapping into ayin. so long as the Sh’ma is heard in yesh consciousness, its message is just a puzzle, for in yesh absolute oneness has no standing. so we come up with metacommentary about “listening” and its importance….we call the Shema the “fundamental faith statement of Judaism” and other such prattle. the point of Shema is to simply hear in ayin. all the rest is, as they say, commentary, but it is not worth the study.

only in no-thing-ness can we get to deep levels of t’shuvah as reintegration, retransformation, and thoroughgoing revolution, for in ayin nothing is determined out of the past and nothing is reified for the future.  in ayin, one simply is.

but for our purposes, we must understand that ayin is the state in between an old yesh and a new yesh in t’shuvah. it is the primordial state after we have cleared ourselves out of our old ways (past) and have not yet proven forth our new, improved ways (future). we are in between ways of being in the world outside ourselves.

think of it as something like a self-imposed, and much desired time out…or maybe like a catnap that purges what came before it. you know you were in it in part by the sense of disorientation you have as you come out of it, if you will. realizing that change is possible comes in the ayin of t’shuvah.

there is another transformative state that dwells more in the yesh, and that some of you may know well. it is the transitional place called mikvah, the ritual bath in living waters that separates a state of  tumah (blockage) from the state of taharah (flow). the time of actual being in the water, letting go of blockage, but before emergence into free flow is no-thing-ness. and it teaches us paradoxically an important idea about directionality in no-thing-ness. as R’ Pearson points out, mikvah shares its root in the word kaveh, “hope” (you hear the root in “haTikvah”). we come out from the living waters of hope into a new state of possibility. hope emerges from the silence…not from the noise of the Creation all about us.

ayeka

when G’d sought Adam and Chava after they had eaten of the Tree forbidden to them (Genesis 3:9), he called out simply, “where are you”? when we step up to t’shuvah, that is the question we hear from haShem. it is a call to reveal, and a call to ascend, as it is from on high.  t’shuvah is our answer

hineni

here i am. here am I, with ayin consciousness, PRESENT, ready, accounting for myself before You, Holy Blessed One, ready to walk the Walk beside You.

let’s go back to Psalm 27 now, and that famous 4th verse with which we began, “one thing i ask, that i shall seek”. we seek in the ask. we do not seek in knowing, but in no-knowing. we do not ask in construct or conception, but rather in no-conception.

“and you shall seek haShem from there, and you shall find Him”

the Kotzker interprets this verse (Devarim 4:29) in light of the ayin state of t’shuvah, “the seeking is the finding”. to be in a perpetual state of no-thing-ness is to be in the seeking, it is to be in the hope always….”all the days of my life…to always seek You in every time and place”……..

let’s go out in an alternative translation of Psalm 27:

Yah! You are my light.
You are my savior.
Whom need I dread?
Yah, with you as my strong protector who can make me panic?
When hateful bullies gang up on me, wanting to harass me, to oppress and terrorize me
They are the ones who stumble and fall.
Even if a gang surrounds me my heart is not weakened.
If a battle is joined around me my trust in You is firm.
Only one thing do I ask of You, Yah:
Just this alone do I seek, I want to be at home with you, Yah,
All the days of my life.
I want to delight in seeing You.
Seeing You when I come to visit You in Your temple.

You hide me in your sukkah on a foul day.
You conceal me unseen in Your tent.
You also raise me beyond anyone’s reach
And now, as You have held my head high despite the presence of my powerful foes
I prepare to celebrate and thrill, singing and making music to You, Yah!
Listen, Yah, to the sound of my cry
And, being kind, answer me!
My heart has said, I turn to seek you.
Your presence is what I beg for
Don’t hide Your face from me.
Don’t just put me down, You who have been my helper.
Don’t abandon me, don’t forsake me, God my support.
Though my father and my mother have left me
You, Yah, will hold me securely.
Please teach me Your way.
Teach me Your way and guide me on the straight path.
Discourage those who defame me
Because false witnesses stood up against me belching out violence.
Don’t let me become the victim of my foes.
I wouldn’t have survived
If I hadn’t hoped that I would see, yet,
Your goodness, God, fully alive on earth.
So I tell you, my friends: you too hope to Yah! Be sturdy!
And make strong your heart. And most of all, keep hoping to Yah.

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!