A Case for Teshuvah Not as Return, but as Transformation
Erev Rosh HaShanah 5781 [posted a year and a half later here]
Rabbi David Basior
Shanah tovah, community. I am going to lay it out as simply and as efficiently as I am able this year. I am a Pisces/Aries cusp born on the cusp of Generation X to millennials, born on the cusp of winter to spring, born on the verge of the anniversary of the Israelite’s dedication of the mishkan. I see in cusps. And, friends, I believe we are in the midst of a cusp of great magnitude and we will need one another in deeper ways than we might be used to.
Rosh HaShanah might have snuck up on some of us this year, with everything else going on. But we ease into the New Year together over these 10 days of teshuvah, I want us to grasp what is on this side of that cusp, and what could be on the other.
The 10 Days of Teshuvah - another name for these Days of Awe from Rosh HaShanah through Yom Kippur - encourage us, like the shift of seasons that holds this time, to turn. Teshuvah, the act of repair and re-alignment, literally means turn, or return. But to what? Was some old way of doing things or some previous location of existing preferable to what we are currently doing or where we are currently doing it?
We chant chadesh yameinu k’kedem (Lamentations 5:21, chanted on Tisha B’Av & in the Torah service weekly) - renew our days as to how they used to be. We might be led to think that there is someway or somewhere that if only we might return to that way or that place, we would be more aligned with the divine, with our best selves, with some idea of promise. If only we could get back there somehow...we might be led to think.
And this idea of returning to some previous good time can be tempting! In this season of stepping onto the balcony of our own lives - this time of observing, noticing, and reflecting on our performance in life and the happenings of the world - we likely have varying relationships to this idea of returning to some better past. So many calls ring out to go “back to normal” as a pandemic has turned our lives upside down. So many statements longing for a time before police and vigilante murders of Black people. Returning to that time before the fires and the smoke. This call to return is deep, but we must have a very wide turning radius if we are to not fall into the traps of “returning to normal” that have been amplified in this time of reckoning.
Those of us who are Jews, or have hung out long enough with us and our tradition, might have the sense that a Jewish perspective on return is not about a return to normal. We do not long for a return to “the way things used to be,” nor, despite some confusion otherwise, to an actual physical place we or our ancestors have been before. No. We call for a return to the process of turning. We Jews work for nothing less than complete transformation - from the Latin: trans - moving across or beyond, and formare - shape; appearance; a pattern; or condition. This is built into how we were known Biblically: Ha-Ivri - translated as “the Hebrew” is also the Hebrew word for trans - moving across and beyond. The words turn and return might not be able to communicate what we need to say anymore. And at Kadima, our name itself is midrash on this: the kedem that implies some better past in the verse above, must actually be read that the way we used to transform - progressing forward, or Kadima - is indeed what needs renewing.
You do not have to focus on the recent events of the past year, or the past four years to know the deep temptation of the idea of making us, our time, and our world “great again.” In fact, 100 years ago this fall, there was a presidential election in a country known as the United States. Historian Christopher Klein explains the context of that election season as follows, with my slight edits:
“The four years leading up to the presidential election of 1920...had delivered a ghastly confluence of war, pestilence, [vigilantism] and unemployment. …[A] global pandemic stole…[the lives of so many]. Race riots, labor strikes and…[an] economy [that] was far from roaring...as unemployment soared...Americans [were] bitterly divided. A cheating scandal had tainted [baseball]…[and] the heavens appeared to offer little salvation as a cluster of nearly 40 tornadoes struck from Georgia to Wisconsin...leaving more than 380 dead.”
War, pandemic, unemployment, racial justice uprisings, labor strikes, bitter division, and deadly weather. And even a baseball scandal. Sound familiar? We have perhaps sadly returned to different yet similar circumstances in our time now.
It was the context of that 1920 election, the historically forgotten Connecticut Senator Frank Bosworth Brandegee said of the presidential candidates “this year...[w]e’ve got a lot of second-raters.” In a nation and world in crisis with two mediocre choices for president and in the midst of upheaval, one of those second raters, the eventual victor, Warren Gamaliel Harding gave the speech known as “A Return to Normalcy” resonating with a deep desire for “Americans” to return to some historical period before any of these transformational events.
The winning message of the day was: Let’s go back. Let’s make it the way it used to be. Let’s return.
I believe we are seeing a repeat of this ill-fated history. And what came after that cusp-moment was not pretty. Afterall, that was the context for the bombing of Black Wall Street in Tulsa and the emboldened revival of the Klu Klux Klan. Racist and antisemitic restrictions on immigration tightened in the years that followed. Not to mention the economic calculus that led to the Great Depression.
So, it might be understandable that we ask: will we let the promise of return tempt us again? How might we, this time, do the work we are not free to desist from, of transformation?
In a possible doppelganger-of-that time 100 years later, we now need a new understanding of teshuvah. We probably have for a long time, but like so many things this year, now I really get it.
So when this finally became the year that I read Rabbi Alan Lew’s quintessential High Holidays book “This Is Real, and You are Completely Unprepared,” prompted by mads deshazo - and a shout out to everyone who has attended her Grounding in Jewish Time offering so far - I was so relieved to see that he in fact defines Teshuvah as transformation. Similar to what Detroit healer, doula and social justice facilitator adrienne maree brown breaks open when speaking about “intentional adaptation [as] the heart of emergent strategy.” She wrote: “many of us respond to change with fear, or see it as a crisis. Some of us anticipate change with an almost titillating sense of stress.” (Emergent Strategy, 2017, p.69)
Rabbi Lew elucidates: “Most of us only embark on the difficult and wrenching path of transformation when we feel we have no choice but to do so, when we feel as if our backs are to the wall, when the circumstances of our lives have pushed us…Transformation is just too hard for us to volunteer for.” Thus, he says “the predicament is part of the process. It is a gift. The agent of our turning.”
I ask then, does a caterpillar choose to make, enter and be confined by the cocoon? Does the snake intend to shed its skin? Does the starling ask if it is time to change the flock’s direction? Does the dandelion flower fear turning into a seed head? While all of these acts necessarily transform the subject, the act is simply an intuitive pull toward the next right thing.
The difference between us and the caterpillar, us and the snake, the starling, and the dandelion, is that we have been created with free will, reishut, as called in Hebrew by Rambam - Rabbi Musa Ibn Maimon in 12th century Egypt. Laid before us as a blessing and a curse, we have the ability to understand a situation, what is needed, and yet still deny, avoid, and run away from it. We can have a heartbreaking tendency, individually and collectively to return to comfortable ways rather than transform into what and who we might need to be. We can so often be caterpillars that never fly, snakes that never shine, starlings that never lead, and dandelions that never seed what’s next. We’d rather stay a flower. They are nice, but they were never intended to last forever.
Rambam continues saying: “Each and every person is capable of being as just as Moses or as wicked as Jeroboam [whose rule put an end to the united monarchy in ancient Israel, thus dividing the community.] ...All that stands in our way is our own selves...
This year, when grappling with our life decisions, with our societal choices, let us get out of our own way. Let us allow for the transformation that would be innate to nearly everything else in nature. When grappling with life - from whether or not to support defunding the police to whether or not to work for the election of a second-rater; from whether or not to keep your kid in digital school to whether or not to bring neighbors food and redistribute your wealth. From whether or not to exercise and eat the way your body wants, to whether or not to accept that your actions have an impact on others.
Let us all try a way we have not yet tried before. Let us go beyond our conditioning. The long moment of history we find ourselves in has enlisted us. Our backs are against the wall. It is time to live into the teshuvah that we and the world need now. I hate to be the bearer of the bad news, but my guess is, somewhere, you already know. Let teshuvah work on you, and let us all be transformed as a result of a new found willingness, an opening of the gates.
My dear friend and colleague Rabbi Ruhi Sohpia Motzkin Rubenstein of Temple Beth Israel in Eugene, OR reminded me of a story that tells of this nicely. The parable is attributed to the 19th century hasidic master, Rabbi Hayyim of Zans which I offer today adapted for Kadima:
A person had been wandering about lost in the city for several days, not knowing which was the right way. Suddenly they saw another person approaching. Their heart was filled with joy and couldn’t help but say aloud: “Ah! This person must surely know the way out! Finally I will discover which is the right way.” As the two approached one another, the wanderer asked the other: “Sibling! Tell me which is the right way. I have been lost in this city for too long.” The other said in return: “My sibling, I do not know the way out either. For I too have been lost here for some time myself. But this I can tell you: do not take the way I have been taking, for that will lead you astray. And now let us look for a new way together.”
A new way. Together. Across generations of progressive Jewish healers, educators, activists, advocates, artists, organizers, and creators, let us learn from one another’s missteps and together find a way none of us have traveled before. May we have the humility to see one another as companions on a journey. And may we have the courage to travel together, despite fear, to where none of us have ever been to before. It might just be the season, but societally, and perhaps even at Kadima, we are at the end of something and we are at the beginning of something else. Let us leave no one behind. Let us accompany one another as we allow old ways to die with dignity, as we midwife the ways that have yet to be into existence.
Gut yuntif, as my elders say to me. May the good day be good.