T’shuvah, or repentance, is, at its heart, for me this year, about taking personal risk. That’s our mandate, even during this dangerous time. Perhaps most of all during this time.
We use musical rounds to ground and center us during the month of Elul: music that returns to its beginnings. You may know one: the Hashiveinu round, setting the next-to-last, hopeful verse of the book of Eicha (Lamentations). We need the sense of coming home, some feeling of safety, just as surely as I needed to re-read every one of my favorite Young Adult books during this summer of pandemic. But the act of t’shuvah requires coming back to the same place and making a different choice. We have to return to the scary ground of potential: potential harm and potential healing.
One summer at camp when I was young, we went to a rock-climbing site outdoors. I tried again and again to get up a corner route. Couldn’t do it. I left that day with my shins scraped and my ego bruised. I felt defeated, ashamed. Grimy with failure. A year later, same camp, we went back to the same site. I set my teeth and went to work on that route again. It didn’t happen the first time, and I feared a second, confirming failure. But by the end of the day, I had climbed my route. Twenty-two years later, I still remember the taste, kissing the dirt-dusted aluminum carabiner that anchored my rope to the top of the rock. The shame sluiced off of me with my sweat. If I hadn’t come back to the site – or if I’d avoided that one route, letting my earlier shame rule me – I’d never have known what it felt like to get it right.
So, too, with t’shuvah. I have to go back to those points of personal fracture and do them differently. I cannot let the fear I feel of disease keep me from taking the emotional risks that will keep my soul healthy. And if the camp bus isn’t going to just drop me off there again the next year, then I have to make that new opportunity for myself.
Our pursuit of t’shuvah offers us the practice of asking the people who we hurt in the past year to forgive us. We must feel again the shame of the moment we got everything wrong, to sit in it, and in that sticky, grimy soul-place, to climb higher. To feel forgiveness wash us clean.
Rabbi Akiva in Tractate Yoma (Chapter 8, Mishna 9) reminds us that the prophet Jeremiah (17:12) calls God ‘Mikveih Yisrael’ – ‘the Hope of Israel’ – but that can also be read, with just a small change in vocalization, as ‘Mikveh Yisrael’ – ‘the Mikveh, or ritual bath, of Israel.’ Forgiveness from human and Divine partnership can wash the year’s failures away and leave us ready.
The buildings housing constructed mikva’ot are closed. But the gates of t’shuvah are open. The shefa Elokim, flow of Divine love, is still running over us. Nobody turned that tap off.
So in these last days before Rosh Hashanah, and perhaps the 10 days of t’shuvah before Yom Kippur, I invite you to think of a personal moment this year, when a choice you made opened up a pit at your feet. Remember it, even write it out, in as much vivid detail as you can. Then imagine – again, with as much detail as possible – making a different choice. Imagine the shame washing off of you. Can you make this opportunity for yourself real?
What do you need to return to that place? What do you need to step into this New Year, clean of regret?
Cantor Vera Broekhuysen is the spiritual leader of Temple Emanu-El of Haverhill.