Threatened by Teshuva
Rosh Hashana Day 2 5779 Associate Spiritual Leader Hannah Kapnik Ashar
A man goes to a psychologist, “I need your help. My brother is crazy. He thinks he’s a chicken.” “Describe his symptoms” the doctor says. “Maybe I can help.” “Well, he bocks a lot, he pecks at the rug and the furniture, and he makes nests in the corners.” The doctor thinks for a moment then says, “It sounds like a simple neurosis to me. Bring in your brother-in-law. I think I can cure him completely.” “On no, Doc! Don’t do that! We need the eggs!”
We need the eggs. Don’t cure him completely – we need the eggs.
We are in some way served by our neuroses.
We are served in some way by our habits and ways of thinking, even when they cause us pain.
That joke comes from Parker Palmer’s telling of the end of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. In his book, The Active Life, Palmer writes, “We find our debilities functional, even comforting, and somewhere deep inside we are threatened by health, new life, resurrection.” Somewhere deep inside we are threatened by teshuva.
As much as I would like to think I would be willing to give up the eggs to get rid of the chicken neurosis, I choose the eggs – and therefore am the chicken, in the joke’s allegory; and I am the chicken in my own cowardice — more often than I would like to admit. But I will admit one area I’m working on now, because we’re in the season of vidui, acknowledgement and confession.
I choose the eggs and the chicken when I avoid meeting my own needs or don’t communicate directly because I am afraid of disappointing someone.
The irony of the eggs, is that we actually do get eggs from our missteps. It would be so much easier to do teshuva if there were nothing we were attached to in our harmful behavior. But our misbehavior or mistaken beliefs serve us. Making choices based on fear of disappointing people protects my image of myself as someone who is good to other people, reliable, generous. I think – though I have growing suspicions about this belief – that this fear ultimately helps me limit feelings of guilt and discomfort from witnessing someone else’s suffering.
And my fear of disappointing, which is a love of helping others feel good, sometimes opens doors to opportunities or serves relationship.
But the fear I feel, and the way my fear limits my own action or expression, causes me suffering and regret, and I feel trapped. I feel frozen into the image I want to have of myself, and blocked in my own becoming.
Years ago, I heard Rabbi Jason Rubenstein of Hadar offer a teaching from the introduction to The Zohar. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai –an exquisitely learned scholar – said that if he had come into the world only to learn this one teaching, that would have been enough.
When the Israelites left Egypt, they witnessed an abundance of miracles: Plagues inflicted upon the Egyptians, leaving Egypt, the parting of the sea and crossing through it on dry land, manna – Divine sustenance – provided for them to eat, water coming from a rock for them to drink, and then the revelation on Sinai!
There is no shortage of miracles expressing God’s commitment to them. Following the revelation on Sinai, the Israelites tell Moses it’s too much for them to hear from God directly, and they ask Moses to be their intercessor. Moses agrees, and goes up on Mount Sinai. After he’s been up there for a while, the people grow restless and, despite the litany of miracles leading to this moment, they build a golden calf. They proclaim:
אֵ֤לֶּה אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר הֶעֱל֖וּךָ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם
“This is your God, Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32:4). Then they sacrifice to it and dance. They all know who brought them out of Egypt! It was so clear! In miracle after miracle. And here they are worshipping an idol they built. In the introduction to the Zohar, the prophet Elijah comes to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son, Elazar, and asks, “what was the problem with the golden calf?” It’s not the building of it, or the dancing festival around it. Elijah gives this teaching:
“What was the problem with the golden calf? This is the real problem: When the people proclaim: אֵ֤לֶּה אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל “this is your God Israel”. The word “this”, א–ל–ה, is the first half of the word “Elohim” אלהים or God. They left off the last letters of Elohim, ים (ימ)which make up the word ‘mi’ מי – ‘who?’
They said, “this is your God,”, describing something fixed, known, finite. The problem of the golden calf is that the Israelites forgot to also ask ‘who are you, God?” They left the “who” out of God’s name.
The combination of fixed “אלה” “this is God” and inquiring “מי? who are you, Hashem?” is how we can genuinely access the divine. When our description of our reality is only fixed, it becomes worshipping the golden calf. When we can hold both the stability of what we know and also hold curiosity and inquiry, that is right relationship. They sinned at the golden calf not by building the calf and worshipping it, but by imagining that God could be fixed, set, established, stable, without continual becoming.
This is not only true in relationship with the divine. It’s true in any interpersonal relationship. We want to hold what we know of the other and to continue asking, caring to inquire about who the other is, what matters, what’s real for them. When we stop inquiring as to who the other is and is becoming, we are only in love with our image of the other. We’ve made the person into a golden calf.
This is true also with ourselves. We can get frozen in our image of who we are if we stop asking, “who?” “what’s alive in me now?”. To hold what we know about the other or ourselves and to continue inquiring, that is right relationship.
In pre-marital counseling, Reb Zalman advised Yoni and me that we will need to choose between stability and consciousness throughout our lives. You cannot be entirely stable and entirely conscious all the time. Consciousness necessitates evolution.
Now, I am a great lover of stability. Stability allows us to have trust, routine, comfort. It is what allows us to feel secure enough to explore and grow. The downside of stability, though, is when things we once actively chose now turn to mindless habit. The downside of stability is that it feels more stable not to feel the emotions and the needs that are alive in me, and so I choose stability and don’t allow the aliveness in me to grow. So at the same time as being a great lover of stability, I am also a great believer in the aliveness of consciousness, even when I’m afraid of it. And, sometimes, the movement toward life asks of us to threaten stability with our consciousness. We are threatened by the reach toward new life. We are threatened by teshuva.
Thank God, this season – specifically the liturgy of musaf which we’ll daven shortly – offers a few ways to step into asking “who are you?” “what’s real right now?”
We are about to hear Jan chant unetane tokef. We wonder, “will God seal me in the book of life this year?” “Will Hashem help me to run toward life and not toward death?” and we answer ourselves with the chorus: מעבירין את רועה הגזרה תשובה, תפילה, צדקה. Teshuva, tefilah, and tzedakah will overturn the evil of the decree. I want to share an access point to each of these, to help us know that teshuva, tefilah, and tzedaka are not in Heaven, but here in our hands.
Teshuva. Turning, Returning, atonement – as our dear friend Jack Cohen says, “at-one-ment”
Last year, Ed Kass shared with me a teaching from Rav Kook in his book Orot HaTeshuvah: “If you want to become completely righteous, you will find it hard to even repent.” — “If you want to become completely righteous, you will find it hard to even repent.” — “But always desire to repent. Immerse yourself in the idea. Yearn to see the manifestation of repentance in action. Then your repentance will lift you to the level of a completely righteous person—and even higher.” Yearning for perfection will stifle us. Wanting for the image will stifle us. But yearning for improvement, for change, for repenting; yearning to do the work of improving, this will give us life. Rav Kook uses the example of a tzadik – a righteous person, which is a surprising image not to aspire to. It won’t even serve us to want to be a tzadik! Let alone any other image of who we want to be. Improvement will come from “year[ing] to see the manifestation of repentance in action”. Improvement will come from yearning to see the manifestation of our effort in action, not yearning to see the perfected image of ourselves.
Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels, who Yoni and I brought in for the meditation retreat we ran with Or Halev at the beginning of Elul, recommended working on one thing at a time as we work toward teshuva. He recommended making a daily calendar event: “do one thing toward X teshuva project”
I am trying to do teshuva over one thing at a time, starting with where I’m wanting more freedom, more alignment with The Divine. I’m working now with my fear of disappointing others.
Can I loosen my fear of disappointing others, and allow the possibility of someone feeling the suffering of disappointment when I might have had the power to help? Can I risk the effect on my image of myself or others’ image of me if I’m someone who sometimes drops the ball? My fear of disappointing people protects me and also holds me captive. It is my Elul project – and apparently still here to be my Tishrei project – to diminish this fear. I want to share with you the tools I’ve used toward this end.
I have worked on noticing when my behavior is needlessly motivated by this fear. A few behaviors I’ve noticed in the past month: wanting to make space in our small home but not giving away gifts, clothes, or books that someone gave me for fear of hurting them; not telling someone until the last minute that I can’t be somewhere for fear of their disappointment; considering not doing a training that I deeply want because of fear that I wouldn’t be good at it, that I won’t be changed enough coming out of it, that I will disappoint people when I am less available to them.
Our tradition calls this ‘noticing’ Vidui – what we translate as confession. vidui comes from the same word as acknowledge, gratitude, and praise. My dear friend Noa Silver shared a teaching with me from Victor Frankl, Holocaust survivor and psychologist. He said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom”. Acknowledging gives us a little more space between stimulus and response.
What if we could notice where we’re missing the mark and acknowledge it without fear and without shame? Rav James, on the meditation retreat, offered that we can respond to fear, to shame, to hatred of the fear with warmth. We can use our most beloved petnames and say, “hi sweetie, hi chamudah. Welcome fear. I know you’re here to protect me. Welcome shame. I know you’re here to protect me. There are such good eggs here!”
Teshuva is willingness to do the hard work to come up out of the darkness, the dullness. Teshuva is sometimes breaking the image of ourselves. Not wanting to be righteous but wanting to be improving. Teshuva is asking ourselves, “who are you in this moment?”.
Tefilah. Usually translated as prayer, this word comes from the root פלל and is reflexive. It means something like self-judgement. The first appearance of this word-root in our canon is in Genesis, when Joseph and Jacob reunite. Jacob was led to believe that Joseph died, while Joseph has risen to power in Egypt. After many years, Jacob is again with Joseph. Jacob, here called by his other name, Israel, says:
רְאֹ֥ה פָנֶ֖יךָ לֹ֣א פִלָּ֑לְתִּי וְהִנֵּ֨ה הֶרְאָ֥ה אֹתִ֛י אֱלֹקִ֖ים גַּ֥ם אֶת־זַרְעֶֽךָ׃
“I didn’t filalti to see you again, and here God has let me see your children as well.” (Gen 48:11). Filalti is often translated as, “I didn’t expect to see you again,” “I didn’t hope”. My dear friend Danny Cohen brought my attention to the Rashi on this word. Rashi reads ‘lo filalti’ to mean “I did not allow my heart to fill to think that I would again see your face.” Prayer is about heart-full-ness! The root of prayer, here, is about allowing one’s heart to fill with possibility. It’s not just to imagine, but to fill with what we long for. This might seem in tension with what I just said about not ‘yearning to be a tzadik’. Perhaps that yearning is healthy sometimes, and when it’s in a prayer space, in relation to the divine. We can’t be there all the time, but we need it sometimes. Allowing our heart to fill with possibility is not the grasping for an image, but the caress of imagination and emotion. It’s the deep reach for a better reality.
After all this, where so much of our work is looking inward to recognize what we might imagine, and where there is aliveness waiting to go forth from inside of us, here tzedaka tells us “get outside of yourself and do something for someone else.”
Yoni shared with me a teaching from the Sefat Emet, in which he opens the possibility that we read “may we be written for life” not as being inscribed in some static book, but to read כתבינו לחיים not as ‘write us down for life”, but “author us for life” continually author us, create us, with and toward aliveness.
Ribono shel olam, please help us to relinquish “the eggs” for the sake of health, to have courage through the fear of working toward freedom. Allow our hearts to fill with the possibility of living our full selves in service of your ever-increasing manifestness in each of our lives, in the lives of others, and in our world. May 5779 be a year of healthy stability and healthy consciousness. Author us for life.