Is the world opening up or are we back in shut-down mode? What exactly are the current safety protocols? Is this family event safe? Because of the pandemic’s on-going evolution, the continual uncertainty looms immense and further reminds us that the only constant in life is change. Safety concerns and disruption to life have become expected, despite the ways they amplify the separation and disconnection we feel. The High Holy Days arrived, and they compelled us to a theme of “drawing close…,” both in (physical) acceptance and in (spiritual) defiance of the continually unfolding realities of the pandemic. As clergy, and attuned to the human inclination to turn away and hide in the face of uncertainty, we also appreciate the opportunity that the High Holy Days offer as a time to draw close – to community, to tradition, and to spiritual living. Whether navigating recovery from addiction or from the impacts of a pandemic, our community has always recognized that we don’t have to struggle through the rough spots in the road alone.
This Shabbat, falling in-between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, is known as Shabbat T’Shuvah. Our tradition ascribes great significance to this time of in-between-ness and incompleteness, challenging us to focus on t’shuvah – reflecting on our mistakes, repairing our relationships, returning to our Holy Souls – in order to anchor ourselves to a path of humility, righteousness, and kindness. There are moments in this single-minded effort when my own inclination is to turn away, overwhelmed by the sheer immensity of the task before me. Fleeting thoughts [“I’ve come so far already, how can there be more work to do?”] or a lingering sense [“There is still so much work to do! How am I going to get it done?”] can quickly torpedo any momentum that I’ve marshalled. Given the ongoing uncertainty of daily life, how do we find the energy and resources to navigate this difficult path – the serious spiritual work we are commanded to do in this season?
This week’s Torah portion provides us with insight into recovering from turning away from our spiritual essence. In Veyeilech, Moses is at the end of his life and the emotional intensity of the moment is dramatic. In the midst of a series of good-bye speeches to the Israelites, G!D reveals to Moses that the people will quickly abandon the path that he and G!D have been leading them on.
The LORD said to Moses: “You are soon to lie with your fathers. This people will there upon go astray after the alien gods in their midst, in the land that they are about to enter; they will forsake Me and break My covenant that I made with them” (Deuteronomy 31:16).
Despite knowing this bleak outcome – and accepting that they are powerless to change it – both Moses and G!D continue to lean into their relationship with the Israelites, albeit with a dose of harsh honesty and healthy boundaries. Together they provide the Israelites with three tools to help them eventually get unstuck and return on a path of t’shuvah: a written collection of Moses’ teachings, the watchful “heaven and earth” testifying to G!D’s presence, and a sacred poem reminding the Israelites that they chose to separate themselves from G!D (and not the other way around).
We read these verses at this time of year to remind us to look at the ways that we chose to turn away from what we knew to be sacred. To examine our role in conflict with our family and friends. To take ownership of promises not kept. All of these mistakes accumulate to corrosive effect on our well-being, causing us to become more and more distant from our authentic and Holy souls.
Rav Kook, the visionary 19th century rabbi, beautifully describes the remedy to this state of spiritual alienation in his book Lights of T’Shuvah:
When one forgets the essence of one’s own soul, when one distracts one’s mind from attending to the substantive content of one’s own inner-life, everything becomes confused and uncertain. The primary role of t’shuvah, which at once sheds light on the darkened zone, is for one to return to oneself, to the root of one’s soul. Then one will at once return to G!D, the Soul of all souls…
The answer to accepting this period of in-between-ness and uncertainty: commit to do the work of t’shuvah, despite our hesitations and fears. Face ourselves and have faith in the possibility of returning to ourselves, thus making the world a better place, one soul at a time.
Shabbat Shalom and G’mar Chatimah Tovah,
Chaplain Adam Siegel