Open the Door to Transcendence

Today is Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of Return, immediately before Yom Kippur. But what does it mean for a person to return, or to repent, which the Day of Atonement asks of us?

Rabbi Neal Loevinger, wrote: “One essential element of Judaism is the teaching that people are never “stuck” in a spiritually dismal place – there is always the possibility of change, growth, forgiveness, reconciliation, and return to our best selves.”

The possibility of returning to our best selves is attractive. But there’s a catch. Exactly how do we do that? And how can religion help? It’s not enough to shower us with aphorisms; we want real tools to help effect change, to turn and return.

This is where a lot of people get stuck, and decide that religion isn’t worth their time, doesn’t provide what they truly need. They decide it’s just empty words and emptier rituals. That’s too bad. Because religion is so much more. Judaism is so much more.

Religions give people frameworks within which to explore morality, values, relationships with other humans, with the planet, and with the Divine. They provide doorways to transcending ourselves. They are the scaffolding for a life of searching, growing, deepening.

Think of a high dive platform. The board itself is sturdy, stiff. It barely moves when you jump. It’s up to the divers to use it as a tool, to catapult themselves up, draw paintings in the air with their bodies, and plunge into the depths. The more you use it, the better you get at diving.

Without it, you’re left standing at the edge of the pool and your dive is simpler and less nuanced, and it cannot take you as high or as deep.

If this sounds like work, it is. Judaism doesn’t offer easy answers and solutions. It requires each of us to do the difficult work of asking questions, finding answers, testing the answers and asking again and again. It’s a lifelong process.

I’m reminded of a famous Hassidic saying; if you’re heading west and want to go east, simply turn around.

But teshuvah, repentance, is not as simple as that. If it was, we could just roll out of bed on Yom Kippur morning, say “OK, time to be a better me!” and have done with it.

True teshuvah requires a deep dive into our own psyches.

Here’s how Paige Jacobson put it, in a conversation in our weekly Talmud class: “Teshuvah is like an anxiety dream where you’re being chased down a stairwell, deeper and deeper with no escape until you see a landing with a door to a staircase going up. You can go through the door, but you still have to climb up the staircase.”

In her astoundingly beautiful book, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit tells us that the first step is to open the door. She writes, “Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go.”

Quoting the essayist Walter Benjamin, she writes that “to lose yourself [is] a voluptuous surrender… to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery….That thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you, is usually what you need to find, and finding it is a matter of getting lost.”

But you don’t have to get lost alone. That is the other gift Judaism give us. Community. It’s why we cherish the experience of standing together on Yom Kippur, shoulder to shoulder, as we separately and together confess our short-falls, our wrong-doings, and ask for forgiveness.

This year we won’t be able to do that. We will each be in our own homes, some alone, some with a family member or friend. The prayer experience will not be the same as in the past. But I want to remind you that the word tefilah, the Hebrew word we define as prayer, shares a root with the word tofel, to attach, join, or bind together.

It is our prayers that bind us, our shared experience of speaking to the Divine, to our own hearts. Using computers to pray together is not a virtual experience – it is real, and each person in a Zoom service is an integral part of the whole.

Like a broken vase that has been pieced together to make it whole again, our pictures form a tapestry on the screen. It is a most beautiful tapestry, sewn together by shared values, a commitment to community, and the willingness to walk through the door together.

This is an edited version of the sermon I gave at Congregation Kol HaNeshama on Shabbat Shuvah.