Shaarei T’shuva: we shall not cease from exploration
On Yom Kippur, three Hevreh members shared their perspectives and their stories on the Gates of T’filah (prayer), T’shuvah (Repentance), and Tzedakah (Justice).
The following is the reflection on the Gates of T’shuvah, by Lyn Yonack.
Back in the day, back in East Texas, when I was first introduced to God, it was a paternalistic God I met. Fatherly in all sorts of ways. At best, protective, all knowing, all powerful, on top of his game. And mine. Lord. King. Sovereign. Judge. If you’ll excuse the cross-cultural reference, the kind of God who sees you when you’re sleeping, who knows when you’re awake, who knows when you’ve been bad or good… Well, you see where this is going….in this context, t’shuva is simply a matter of being good for goodness sake. Being sorry when I disrespected my father or sassed my mother, fought with my brother or took that extra cookie before my sister could find it. When I asked my father “why” (“because I’m your father” was inevitably the answer). When I acted too big for my britches.
But that God could also be angry. Vengeful. Harsh. And, I began to suspect, inconsistent. God could attend to the most insignificant of transgressions – a cuss word, a dress left on the bedroom floor, not in the closet — all the while ignoring awful transgressions. Bullies at school. Teachers who prided themselves on never sparing the rod. The prejudice and ridicule my family sometimes experienced as Jews in the South. The dehumanizing remnants of slavery, the assiduous, degrading effects of discrimination on people of color in my town. Not just transgression, but systematized evil, right before my eyes. As I grew older, as I raised my eyes beyond my family and community, I saw a world where loss and tragedy, atrocities and brutalities, again, evil, were way too commonplace. I learned of the Holocaust, my people’s trauma, in increasingly horrific detail. But it didn’t end there. And it wasn’t just about us. Other genocides and massacres, military coups and political assassinations, oppression, abuse, neglect, all sorts of social evils and man- wrought brutalities. Is this, I wondered, the bequest of the God I knew? To my despair, the God with whom I was in relationship seemed on the one hand, harsh, exacting, demanding, and, on the other hand, distracted, indifferent, elsewhere. How is it that this God turns a blind eye to so much and so many?
At Yom Kipper, to what kind of God was I repenting? For what kinds of sins was I asking to be forgiven? Then the really hard questions came – the kinds of questions that hurt my head, broke my heart. Does one have to believe to have faith? Can one doubt and still have faith? And can one doubt and still walk through the gates of t’shuva? How does one repent after one leaves the conversation with God? Do I beat my chest? Soothe my soul? Do I turn away?
It’s enough to drive someone to Jewish guilt, or worse, to a crisis of faith. (As I came to this point in my thinking, I flushed, imagining sharing this with you. I thought, I’ll call Rabbi Hirsch and tell him I can’t do this. I mean, dare I stand before you and say, so boldly, that I dwell intentionally and happily in not-knowing, that I have an ongoing relationship with doubt and I relish that relationship? It’s kind of like fearing that, if I state that I don’t believe, God will strike me down. In fact, though, it is doubt that animates, broadens and deepens my life. But instead of reaching for the phone, I stepped back from my own dark night of the soul and Googled T’shuva. Nothing like an intellectual activity to calm the conscience.)
T’shuva, it seems, means many things. Often translated as “forgiveness,” T’shuva can imply that you forgive, or are asking for forgiveness. It can mean you repent or do penitence. It’s been translated to mean to refresh and renew. But the root word, shuva, means turning. Perhaps to turn back physically — if you are going one way and realize you should be going another, as one rabbi said, all you need to do is turn around! It can simply mean to respond to a person – to speak in turn.
During the Days of Awe, we are invited, directed, within the annual ritual, to repent and renew, both as a community and as individuals. The work of healing occurs in three realms – in the conversation with God, in relationship with others, and perhaps most meaningfully for me, within oneself. We are called to turn away from the wrong path and return to what is lofty, righteous, true and good, to return to our true nature, what we are most deeply, what we are meant to be. To turn back to our higher selves. For many, it means to turn, return to God, a call and response of sorts, between Sinai and us.
T’shuva concerns transgression and sin. Yet, no matter how earnestly we repent, deeds can never be undone, words can never be unsaid. However, it is the promise and wonder of shuva that we can loosen the grip of our most grievous mistakes. At the same time, it’s folly to think we can be perfect. We all miss the mark. Yet, in running from transgression – by justifying, defending, avoiding, denying, disavowing, hiding – we surrender to the transgression, allow it to hold us in bondage, to shape and constrict our lives. The capacity to sin can be healed, we’re taught. Our transgressive acts can righted. A mistake can be atoned for. By looking head on at our transgressions, claiming them and owning what lies beneath, and by speaking the wrongs we’ve committed, we throw off the shackles of shame and guilt, free ourselves, and allow ourselves to expand and grow morally and existentially. At least that’s the hope.
Repentance is about truth, turning away from deception and coming to terms with who we, in fact, are. Claiming our own shortcomings and mistakes, not running from them. And acknowledging what we can be. Turning is never radical, never dramatic, but rather an ongoing process of turning and returning.
At the gate of t‘shuva, within the ritual of public confession and personal introspection, we are given the opportunity to examine the past, to know that we’re accountable, and to desire and seek a way back. In so far as we’re able to confront and take responsibility for our moral and relational failures, we can overcome and right our pasts. And because renewal is always possible, we can hold our guilt and despair gently.
So at the gate of t’shuva, I return – to know myself a little better, more honestly, with more integrity and compassion. And I lift my eyes to meet others. Here I choose, with intention, concern over disregard, gratitude over envy, kindness over pettiness, accountability over shame, righteousness over malice, responsibility over self-interest, life over inertia. I make sense and meaning of T’shuva through the psyche as well as the soul, through beauty and art as much as though Torah and mitzvot. And very much through compassion and caring. However hard and painful it is to face and repair what is broken, again and again, I stand at the threshold and pass through the gate of T’shuva, perhaps not so much through an unshaken belief in the divine – paternalistic or otherwise – but through what the writer Cynthia Ozick calls “the energy of creative renewal and turning.” The people I love and who love me, my work, literature, poetry and art, and, of course, my religious community, return me, time and again, to myself and, to repentance, healing, renewal and redemption.
I want to close with lines from TS Eliot’s Four Quartets:
We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time. Through the unknown, unremembered gate When the last of earth left to discover Is that which was the beginning;