On Teshuvah

Rabbi Jonathan Bubis
Erev Rosh Hashanah 5777
“On Teshuvah”

I still remember one of the first stories that made me cry. I was only a kid when I heard it. It was about a man with a beautiful family, who despite all of his efforts, could not make ends meet. His children were starving, and so out of desperation, he stole a loaf of bread from a store, but got caught in the process, was arrested and put in jail – for almost a quarter of his lifetime. Finally, after 19 years estranged from his family and hardened by the brutality of prison life, he was released. After being rejected by everyone he turned to for help because he was an ex-con, he found himself on the doorstep of a church, where he was greeted by a kind, benevolent priest who gave him food to eat, water to drink, and a bed to rest his head. But now accustomed to a dog-eat-dog world, he felt that the only way to survive was to fend for himself. So in spite of the priest’s generosity, he reverted back to an old habit: he stole – this time precious silver – and ran. The police didn’t take long to catch up with him, but after they arrested him, the priest came to the rescue, claiming that the silver was his gift to the ex-con.

And this is the part that made me cry – that the priest for whatever reason does the most selfless, forgiving thing. Despite the fact that the man totally betrayed him, even though everyone else immediately judged him as a dangerous pariah, the priest sees some spark of goodness in the man and gives him a second chance. The only thing that the priest asks in return is for the man to work to become more honest. And it was that little investment in the man’s neshamah that inspired him to completely transform his life. He changed his name, gave up stealing, started a new business venture, and became one of the wealthiest, most influential, most honest, and generous spirited people in his town.

Now some of you musical fans or Victor Hugo readers out there may have already figured out that this is the story of Jean Valjean from Les Miserables (#24601, #OneDayMore, #ToLoveAnotherPersonIsToSeeTheFaceOfGod). And I love it so much, because it’s really a story about teshuvah. It’s about changing one’s life for the better, the soul’s move back to its original, pure self.

We’ve heard stories like this before: the violent criminal who goes straight; the addict who finds God; the cancer patient who gains a new perspective on and appreciation for life. When you think about it, these stories of great change usually involve someone who was in a dire or life threatening situation, someone who had hit rock bottom, someone whose transformation was a matter of life and death.  Such stories are everywhere.  They have great appeal to many of us. But they do beg the question:

If those people can change under such serious and challenging circumstances, why can’t I change something about myself that is far less consequential? You’d think it would be easier to achieve?

For some of us, the answer to that question is because we believe that usually, other than in these extreme cases, we don’t tend to change. In fact, we may believe that we can’t change the core of who we are.  This is actually the main message of the antagonist in Les Miserables, Javert (who I happened to play by the way in Jewish summer camp when I was 16 years old). Javert famously sings in “The Confrontation” with Valjean, “Men like you can never change…”)

So, what do you think?  I’m curious to know, how many of you out there believe that we really can change if the effort toward real repentance is there? And how many of you think that we pretty much maintain our core traits/habits/inclinations throughout our lives, regardless?

Now, what do you think our tradition says on the subject? To answer that question, let me tell you another story. This time it comes from Torah (as you might have expected from a rabbi). Meet Jacob, or Yaakov in Hebrew. He was given that name – which means “heel” –  because he came into the world at the heels of his twin brother, Esau, and continued to pull on people’s heels to drag them down for most of his adult life. Jacob was a trickster. He was so intent on getting ahead that he stole from his own brother in a major way, twice. Maybe to guarantee that he was the  designated heir to continue his father’s legacy. Maybe to get back at his brother for being the naturally strong, athletic one in the family.  Or, both. But in any case, he ran away from home in order to escape the possible consequences of his treachery, and then spent 20 years being duped himself by his future father-in-law. How’s that for karma? Then, two marriages, two midwives, eleven sons, and one daughter later, it was time to go back home.  But that meant that he had to confront his deceitful past, with an inevitable passing through his brother’s territory. Terrified that Esau was just waiting for revenge, Jacob fell back into old habits- he resorted to cunning ways to protect himself in the confrontation. He tried paying his brother off, he prepared his people for an all-out-brawl, he even prayed to make sure God was in his camp. But then finally, the night before the fateful meeting between brothers, Jacob sent his family and all his possessions over the river, so he could be left alone – he finally recognized that he was the only one to deal with his brother. But he was also exposed. And it was then that the Torah states, va’ye’avek ish imo, “a man wrestled with Jacob” until the break of day.” Our tradition has many different interpretations of what, exactly, he was wrestling. Some say it was his brother. Others believe it was an angel. And most poetically, it seems that he was really just fighting himself and his own past. Whatever it was, something changed in Jacob that night, and he received a new name and a true blessing from the man as a symbol of that change. Instead of Yaakov, the person pulling at people’s heels, he became Yisrael, the God wrestler. And that morning, he bowed down to his brother, accepting and feeling true remorse for all that he had done to him. They embraced, and they made peace.

Now this is not just any old story from the Torah about any old random person. You just heard the story of the father of our people. We are still to this day called Bnai Yisrael, the People Israel, named after our once-very-conniving, turned-repentant-and-contemplative forefather. Ours is a people that does not prize perfection, but values our efforts to wrestle with ourselves and the world and come out transformed.

So, to the question can human beings change, Judaism answers a resounding, “yes!” We have the capacity to change, to do teshuvah. But our rabbis go one step further- they say not only can we, but that we must do teshuvah. And it’s not because that if we don’t then we’ll be punished. It’s because they believed that teshuvah is a part of life, a part of our very existence. The Talmud in Tractate Pesachim says that teshuvah- the capacity for change- was created before the world was brought into being. Similarly, ­­­the Zohar, the primary work of Jewish mysticism says that the world would not be able to exist without teshuvah. Because without it, the world and everyone in it would not have the ability to grow, adapt, create, heal. Without teshuvah, there’s no chance of tikkun.

So if teshuvah is supposedly in our nature, why is it so hard? Every morning, traditional Jews recite Birkot Hashachar, or blessings of the dawn. They are now recited in shul, but they used to be said upon first waking up, each blessing associated with a particular element of our morning ritual. Baruch Ata Adonai matir asurim “praised are you for releasing us from the bonds of our sheets. “ baruch ata…ro’ka ha’aretz al hamayim “praised are you for making earth and water meet, for allowing our feet to spread across the expense of space between bed and floor and once again feel the firmness of earth. Baruch ata hamechin mitzadei gaver “praised are you for making our steps strong, for giving us the fortitude to go out into the world.

These blessings are there for every routine morning gesture because these actions are not to be taken for granted. Because getting out of bed can be harder some days than others. Trying to make teshuvah is like trying to get out of bed on a cold, San Francisco morning. Sure, you know that you need to get up. You have work to do, you gotta get the kids out of bed, you wanna start the day off right… “But it’s just oh so comfortable in those sheets. They’re so soft and cozy, and it’s so cold out there. Let’s just stay in bed for a little while longer. Ok, maybe a little longer.” Get the picture? We get so used to and comfortable with where we are now. It’s cozier. Safer. Especially on the days when we don’t know where our feet are going to hit the floor. That’s what big change feels like. It’s like our feet extending into an abyss while praying to find solid ground.  Baruch ata, roka ha’aretz al hamayim, “praised are you…who allows us to find solid ground from a sea of uncertainty. Change is scary. Because it takes away the foundation from which our current identities are built. Because it takes stepping out into a new world that we don’t know. And that’s why sometimes we decide to not “get out of bed,” to stick with the cozy, with the less scary.

But when we acquiesce to the cushy status quo, or even when we bravely leap out of bed and fall, it can make us lose faith in ourselves, in our potential to grow. It can make us give up and say, “Well I’ve gotten along just fine the way I am until now, no harm in continuing in the same way.” But deep down, we know that sticking to the bad habits we have takes its toll on our neshamas, and on our relationships to others. We rob ourselves of hope. Let’s pause for a second to think of examples of this in your own life, or in the lives of people you know. What habitual choices cause pain, yet change is still not made despite the collateral damage?

We know that we must do teshuvah. The big question is how. Some of you might have noticed that even in our story of Jacob, he was only transformed when he thought that he was faced with a life and death situation. When he believed that his brother was on the verge of killing him and his family, it was then that he was ready for a change. The Rabbis noticed this trend too, that people only tend to change when they have to, when it’s a matter of their own survival. And that is probably one of the main reasons why that come High Holiday time, our liturgy starts sounding a lot more grim. Mi yichyeh u’mi yamoot, “who will live, and who will die? Who by fire and who by water?” B’Rosh Hashanah Tikateivun u’v’yom tzom kippur techatemun, “on Rosh Hashanah we will be sealed either in the Book of Life…or that other book, and on Yom Kippur our fate is sealed.” What’s the implied message? That we have between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, 10 days to guarantee that we make it into the Book of Life.

Now are the Rabbis trying to scare us? Yes. But not because they wanted to manipulate us. The rabbis thought that doing teshuvah was truly a matter of life and death. Rabbi Alan Lew talks about this intense Book of Life metaphor in his astounding book on the High Holiday season:

This is a true story…it is about you. It is really happening, and it is happening to you, and you are seriously unprepared. And it is real whether you believe in God or not. Perhaps God made it real and perhaps God did not. Perhaps God created this pageant of judgment and choice, of transformation, of life and of death. Perhaps God created the Book of Life and the Book of Death, Teshuvah and the blowing of the shofar. Or perhaps these are all just inventions of human culture. It makes no difference. It is real in any case…This moment is before us with its choices, and the consequences of our past choices are before us, as is the possibility of our transformation. This year some of us will die, and some of us will live…

Pretty intense, huh? Doing teshuvah for the rabbis is serious business. So how do we do it? By opening our hearts and doing an honest accounting of our souls, by praying, by fasting, by casting our sins into the river, by apologizing – by wrestling.  Va’ye’a’vek Ish Imo. Va’ey’a’vek, the Hebrew word for wrestle comes from the same root as “dust.” Because struggling with ourselves involves getting down in the dirt, fighting with all we got, and unearthing that spark of goodness in us that we know was always there.

The road toward real teshuvah may be long, hard and scary. But it’s also definitely worth it. Because when it’s done right, it can be completely transforming. Netivot Shalom teaches that when we do true teshuvah, we become a bri’ah chadashah, a completely new being, as if we were born anew. This may sound Christian to you. Well, where do you think Jesus got it from? It’s an amazing concept! The most insecure, pessimistic parts of ourselves tell us that we can’t change. Our tradition tells us that we can, we were made to, and when we put our effort into it, we can completely transform our life, to the life that we were born to live. Tonight begins Rosh Hashanah. Let’s take this time seriously. Let’s pray and struggle for change as if our life depended on it.