Coming Home: Three Paths Through the Gates of Teshuvah (Yom Kippur 5779)
Rabbi Greg Wolfe
Congregation Bet Haverim
Yom Kippur 5779
After months of scrimping and saving her money, an elderly Jewish woman sets off on a quest in search of a famous guru living up in the mountains of India. She takes a plane to India and then a boat up a river, and then hikes into the mountains with local guides. All in all, it takes her months of hardship to track down this guru. After this long and arduous trek, she is told there would be yet at least another week’s wait or more to see the master. He was very busy with many disciples to see. So she pleads with the secretary who is managing the guru’s schedule, explaining that she is an old woman and has spent her life savings to get there. She only needs a minute. In fact, only 3 words with the guru. After much haranguing and cajoling, the secretary relents. But, he reminds her, only 3 words. “Fine,” she agrees. She walks up to the holy man, stretches out her arms and cries out, “Irving, come home!”
Come home! Listen! Each of us is being called home at this time of year! Home to our heart of hearts, home to our deepest selves, home to the soul of our souls. Teshuvah, the very essence of these High Holy Days, is a homecoming: A returning not to who we once were, rather a return to our path forward to who we might yet become.
Rabbi Naomi Levy, in her inspiring new book, Einstein and the Rabbi, provides a guide to discovering the path to our own soul. Levy says that we are all “hobos.” This is not a reference to those unfettered travelers who rode the rails in days of yore, she informs us, but rather, a possible origin of that term, a clever blending of the first two letters of the words “Homeward Bound”—HoBo. She writes, “We are all hobos looking for a way back to our goodness, to our holy essence, to our Creator, to our own hearts and souls. And the Soul of Souls keeps calling out to us, ‘Return, my children!’” (Einstein and the Rabbi by Naomi Levy) Our deepest soul is calling each of us home every day by our own name. Right now, may we be attuned to listen!
Torah teaches, in parashat Nitzavim (which we read on Yom Kippur morning in the Social Hall), that teshuvah is not too complex or so far away that we would have to go up to heaven to get it or travel across the seas to obtain it. No! You don’t even need to undertake a trek up a mountain in India to locate a guru. We have everything we need right in our very hearts, within our very selves to make that turn towards home a reality. Yom Kippur, in particular, offers us three very powerful paths to the gates of teshuvah that lead us forward to our very best selves that we are becoming. These paths are the practices of 1) cheshbon hanefesh, which is soul searching; 2) fasting, making room for more; and 3) a chance to choose life, each year, with deep intention.
At New Year’s time, we often think about our bodies, perhaps, losing weight, exercising more, getting more sleep. Or we might think about our behaviors and the actions we want to change or improve. But checking in with our soul is not often at the top of our list. After all, it is not easy to pinpoint the location of our soul or even know where to look for it. But, as we know on a deep level, our Holy Days are designed for us to re-engage with our soul. This is important, life-enriching work for us to undertake. Though each of us is born with a soul, of course; the soul needs to be developed, exercised and nurtured just like any other part of us. Just as our muscles, our brain, or our other natural gifts, will fail to thrive and even wither without the proper care, so, too, will our soul. The mystics teach that new levels of our souls will be revealed to us as we grow if we attend to and invest time in nurturing them. As Rabbi Naomi Levy teaches, “Give the soul love and nourishment and it will feed you, whispering the secrets of the One.” (ibid) Tonight/Today is the moment to ask ourselves: Are we listening to our soul? And how can we better tune in?
Cheshbon hanefesh, a central practice of preparing for the new Jewish year, is generally considered to be “soul searching.” Perhaps we can understand cheshbon hanefesh, however, not merely as soul searching but rather searching for our souls! How would we go about this returning home to our soul? The journey of teshuvah begins with listening to the still, small voice of our soul calling us home. Our soul is that home address for each of us! It is the place that defines us and gives us our unique character and sense of purpose. The more we can tune into our soul, the better we are able to discern what we are to do with our lives, the better we can fulfill our soul’s mission through each of our lives.
Rabbi Naomi Levy says she had never found a description or image of the soul that really resonated with her until she happened to visit a touching exhibit housed in the Pinkas Synagoge in the Jewish Quarter of Prague. There, on display, were drawings made by children during the Holocaust in the concentration camp, Theresienstadt. At one point, she was riveted by a simple drawing by ten-year-old, Frantisek Brozan. It was a line drawing of a man, with a large mustache and wearing striped pajamas. But, upon closer inspection, she noticed that within the torso of the man was a miniature picture of the same man. He titled his artwork, “Soul and Body.” Rabbi Levy was struck by the profound understanding of the soul by this young boy who would soon be sent to his death. She writes, “A little ten-year-old boy in a concentration camp captured the soul…. Frantisek asked us to see the soul with new eyes. I think he was saying the soul is the Me within me. It is the truest version of Me. The Me that we are given by God. The Me that cannot be taken away even when we are imprisoned. The Me that cannot be lost even when we lose our lives. It is the Me containing all the strength and potential God has placed inside us. We all pray that the awesome potential hidden inside us will find its way into the world.” (ibid) Teshuvah, then, becomes not only living into the full potential of ourselves, our souls—the Me within us—but also manifesting that potential through how we live and act in the world.
Another way to imagine the soul that I find helpful emerges from the teaching in Proverbs: “Nishmat adam, ner Adonai, The soul of each human being is a candle of God”. (Proverbs 20:27) This metaphor reminds us that each one of us is carrying God’s light within us. It burns like a pilot light, always there and ready to guide us. But we must tend this light and work to help its light shine out into the world. This divine light, Rabbi Levy explains, functions like an internal compass always pointing us towards eternal things: love, truth, beauty, goodness. If we ignore our soul we are destined to be left wandering in the dark. lost without a purpose, clinging to material things, hiding behind our egos, in an attempt to fill the void that once radiated with the light of our neshama, our soul. But if we follow this way, we will never be sated or find fulfillment. Rabbi Levy explains, “The more you access your soul the more you learn. The more you learn the more you grow. The more you grow the more you love. The more you love the more you give The more you give the more you live…with meaning and with beauty.” (ibid) Let us seek out the light of our souls to guide us home to lives of purpose and fulfillment.
Fasting is the second path that Yom Kippur provides us, to lead us back to our souls. Fasting—whether by abstaining from food and drink or simply by observing some other sacred practice that aids us in refreshing and renewing our vision—we are able to empty ourselves, declutter our souls. Sometimes we can’t fully inhabit our lives because there is no room there for us. Clogged as we are with old baggage we are carrying around with us, feelings, experiences, concerns, regrets, the light of our soul becomes obscured, hidden from our view. So, for 25 hours, we cease feeding ourselves the steady stream of our normal diet—not just food, but the media we ingest daily and the noise and bustle that is constantly buzzing around us. In this way, we participate in a yearly spiritual “defrag” (or in non-computer speak: cleansing) of our personal hard drives, allowing all the “spam” of our lives to fall away, so we can open up new, unexplored spaces. We can then see what is worth keeping and what we are ready to let go of. As the clutter is cleared, the light of our soul shines more brightly, and we can begin to discern what is of value and what is no longer of any benefit to us. A kind of sorting of the soul.
We need less clutter, less stress, less suffering. Less mindless chatter, violence and dishonesty. But we also need more: more time with friends and family, more passion, more love, more joy, more hope, more purpose, more opportunities to contribute, to make a difference. How do we create this room for more when our lives already feel so full?
When we look at things from a physical, emotional or even intellectual perspective, there are always reasons, constraints that block us from making room for more: “I just don’t know where I’d find the time” or “I’d love to but I simply don’t have the emotional energy to take that on” are pretty familiar feelings to most of us. But when we experience the world on a soul level, then the possibilities are endless. When we think about the things that we are most passionate about—our family, education, the causes that are dear to our hearts—somehow we find the time and space for those things that touch our souls. On a soul level, we truly know no bounds!
To better grasp this idea of making room for more, we can imagine trying to drink a glass of water with a large tablespoon of salt mixed in. It would be very unpleasant, to be sure! The water in the glass doesn’t have the capacity to absorb or make room for all that salt. However, if we took that same amount of salt and stirred it into a fresh mountain spring and then dipped our glass in for a drink, the water would still taste sweet and refreshing. The difference was not in what we were trying to hold but the size of the container! So, too, our expansive sense of self, our soul, can contain way more when we are connected into the Universe of which we are all an integral part. It was Albert Einstein, a renowned scientist and certainly not a mystic, who explained that it is only an “optical delusion” that we experience ourselves as separate and distinct from everything in the Universe, from all of Life. The purpose of true religion, he continues, is to free ourselves from this delusion. Rabbi Levy reminds us, “Lean on your soul and let it show you how you are tethered to people you don’t even know. Let your soul lead you to acts of selflessness. Let it lead you to speak out, to get involved, to fight for justice.” (ibid) When we are connected to our souls, to our passions, to all souls, the amazing thing is that we always have room for what is important to us because we are clear about what is of value to us. Let us use our fasting this day to clear out the clutter that confounds us so we can better see what our soul is calling us to make room for in our lives at this moment.
The ultimate, and third, invitation of the High Holy Days for teshuvah, a return to our soul, is an opportunity to choose life, to write ourselves into the Book of Life each year as we praise God, the Source of Life.
My teacher, Rabbi Larry Hoffman, eloquently captured this reaffirmation of life, embedded within the symbolic arc of the Yom Kippur experience, this way: On Kol Nidrei, we stand before an empty ark—no longer holy since the Torah scrolls are removed—staring into a box, strikingly similar to our coffin. We do the holy work of dying for one whole day on Yom Kippur. Then, at Ne’ilah, when the gates of teshuvah are closing, we position ourselves once more before the holy ark, as the Torah scrolls return home again, like us, to their rightful places, and we are ready to be born once again, at the final blast of the tekiah gedolah, into our new lives, filled with promise and hope. Ready to choose and fully embrace life. But what does this really mean to choose life?!
Where is the choice, really, in these two options between life and death? Given the choice, who wouldn’t want to choose life? There is a beautiful teaching of Rabbi Eliezer Davidovitz shared by Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback that helps us understand that there is actually a real choice to be made here! Davidowitz teaches:
There are two ways to “choose life.” The first way is the “I” way. If we want, we can choose to think of ourselves first. We can worry about our needs and our desires and our wishes, and only later will we consider the need, desires and wishes of others.
But there is another way to “choose life,” another way to live our lives. This is the “you” way. Before we act, before we decide, before we speak, we can choose to think about how our actions, decisions and words will affect others. We can think about how our behavior will affect future generations, including our own children and grandchildren.
A real choice is, in fact, being offered. Do we live in a way that supports life in the broadest sense, or do we live in a way that serves only ourselves, only our narrow interests? The narrow way, this second choice, ultimately leads not to life but to death. (Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback, from the Machzor Mishkan HaNefesh for Yom Kippur)
Today, more than ever, the world needs the light of our souls to lift up a vision of what is possible. We are called to make room for more, not just in our personal lives, but in our communal lives, as well. Let us recommit ourselves tonight/today to a life of values that are eternal, a life of respect, holiness and justice for all. When we live a life connected to our souls and to the Soul of Souls, we will come to understand what Rabbi Naomi Levy preaches, “Heaven is not reserved for the dead. It’s here waiting for us to see it and enter it.” She continues, “Hell isn’t a place of fire and suffering. Hell is God opening you eyes and showing you the greatness that was yours to have and how far you are from where you could have been. If that is hell, then what is heaven? Heaven is when God opens your eyes and you see what is possible now.” (ibid) And, I might add, you seize that opportunity and make it real!
As we take up this challenge tonight/today to reinvigorate our soul connection and nurture our souls anew, we nourish that greater Me inside each of us and attend more closely to that guiding light within us that points our lives toward all that is holy and eternal. As we make room for the light of our soul to shine more brightly, we welcome the possibilities and passions that arise into the open spaces of our souls. As we choose life and embrace the deep interconnection that we share with all that is, then the choices we make and the actions we take will turn us toward celebrating and embracing life in its fullest sense, surely leading us forward to our highest selves. No mountains to climb, no seas to cross. We will truly come home to our souls to discover heaven right here on earth.
Ken y’hi ratzon!