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September 8, 2013

Turning and Returning: A Journey Outside Time and Space

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These ten days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur is the time of turning and returning, as the psalmist says, “O God, bring us back, and light up Your face that we may be rescued.” (Ps 80:4) 

Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav used to say that “Everywhere I go, I am going to Jerusalem. “ He probably meant that his every thought, prayer and deed brought him closer to his true spiritual home, to that time when the Jewish people was one with the land of Israel, the holy city, and with Torah.

Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, however, differed and said, “Everywhere I go, I am going to myself” as if peeling away the skins of an union to rediscover his core spiritual essence. 

We too are called by tradition to ask in these days of turning and returning, ‘What is our spiritual essence, the core within that we cannot abandon without walking away from ourselves?”  

The psalmist said, “Torat Elohav b’libo – His God’s teaching is in his heart” (Ps 37:31), meaning that we can be truest to ourselves as Jews when we learn and embrace and become living Torah scrolls ourselves.

This High Holiday season is our annual corrective to everything in the past that has fragmented, shattered, distracted, frustrated, disappointed, hurt, offended, humiliated, angered, and taken us away from our truest selves.

Rabbi Eliezer taught that the time to do t’shuvah is brief. He told his students, “Turn one day prior to your death.”

They asked, “Master, how can anyone know what day is one day prior to their death?”

He said, “Therefore, repent today, because tomorrow you may die.” (Talmud, Shabbat 153a)

Central to Yom Kippur is that we use every opportunity to break from the inertia to which we’ve become accustomed and take the first step to turn our lives around and return to the right path that represents a new beginning. God promises a great reward saying, “You are as if newly created. What happened in the past has already been forgotten.” (Sifre Devarim, Piska 30)

At my weekly Men’s Torah study recently I had a difficult time moving the discussion away from one point we were discussing on the theme of t’shuvah that seemed to take over the hearts and minds of many participants. I had an agenda for our hour long session, and we were not getting quickly enough to what I considered the main and conclusive issue. One of the participants said, “Don’t worry Rabbi – if we don’t get there today, we always have next year!”

He was right, of course. We read Torah every year, and over time fulfill Yochanan ben Bag Bag’s instruction, “Hafoch ba, v’hafoch ba, d’clua ba - Turn it over and turn it over again, for all is contained in it.” (Tanna De-Vei Eliahu Zuta 17:8).” 

The special kind of t’shuvah that comes as a result of Torah learning transports us beyond past and present as we know it, because Torah has no time. It occupies Eternal time, and as such is always current.

Torah stands also outside of space as we understand it. When we learn Torah we find ourselves on special kind of spiritual journey that leads us towards our essence, as Levi Yitzhak taught, and towards Jerusalem, as Rebbe Nachman taught.

Rabbi Brad Shavit-Artson reflects movingly on the nature of religious turning in these words:

“I think about turning and turning without end… just another word for a dance. It may be that the turning we are called to do before God is one of rapture and joy, of dancing in the presence of the Holy One, as did King David when he returned to Jerusalem with the Ark. Maybe the turning that we should focus on is not one of sorrow and mourning, but of exultation – that we are in the presence of something so magnificent, so unpredictable, so unanticipated and unearned that all we can do is click our heels and spin and dance.”

The 13th century German mystic, Matilda of Magdenberg, expressed it this way:

“I cannot dance, O Lord,
Unless you lead me.
If you wish me to leap joyfully,
Let me see You dance and sing.
Then I will leap into love –
And from love into knowledge,
And from knowledge into the harvest,
That sweetest fruit beyond human sense
And there I will stay with you, turning.”

            May this time of turning be restorative for us all.

            G’mar chatimah tovah. May you be sealed in the Book of Life.

Note: I am grateful to Rabbi Brad Shavit-Artson who assembled some of the above text material including the last poem in an article on T’shuvah in 2003. Translations of the Psalms are taken from The Book of Psalms, by Robert Alter, 2007.

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