Commentary: Holy Days: Return and Rebirth
In the season of atonement, what is our soul’s aspiration? How do we understand the responsibility of return, the task of teshuva with which we have been entrusted?Yes, our prayer book declares every morning that God, in innate goodness, makes new each day the works of creation. And yet, anyone who has tried to change a single personal habit, to wake up a mere 15 minutes earlier, to add one half hour of exercise to a busy day—let alone make amends for a longstanding rupture with a friend or become more scrupulous in business—knows that change is arduous, replete with false starts that can leave one spiritually depleted, skeptical that teshuva is possible.
To renovate the architecture of heart and mind is painstaking labor. As one astute therapist noted, “Most people go into therapy because they want to be their highest selves all the time. But the real work of therapy is to accept your day-to-day self as sufficient.”
Religiously, however, we are summoned to be our highest selves all the time, to believe in our capacity to share God’s sublime attribute: infinite compassion.
How might this ambition be realized? How can we quicken, as God quickens, to the poverty of compassion in ourselves, in the world?
In fact, we have already tasted the prospect. One example: At the doctor’s office for a routine checkup, you are waiting on the examining table, annoyed as you flip through a magazine you’ve already read. The doctor races in, apologizing too perfunctorily to suit you, and begins the usual.
Except that it is not the usual. She has found something, over which she lingers. Your heartbeat accelerates. She calls in the nurse and takes a biopsy. You are, at this point, pleading for reassurance, to which she says, “I think it’s nothing, but I want to send this sample to pathology. Call me Monday.”
It is Wednesday. You are bargaining: “If nothing is the matter, I’ll never…” “If it comes back benign, I’ll always…”
The days move like sludge, until the night before Monday, when you cannot sleep.
You call at one second after 9.
Naturally, the doctor is not there. She will return your call between patients. Which, at last, after an eternity, she does.
All week you have offered tremulous prayers of bakasha, beseeching. Now pour forth the prayers of thanksgiving, hodaya, as you express your overflowing gratitude to your Creator and resolve that you will never again take a second of life for granted, never raise your voice to your children: Fill in your own promises.
But do we? Do we—even for 48 hours—not take a second of our lives for granted? Do we never speak carelessly to our children? Do we seek explicit forgiveness of those we know we have wounded?
The doctor has called with a reprieve. We are—in the middle of an otherwise ordinary Monday—suffused with God’s mercy. Why can we not dwell in that place, pledge our lives, from newly embodied knowledge, to the intricate task of redemption?
Rosh Hashana is the birthday of our world, the threshold of forgiveness. If in the coming year we are given the amnesty of an answered prayer, let us extend the tenderness of the Creator to every living thing, not least to our fractured, broken-hearted selves. For if we could know even the least measure of God’s abiding compassion for us, we could resolve the paradox with which we began—the recognition that turning, that teshuva, is at once almost impossible, and yet immediately at hand. H
© 2010 by Nessa Rapoport, who is the author, most recently, of House on the River: A Summer Journey.