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Teshuvah and "Turning" — Erev Rosh Hashanah 5784

Rabbi Toba Spitzer


Tonight we kick off the Jewish new year, 5784, and also the Aseret Yamei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Teshuvah. Over the years, I've had fun – inspired by my teacher and colleague, Rabbi Richard Hirsh – to come up with a variety of topics to plug into the formula, "7 Things about Teshuvah that I've learned from…" — including what I've learned from the game of baseball, from getting progressive lenses, from riding a bicycle, from my home appliances, and more. I seriously considered trying it with the Barbie movie this year, but I didn't come with much (although maybe some of you can!). But then I realized, it would be interesting to explore what I’ve learned about Teshuvah from… teshuvah. That is, what have I learned about the concept of "teshuvah" from its root meaning — to turn, or return. So tonight I'd like to share: Seven Things I've Learned About Teshuvah from Turning.

Lesson #1: Teshuvah means returning to who we already are. The word "teshuvah" comes from the Hebrew root "shuv" — shin-vav-bet. In the Bible, the word "shuv" is often used to mean "return" — often, returning to the correct path, returning to our covenantal commitments, returning to God. What I love about the idea of teshuvah as "return" is the implication that, in essence, we're okay. We are not being asked to turn into someone else. We are seeking to return to something – an essence, our true nature – that is good, that is wholesome. Each morning we traditionally recite the blessing Elohai neshamah sh'natatah bi tehora hee – My God, the soul you have given me is pure. No matter how we're feeling about ourselves on any given day, we are reminded, every single morning, that in our essence, we are good.

There is a beautiful teaching on teshuvah by the Hasidic master Rebbe Nachman, a creative midrash on an obligation described in the book of Deuteronomy to return the lost object of our neighbor. The Torah tells us, that if we find our neighbor's ox or donkey wandering around, we need to make an active effort to return it to our neighbor. 

Rebbe Nachman says, "Before a person comes into the world, they are taught and shown everything that they need to create and labor and achieve in this world. And once they are out in this world, it is all forgotten from them." Rebbe Nachman goes on to teach that we are the lost object, and our task once we are born is to re-find ourselves, to rediscover our true purpose in this world. We are, in essence, seeking to "return" to our true selves, and it may be the work of a lifetime to do so.

Rebbe Nachman goes on to teach that we can’t do this alone. In our work of "return," we need to seek out people who can truly know us and help on this path. This is their fulfillment of the mitzvah — to help restore the lost "object" of another. And so we do this for one another. We can do it in community, like here at Dorshei Tzedek, and we can do it with friends, teachers, counselors, mentors — anyone dedicated to helping us remember who we truly are. This is the sacred journey of "return," of coming home to ourselves.

Lesson #2: Teshuvah is turning on a potter’s wheel. Many moons ago, when I was in my 20's, I decided to take a ceramics class, specifically to learn how to use a potter's wheel. I had done a lot of art when I was in high school, and I was hoping that I'd both learn a new skill and also have an opportunity, a few times a week, to just chill out, relax from work, and become one with the clay.

I was soon disabused of any notions of this experience being anything like relaxing or spiritually nourishing. Class after class, I found myself engaged in mortal combat with the lump of clay in front of me, trying to get the darn thing centered on the wheel. No matter how hard I pressed, how much I leaned in, I just wasn't strong or skilled enough to center it. So I'd call the teacher over, and in about five seconds, she'd have the clay centered, and be pulling up an elegant pot. I have to admit I never got much better at working at a potter's wheel, and I decided to leave that particular art form to others.

Many years later, I read a d'var Torah by Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson about teshuvah and different kinds of turning. He redeemed the potter's wheel for me, writing: 

[The] ceramicist takes a lump of clay and places it on the center of the wheel, and then as the wheel spins, helps the clay to remain centered. By giving a nudge, by adding pressure, the potter hopes to keep the clay in its proper balance, centered, which then allows the pot to grow. We speak of this very image in [the Yom Kippur prayer] Hinei ka-chomer: "We, Holy One, are like that clay, and You are the artist." That is a prayer to be centered, to know our core and to keep that core at the very center of where we are…This kind of turning is not a turning to get back to some earlier time; it is a turning to remain true…

This is a lovely image — teshuvah as "turning to remain true," to find and keep our center. And as I discovered at my failed attempt to become a potter, it's not always so easy to stay centered. It takes some amount of strength, but most of all it takes commitment and practice. I abandoned my foray into pottery before I could center the clay, but I'm sure if I'd stuck with it, I'd have figured it out. These days of teshuvah are an opportunity to practice those things that ground and center us, that help us remain true to ourselves. It might be practices like meditation or prayer, or being with people who bring out the best in us, or being in nature, or exercising, or simply remembering to periodically turn off the social media or get away from the email.

If, as the metaphor in the Yom Kippur prayer says, we are the clay and God is the potter, then perhaps we can imagine that there is Something out there – or in here – helping to center us, if we allow it. Unlike the recalcitrant clay that I battled, we can allow ourselves to be turned true, we can have some confidence that, with the right intentions, we can indeed find our center, find the grounding we need to turn into our best selves.

Lesson #3: Turning is a transition. The nature of turning is that it's a transition, a shift from one direction to another. One year on a meditation retreat, I was doing a walking meditation — which entails walking a set amount of steps, about ten or twelve, and then turning, and walking back to the starting point, turning, and doing it again, and again, aspiring to stay mindful with each step. On this particular retreat, I became aware of a bit of imbalance in each moment of turning. It was just as I turned that I wobbled a little bit, became a bit unsteady.

And so, in our lives, when we make a change, we're vulnerable; we wobble; sometimes we even fall over. Transitions aren't easy. I think we all know this, but somehow in the moment, I often forget. I wonder why I'm feeling grumpy or anxious when something in my life is changing. Teshuvah is about change, whether making the necessary shift to forgive ourselves or forgive others, or admitting our own mistakes and seeking forgiveness from someone else, or trying to move away from a bad habit or set out on a new path. This all involves transition, turning in a new direction.

The important thing here is to remember to have compassion on ourselves in these moments of transition, to remember that turning isn't always easy, and that we're vulnerable in these moments. Be kind to yourself when making a turn, and have compassion on the people around you when you know they are attempting a turn. We can support one another, and make the turning a little easier.

Lesson #4: Teshuvah is turning over dirt in the garden. Even though I am not an expert gardener, I really love to garden, and every summer I plant some vegetables in the small amount of dirt available to me around my back patio. To plant a garden, you need to turn over the dirt each year, to prepare the ground for whatever is going to be planted. But that's not always so simple. There may be some things in the way of getting the soil soft and ready for planting. 

There is an old Norway maple tree in my backyard, an invasive species whose roots spread far and wide. A few years ago, I wanted to plant a few bushes along my back fence. When I took my shovel to begin digging, I hit a solid floor of maple tree roots. It took me many hours to dig through to get to the soil and create enough space to plant my bushes. Beneath the surface I hit rocks that needed to be taken out of the dirt. To even be able to turn the soil, I had a lot of obstacles that needed to be dealt with.

In addition to clearing away obstacles, every year I need to add nutrients to the soil. I've got a good compost pile, and steadily over the years I've added to the dirt of my vegetable patch. And every year, as I prepare for my vegetable planting, I need to clear out the weeds as I turn the soil. Removing weeds, pulling out rocks, adding compost, getting everything ready.

As we turn into the new year, we can imagine that we are preparing our inner garden, creating conditions in our hearts and minds for new and beautiful things to sprout. We might take some time, over these next ten days, to think about what the internal obstacles might be to this planting, and how we can turn over the soil. Are there habits that, like my Norway maple, have been growing for years, and need some attention, perhaps some effort, to get cleared out? Are there stories I tell myself – about who I am, why I can’t change, how impossible it is – that perhaps can be examined and gently let go? Are there ways that I am unkind to myself or to others that perhaps it’s time to uproot?

And what do I need to add to enrich the soil? What nourishes my spirit, and am I doing enough of it? Over these ten days, and into the new year, I invite you to pay attention to what qualities you are fostering in your heart and mind. All kinds of things can grow in our inner garden — anger and anxiety, calm and joy. It's all natural, and none of it is necessarily bad, but if our garden gets overtaken by mind-states that cause suffering, we won't have much fruit to enjoy. We can tend to and foster qualities like patience, gratitude, enthusiasm, mindfulness. We can take a look at the pace of our lives, the ways we spend our time, the things we read and listen to, and consider how those things might affect the soil. To nurture a healthy garden requires a bit of digging, a bit of attention, a bit of work. But the results, the beautiful flowers and delicious cucumbers, are well worth it.

Lesson #5: Turning can be subtle. In our machzor, we have this teaching from Betsy Platkin Teutsch: "Teshuvah/Turning need not be a dramatically large change to be significant. A subtle shift now, of even just a fraction of a degree out of 360, can take one on a vastly different path over the course of a life’s trajectory."

This is very heartening! If we're seeking to make some positive change in our lives, we don’t have to make massive, dramatic deviations from our current path. In his book on making small changes in our habits that eventually add up, James Clear writes:

Improving by 1 percent isn’t particularly notable – sometimes it isn't even noticeable – but it can be far more meaningful, especially in the long run. The difference a tiny improvement can make over time is astounding. Here's how the math works out: if you can get 1 percent better each day for one year, you'll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you're done. Conversely, if you get 1 percent worse each day for one year, you'll decline nearly down to zero. What starts as a small win or minor setback accumulates into something much more.

While I can't vouch for Mr. Clear's math, I do think it's a healthy way to think about making change in our lives. Make a small change towards a bigger goal, and give yourself lots of props for making the change. Keep the small, incremental changes coming, and over time, see what direction it takes you in. And when the inevitable setback does happen, know that a slight turn in the other direction can get you back on the path.

Lesson #6: Turn towards the good. I was listening the other day to an interview with psychologist Fred Bryant. He was talking about the ways in which our brains have evolved to dwell on the negative. We worry, we're apprehensive, we focus on things that make us unhappy, because this is how our brains have evolved to keep us safe from potential dangers. Bryant said:

We tend to spend more time counting our troubles than our blessings…The troubles are unavoidable; they kick our door in and come and find us. We're forced, then, to deal with them. But the pleasures, the joys, they don't hunt us down and force us to enjoy them. They wait, and they sometimes hide. They require us to go hunting for them and then spend time with them.

Bryant's words definitely speak to my experience — I don't need to go looking for anxiety or frustration or disappointment, they barge in and make themselves right at home! But the joyful moments can sometimes feel few and far between.

To train our minds to turn towards the good, towards that which brings us joy, Bryant teaches what he calls "savoring." This is a practice of finding and spending time with the pleasant. It's a mindfulness practice, but it's not about sitting in meditation. It just means remembering to stop, and notice, and appreciate, when something pleasant is occurring. 

I've been trying to remember to do this in recent weeks, and it's a lovely practice. One day I was out for a morning walk, talking with a friend on the phone and bemoaning something or other in my life that I wasn’t happy with. Then I decided to stop walking and stop talking, and I just stood and I felt the breeze on my face, and took note of the fact that I was talking with an old, dear friend. It was a lovely moment. And something inside me shifted.

I have a not-great habit of reading while I'm eating, and however much I enjoy my mindful meals when I'm on silent retreat, I've never been able to bring that practice home with me. I eat quickly, and can finish a meal almost before I realize I've started it. But since I've learned about savoring, I've been trying to remember to pause when I'm eating. I put aside whatever I'm reading, just for a moment, and taste what I've just put into my mouth. I savor the flavors, and then I can return to what I was doing before.

Bryant's research shows that savoring can build up resistance to depression, and is overall a healthy thing to do. As part of a teshuvah practice, I think savoring can also be directed towards our own actions. I tend to dwell on mistakes I've made, or that I think I've made; there's an enormous amount of anxiety that can arise if I stew in my own missteps. And while I definitely need to take responsibility for any mistakes I've made, it's helpful to balance that out with turning towards the good. To notice when I do something kind for someone, and to savor that moment. To savor a gesture of generosity, or something I've accomplished, even if it's a small victory.  

The Hasidic master, Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Rotenberg-Alter of Ger, taught that if we want to move away from negative things we have done, it doesn't help to spend our time thinking about that negative thing. He says, "in the place where one's thoughts are, that is where you are found." When we "think about the mud, we wallow in mud and will remain in the mud…While we are thinking about sin, we could be 'stringing pearls' and making something for Heaven's honor." The rebbe goes on to say that instead of wallowing in the mud of our own negativity, it would be better to go out and do mitzvot, do good things. And, I would add, don't just do those things, but stop and notice them. Savor them, appreciate them. 

And we can do the same for others. It's so easy to be annoyed by other people's shortcomings and mistakes. Can we also savor the positive things they do? Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav teaches:

Even with a person who seems completely bad, you need to seek out and to find within that person some small bit of good, that bit where they are not bad. By this means, when you find that bit of good, and judge the person generously, you actually raise them up to the level of merit, and you are able to turn them in teshuvah.

I find this a very powerful teaching. I'm not suggesting we start out with the most evil person we can think of, but as we encounter difficult people in our lives, especially those we need to deal with on a regular basis, perhaps we can, now and then, savor their good moments. Rebbe Nachman suggests that by so doing, we are helping them to turn them in teshuvah. And perhaps that is the case, which would be great. But I suspect that whether or not our savoring has any effect on them, it does on us, and might lessen our suffering just a bit, as we seek out a bit of sweetness amidst what generally feels sour.

Rebbe Nachman goes on to say that if we're able to do this for others, we should be able to do it for ourselves as well! So we can practice on ourselves, and on others, turning towards and savoring the good, the wholesome, the small acts of kindness, of generosity, of courage.

And last but far from least, Lesson #7: Teshuvah is turning in an orbit. If I can quote again from Rabbi Brad Artson, in his musings on turning — he writes:

I used to think that what the moon was doing when it was orbiting around the earth was that it was turning in a circle. I have learned, however, that an orbit is free falling. That is to say, objects naturally fall in a straight line. An orbit is when that object falls in a straight line, but is continuously deflected from that line by the gravity of something very large, very close. The moon, were the earth not here, would just zip along straight. But because it is so close to its mother, the Earth, its straight line is constantly deflected into what becomes a circle. It is the pull of earth that makes the moon's line bend. And this kind of turning is perhaps the most important of them all. This is the turning of recognizing that we turn toward that which is summoning us. And I wonder if perhaps what is turning our orbit is not the Ancient One of Days, the one who has been tapping us on the shoulder across the millennia, and bidding us to turn yet again?

He continues:

When I focus on this great cosmic free fall, deflected by the gravitational pull of something large and steady and constant, I think about turning and turning without end. Turning without end is 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...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.

I love this image of teshuvah as a joyous dance! A dance with the cosmos, with the Source of Life Itself. In the Sufi mystical tradition, the whirling dance called semazen is a moving meditation, in which the dancers turn like planets orbiting the sun, seeking connection with the divine in their turning. And in the Christian tradition, the 13th century German mystic, Matilda of Magdenberg, wrote this:

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.

Hashivenu Adonai eleicha venashuvah — turn us, Adonai, towards You, and we will turn. So, may we dance our way into the new year, letting ourselves be turned by Something both deep within us and also beyond us, Something powerful that calls us into our best selves. And though we will surely stumble, may we know we can pick ourselves up, and start turning again, and again, and again.


Erev Rosh Hashanah 5784
Rabbi Toba Spitzer

Fri, December 8 2023 25 Kislev 5784