A Thought on Tshuva

20 Sep

We currently find ourselves in the middle of the season of repentance, introspection, self-examination, and tshuva (return). Ideally, we are turning inward to inspect who and what we are, what we do, and how we do it. Our quest is for the betterment of self as a means to achieve a closer relationship with God. We delve into the ways we erred, strayed, or deliberately turned away from God and each other. Although tradition teaches that striving for repentance may be undertaken at any point during the year, it also teaches that this a time of special closeness, דרשו ה’ בהמצאו קראהו בהיותו קרוב (Seek God while He can be found, call out to Him when he is near, Isaiah 55:6). Within this עת רצון (time of grace) the opportunities to turn toward God are magnified.

The Song of Songs is traditionally understood as love poetry between God and Israel. The people of Israel and God are likened to a bride and groom as they enter into the marriage canopy at the start of a long and fulfilling relationship.  “I am my beloved and my beloved is mine,” (Song of Songs 6:3) is often invoked as a couple marries. In Hebrew, the first letters of each of those words spell out the word Elul, the Hebrew month that immediately precedes Rosh Hashanah. It appears as if the stage is set for a perfect marriage between God and Israel, what could possibly go wrong? In order for the relationship to work, the love must travel in both directions; each side is required be open to and receptive of the other. The sin of the golden calf is the paradigmatic example of a broken relationship. Entrenched in their desert encampment, the Israelites’ lost faith in both leadership and God results in a significant and serious error, an error that diametrically opposes the love found in Song of Songs, an error that only real tshuva can repair. How are we to undertake such a daunting task?

Our Rabbincal Sages, in their infinite wisdom, provided a comment on the Song of Songs which I have found both explanatory and instructive during these sacred weeks. Responding to the word דפקו (knocked) they write, “My son, open for me one door of tshuva, as small as the head of a needle, and I will open an opening wide enough for wagons and caravans to pass.” In other words, God is knocking upon the doors of our hearts and beseeching us to locate or create at least a small breech through which God may enter. God wants our tshvua, even longs for it, as relayed by the prophet Jeremiah, ‘שובו בנים שובבים נאם-ה (Return! Rebellious children-declares God…Jeremiah 3:14), in a verse that appears frequently in penitential prayers as well as the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy. Certainly we would be fools to squander the opportunity to fulfill the rabbinic and prophetic visions.

Yom Kippur is rapidly approaching; the time for immediate and absolute tshuva is drawing to a close as our fates for the year hang in the balance. I have hope. I have hope for the year and for the Jewish People. The realization of that hope is contingent upon the genuine and humble opening of the door, even slightly, to God’s knock. The hope is contingent upon establishment of relationship as loving and open as the imagery of Song of Songs suggests. The hope is contingent upon seizing the opportunity in the season of God’s closeness. The hope is contingent upon serious personal introspection, heeding the words of our prophets, and ultimately arriving at a more complete tshuva.

heeding the words of our prophets, and ultimately arriving at a more complete tshuva.


All the Little Things: The Land

15 Oct

Almost from my first day in the Army, I got to experience Israel in new ways that I never could have expected. While some were just extensions or magnifications of earlier experiences, others brought me into arenas that were completely new. From both a religious and less-religious perspective, becoming more in touch with the land itself, continues to represent a significant part of my army service. For example, my very first base was, and still is, located in the mountains and steep hills of the upper Galilee. Although I had been to the Galilee before, never had I had the opportunity to look out over the region from a guard post, with the lights of the sacred city of Tzfat resting just a couple of hill tops to the East.

IMG_1356[1]Southern Israel. The desert, another place that I had visited before, but had never spent any significant time, save for a couple days of hiking here or there. Most of my army service has been in the Northern Negev. When I arrived there a year ago next week everything, like it is now, was burnt by months of summer sun save for a few of the hearty desert plants which are able to extract enough moisture from the morning dew to allow for their survival. Not needing any dew were the scorpions, spiders, and snakes that can be found under the infinite rocks and boulders. Before using them, we were instructed to shake out sleeping bags, shoes, socks, gloves, and anything else that might be a good hiding place for any stinging or biting desert creature. One of the many pleasures that army life provides.

Eventually the rains arrived, modest as they were, and washed out some of the bugs. There was that huge freak storm in December which brought snow to other parts of the country. Inside our tents, it also rained, for which I had much less appreciation than watching the desert attempt to absorb the fat raindrops that pelted the parched sand. Little by little, the desert began to bloom, new shoots sprouted out of the ground, and the hills surrounding our base took on a greenish hue. By the time we had our dreaded eleven consecutive days in the field in mid-January, there was green aplenty, and of course equal amounts of thick mud caked to our boots. Finally the camels had what to graze on, and some were so brazen as to approach the front gates of the base in the middle of the night, snorting, chewing, and thankfully, not spitting. They diligently mowed down large patches of the new grass. So there we were, in the middle of the night chasing camels away from the base, not sure I would have ever expected that.

Until now I have been mostly concerned with the ground, but the desert skies also provided an new opportunity. Certainly well documented is the fact that the Jewish calendar is based, at least in part, on the cycle of the Moon. And while I had gazed at the moon in the past, never have I spent a year monitoring so closely the Moon and the stars surrounding. Thanks to the army, I was also able to use those same starts as extraterrestrial landmarks for rudimentary navigation. Whether it was some of the seemingly torturous military activities or just a good opportunity, I found myself using the moon to mark the passage of time, from one month, one holiday, and even one night to the next. When my watch was taken away during the aforementioned dreaded days in the field, using the sun and moon to mark the times of day and night proved to be extremely helpful, and even comforting. I imagined what it must have been like for Jews at varying points in history to use these solar and lunar demarcations while traveling to Jerusalem before pilgrimage festivals. Furthermore, the changing of the seasons from late fall to winter, spring, summer, and back again, as indicated by the hour of sunrise and sunset continues to draw my interest. One day on guard duty, I built a rudimentary sundial to mark the passage of that guard shift,

Although it represents a relatively small fraction of my service at this point, my time in the Galilee and Golan Heights has brought new perspectives as well, even as the sun and moon remain constants. I traded the sand for rich black soil, which when wet forms an extremely squishy mud that is much more difficult to remove from my boots than that of the desert, imagine library paste with a touch of cow manure. As the rains are just now beginning, the shadows created by the high clouds are magnificent. The holes in the clouds allow the sun to break through casting bright splotches of sunlight on the top of the Hermon or surrounding hills, while leaving us in the sometimes chilly shade. Rain in one place, sun visible just a few hundred meters to the North or South. Rainbows. Hot and sometimes a little steamy during the day, windy and fairly chilly at night, the dramatic shift requires a quick donning of a fleece jacket.

I suppose that any experienced hiker has made similar observations, although the hiker is not simultaneously charged with defending the land that he or she is traversing. Perhaps, after committing all of these thoughts to writing, that is the significance of all the little things that have made up my service to this point. While I could continue almost indefinitely with anecdotes and details, I think that the point has been made. The army brought me, and continues to bring me face to face, sometimes literally, with the land that I have sworn to protect, even with all of its thorns and rocks. And there, in all the little things, lies the beauty.