Updated: Sep 19, 2021
Rabbi Leora Abelson
Hi. (Deep breath.) Shana tova.
We got here.
I’m a rabbi - getting to Rosh Hashana always feels like a feat. But this year, of course, was like no other.
Each of us had moments like this all year - arriving to a place, or a time, that felt unreachable, impossible - or just unimaginable. Truthfully, there was so much that felt out of reach this year.
Too dangerous. Too uncertain. Too difficult. Too much.
I have found myself wondering: what is teshuva in the context of a global pandemic?
If teshuva is committing, and learning, to live more aligned with our values, what do we do when that alignment is unavailable to us?
If teshuva is about showing up more fully as a friend, how do we do it when we can’t be with our friends?
If teshuva is about becoming a better parent, how do we do it when we also have to be math teacher, music teacher, art teacher, nurse, coach, and friend to our children?
If teshuva is about becoming a better rabbi, how do we do it when we cannot be in the room, cannot hold a hand, layer on a harmony, make eye contact?
If teshuva is about showing up in community, how do we do it when we cannot make a shiva call, kiss the Torah, share Kiddush together?
Of course, we learned how to do all of these things and more. When we couldn’t be with our friends, we had Zoom dance parties. When we couldn’t make shiva calls, we left meals on the front stoop. I don’t know anyone who has not shown up in an extraordinary way this past year.
And so I want to propose that in a global pandemic, teshuva begins with grace and compassion. Teshuva begins with gratitude. If you were alive in 5781, you went through something really, really hard. If you can, take a moment and give yourself some praise, right now, and if that is too hard, give yourself some compassion. What did you make work in unworkable conditions this year? How did you show up when it felt impossible? When were you kind to yourself or to someone else? When were you vulnerable? When were you brave? How did you become more human, or help someone else become more human?
Let’s just stay there a moment, together, quietly.
I have wondered to myself: maybe this year, teshuva is only about being gentle with ourselves. Or at least, maybe that’s the only message I need to share, from this bima. But another truth of this pandemic, in addition to everyone showing up in extraordinary ways, is the way it laid bare the extraordinary violence of the systems we live inside. None of it was new information. But the pandemic highlighted what we already knew about how poorly we are set up to meet even the most basic, the most humane, needs of our people. As individuals who take seriously our role in the collective, what does teshuva look like in a country where in no state can a minimum wage worker afford rent? What does teshuva feel like when you can compost, and eat local produce, and use a toothbrush made from recycled grocery bags, but you cannot divest yourself from fossil fuels without separating yourself from society? What does teshuva require of us here, gathered on the land of the Masachusett, Wampanoag, and Nipmuc peoples?
To explore these questions about teshuva in our time, I turned to two Medieval scholars, Maimonides and Nachmanides, who traced the mitzvah of teshuva to different origins in the Torah.
Maimonides located the root of teshuva in the Temple sacrifices, and specifically in the verbal confession that accompanied the guilt and sin offerings. Maimonides quotes the book of Bamidbar: “When a person shall commit any sin that people commit, to do a trespass against the Lord, and that person be guilty, then they shall confess their sin which they have done” (Num 5:6-7).” Following a rabbinic tradition that seeks to make this teshuva possible without a Temple, outside the Land of Israel, Maimonides expands on the nature of the confession: “The penitent says, “I beseech you, O Lord, I have sinned, I have acted perversely, I have transgressed before you and have done such and such, and I repent and am ashamed of my deeds, and I will never do this again.” Teshuva requires an internal process - requires us to acknowledge what we have done and feel bad about it. The spiritual posture is critical and regretful, even ashamed. And there is a concrete ritual, though not as physical and embodied as slaughtering an animal, that offers closure.
As early as the Mishna, the rabbis recognized that when teshuva is needed for harm between people, confession and regret are not enough. Yom Kippur, we read in Mishna Yoma, atones for transgressions between a person and the Holy One. But when a person hurts another person, they can achieve kapparah, atonement, on Yom Kippur, only once they have done the necessary work of repair, which our tradition teaches is both material and interpersonal. Then they may confess on Yom Kippur.
So in the context of climate change, when do we confess? And for what? Do we cultivate a feeling of regret every time we use a plastic fork and throw it away? Everytime we fill the car with gas? The rabbis teach that someone who sins, knowing they can repent, and repents, knowing they will sin again - God does not grant them atonement. Mishna Yoma 8:9). That starts to feel tricky in a time when we have so much awareness of the impact of our actions; and are so deeply enmeshed in destructive systems. It is on each of us to choose how to live in this profoundly contradictory time. To choose reciprocity and care for the earth when we can; to not be too hard on ourselves when we can’t; and to find our place in the movement for systemic change. But the framework of feeling bad, repairing the damage, confessing, and saying we will never do it again - somehow, it doesn’t quite feel like it works, does it?
We live in a time with a better collective power analysis than we have ever had before. We have the language of power and privilege and oppression, which allows us to consider both our individual behavior and the impact of the larger systems in which we participate, the ways we cause harm without intending it. This understanding has given us incredible momentum for change; and we have also seen it fuel judgment that isn’t generative; shame and guilt that serve no one. Maimonides’ steps of acknowledgement, remorse, material repair, and confession are all necessary, but here, too, it doesn’t quite feel like it works.
Another Medieval scholar, Nachmanides, traces teshuva not to the Temple sacrifices, but to the framework of returning to the Land of Israel as explored in the book of Deuteronomy. He draws on this passage from Parshat Netzavim:
When all these blessings and curses I have set before you come upon you and you take them to heart wherever the Lord your G-d disperses you among the nations, and when you and your children return to the Lord your G-d and obey God with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today, then the Lord your G-d will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where G-d scattered you. Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the Lord your G-d will gather you and bring you back.
The Hebrew verb lashuv, which is the root of the noun teshuvah, appears seven times in that passage. That repetition is one of the Torah’s signals, an invitation to make a connection that may not otherwise be explicit. Something about teshuva is to be found here. You might find the language about returning to the land of Israel to be alienating; you also might have found deep spiritual wholeness in Eretz Yisrael; either way, I invite you to consider this passage metaphorically: teshuva is a kind of coming home. Teshuva is about a return to belonging. Teshuva is the process by which displacement and exile become return and home. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, expands on this idea:
In the Torah sin is something more than a transaction in the soul, or even an act of wrongdoing narrowly conceived. It is an act in the wrong place… The words for sin – chet and averah – both have this significance. Chet comes from the same verb as “to miss a target.” Averah, like the English word “transgression,” means “to cross a boundary, to enter forbidden territory...” … Because a sin is an act in the wrong place, its consequence is that the one who performs it finds [them]self in the wrong place – in exile, meaning, not at home. Sin alienates; it distances us from G-d, and the result is that we are distanced from where we ought to be, where we belong. We become aliens, strangers.
Teshuva, in Nachmanides' understanding, brings us closer: to God, to the life we want to be living, to the community we are committed to, to the truths we hold dear.
Rabbi Sacks goes on: “Teshuvah in this sense is less atonement than homecoming – a subtle difference, but a difference nonetheless. It has nothing to do with the Temple and everything to do with a sense of the divine call (“Where are you?”).”
In the Temple framework, teshuva looks backward: it is about acknowledging what is broken and our role in the breaking. It, importantly, seeks to fix, to repair, in a concrete way. In Nachmanides’ framework, teshuva is about longing, which is about the present and the future. This is the prophetic voice of our tradition. It’s about feeling deeply into the alienation of living in a city where people cannot afford to live; it’s about making that reality strange, so that we refuse to tolerate it. It’s about a deep knowing of what could be, and allowing that yearning to shape our choices. I don’t think it stretches the metaphor to say that teshuva becomes about making this world a home for all who live here.
The injustices stemming from white supremacy have so much to do with belonging - they keep people out, preserving belonging - and that means resources, safety, and well-being - for the few. And so the response, the medicine, is to build communities where people truly belong - we are cared for; we are held accountable and can ask for accountability; we can be our full selves and know we will be safe, not targeted. Safety comes from investing deeply in communities, and building equitable structures that, in turn, invite everyone affected by them to invest deeply - to contribute, to participate, to have a say.
We need both frameworks for teshuva. We need to acknowledge the incredible violence of the systems we live and participate in. We need to be critical of the systems, and the ways we benefit from and perpetuate them. We need to do concrete repair - individually and collectively. But teshuva cannot be primarily about fixing what is broken; it must be equally about building towards what is whole. We need to cultivate and celebrate our longing; we need to yearn forward, towards greater wholeness and belonging, towards the home we want to share together.
The seed for this drasha was a reflection about home, how home took on a lot of significance this year. For some, it was the only safe place; for some, it was a place of isolation; for some, it became the workplace or the classroom; for too many, it became threatened, because of eviction, or war, or flood or fire. Another truth I think this pandemic revealed is the preciousness of home, and the way we have set up our world to make home so precarious for so many.
My reflection about home extended to Nehar Shalom, as this community has spent so much of the past two years seeking a physical home. I am giving such deep thanks today, for this place of refuge, this landing; and I am holding that it isn’t everything we want in a home. But I am also holding that as important as our physical space is, it has to be secondary to building a community where everyone who wants to belong belongs.
I began by proposing that in a global pandemic, teshuva begins with grace, compassion, and gratitude. I think that it ends with blessing, with healing, and with hope:
In 5782, may we continue to co-create a community of true belonging.
In 5782, may our homes be our homes again, not everything else we needed them to be.
In 5782, may we do the concrete work of repair, individually and collectively, acknowledging harm and making change. May we make real change.
In 5782, may we make this world a home for all who live here.