Return and Renewal

Sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah 5777 (October 2, 2016)


With the arrival of Rosh Hashanah tonight, we begin the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah/ The 10 Days of Teshuva.  But what does “Teshuvah” mean?  We most commonly translate “Aseret Ymey Teshuvah” as the “Ten Days of Repentance.” However, “Repentance” is just one possible translation of the Hebrew word “Teshuvah.”

The noun “teshuvah” and the corresponding verbs “lashuv” and “lehashiv” are more closely equivalent to the English “return”.

That translation definitely resonates for me more than “Repentance”.

When I hear the word “Repentance” I think of a big, booming Cecil B. Demille-ish voice proclaiming “REPENT YE SINNERS!!!!”

And, truly, that style of preaching totally turns me off.  It sounds so hackneyed, so tele-evangelist---ish, so judgmental.

Sure, I suppose that a thundering tone like that is appropriate for confronting the worst of the worst – the terrorists of the world. 

But my sense is that none of us gathered here tonight are, God forbid, terrorists.  We’re just regular, imperfect folks, trying our best to navigate the moral choices that face us each day of our lives. 

And so, to guide our actions, we look to our tradition. 

And we look to the examples of those we respect. 

And we look within our hearts and consciences.

Some of us might say that there – within our hearts and consciences -- is where we find God. 

Some of us who are less theologically inclined might say that there – within our hearts and consciences --  is where we find the human traits that have naturally evolved in our species so as to help our species to survive.

Personally, I don’t think those two approaches are mutually exclusive.

But no matter how any of us may understand the source of our ethical impulses, Judaism teaches that we should be exercising those ethical impulses every day.  Torah teaches:

רְאֵ֗ה אָֽנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם בְּרָכָ֖ה וּקְלָלָֽה׃

 (Re’eh, anochi noteyn lifneychem hayom berakha u’kelalalh)

“See, I set before you today, blessing and curse.”  (Deut. 11:26 – I always remember that verse because it’s the opening verse of my Bar Mitzvah portion).

And the word “Hayom” (“Today”) of course implies each and every day.  As we learn in Masechet Shabbat 153a in the Babylonian Talmud:

  רבי אליעזר אומר שוב יום אחד לפני מיתתך שאלו תלמידיו את ר"א וכי אדם יודע איזהו יום ימות אמר להן וכל שכן ישוב היום שמא ימות למחר ונמצא כל ימיו בתשובה

“Rabbi Eliezer teaches – do teshuvah one day before you die.  His students asked Rabbi Eliezer --- does anyone know the day they will die?  -- He said to them, all the more so --- let each person do teshuvah today (hayom) lest one die tomorrow; and may each of us be found – on each of our days -- in a state of teshuvah.”

If you’re a regular (or even occasional) davvener, the words of the fifth of the nineteen blessings of the weekday Amidah – recited throughout the year --- are there as a reminder of this mitzvah:

Hashiveinu avinu letoratekha, vekarveinu malkeinu la’avodatekha, vehachazireynu biteshuvah sheleymah lefanekha.  Barukh atath Adonai harotzeh biteshuva/  “Return us, divine source, to your Torah, bring us nearer, our sovereign, to your service, and restore us, ‘biteshuvah sheleymah”/in complete teshuvah, into your presence.  Barukh atah Adonai harotzeh biteshuvah. Blessed are you, Adonai, who desires TESHUVAH.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – and the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah – The 10 Days of Teshuvah that connect them --- thus are merely an intensified version of what Jewish tradition would encourage us to be doing all year long.

I don’t think this is all primarily about groveling and putting ourselves down, though such language and choreography does have its place in our High Holiday liturgy.

Rather, in my own life and in my observations of others in all my years, I have found way more people who struggle with not having enough ego than those who have too much of it.    

By all means, repent as you need to, but remember to still love yourself.  That’s often so much harder to do than berating yourself. 

TESHUVAH is not just repentance.  TESHUVAH is “return.” 

And so we ask ourselves:  How can we return to the unjaded, idealistic, open-hearted versions of ourselves that were there once upon a time?

Once upon a time before we experienced loss, or heartbreak, or illness; before we succumbed to cynicism?

The basic Jewish metaphor for this state is “Gan Eden” – the Garden of Eden.  Gan Eden in the Torah is a paradise vision of the infancy of humanity.  But “Gan Eden” is also the way the sages described the heavenly world to come. 

Which is to say --- Teshuvah/Return is about envisioning and moving towards an ideal that has elements of both nostalgia and progress.

In doing teshuvah, we seek to return to God --- but we strive for this journey to be a forward journey, not just a trip down memory lane.

I think this is what Megilat Eicha/ The Book of Lamentations is saying in its famous penultimate verse:

כא  הֲשִׁיבֵנוּ יְהוָה אֵלֶיךָ וְנָשׁוּבָה, חַדֵּשׁ יָמֵינוּ כְּקֶדֶם.

21  Cause us to return to You, Adonai, and we shall return. Renew our days as of old.

We sing this verse not only on Tisha B’Av, the anniversary of the destruction of the ancient Temples when we chant Megillat Eichah in its entirety.

We also sing it whenever we return the scroll or scrolls to the ark after a Torah service.  

I’m always moved by the dynamic tension in that verse.

We ask God ---- Hashiveinu --- Cause us to return…. It’s as if I’m an automobile whose engine has stalled and I’m calling on the divine version of triple A to give me a jump-start.

V’nashuvah ----    And we will return ----   O God, give me that spiritual jump start and then will I follow your ways. 

We pray for a jump start --- But after that we can – and we swear that we will --- persevere from our own effort.

Or, perhaps our prayer for the jump start is – in and of itself – the jump start.

And what about the second half of that verse --- Chadesh yameinu kekedem –

“Renew our days as of old.”

Which is it?  A hope for a new world or a hope for the return of an old world?

It’s neither – and both.

It’s the hope for a future to which we can bring the best of what was good about the past. 

At the end of a recent Shabbat morning Torah service, I felt myself carried away while singing that verse: 

  הֲשִׁיבֵנוּ יְהוָה אֵלֶיךָ וְנָשׁוּבָה, חַדֵּשׁ יָמֵינוּ כְּקֶדֶם.

"Cause us to return to You, Adonai, and we shall return. Renew our days as of old."

On that recent Shabbat morning I was thinking about my mother, who died on June 26th, after a tumultuous back and forth between severe illness and relative health over the previous eight or nine months.

The words --- “Chadesh Yameinu Kekedem” --- prompted me to pray in my heart  --- O God, may you give me the ability to take all the fond memories I have of my mother from those “ymei kedem” – those former days.  And may the comfort of those memories --- and the Torah she taught me --- help me --- lechadesh yamai (to renew my days) ---  to bring renewal and a continued embrace of life in the days, months and years to come.

As far back as I can remember, my mother always taught my brother and sister and me never to hold grudges.  “Don’t stand on ceremony,” she would say, “because life is too short for that.”

I’m eternally grateful for having been in this same earthly existence as that of my mother for almost 55 of my mother’s 77 years.

I’ve now joined that club of people who have lost a parent.  But all of you who are in the same boat know that life does go on.  And life is with people.  And renewal is not just a pipe dream.

Harachaman, hu yechadesh aleynu et Hashanah hazot letovah veliverakha.

May the All-Merciful One, renew this year for us with goodness and blessing.


© Rabbi David Steinberg (October 2016/Rosh Hashanah 5777)


Posted on October 6, 2016 .