Yom Kippur is the climax of Tshuva, returning.
The guiding principle in this period of time is that even though the subtleties of the process are infinitely beyond our comprehension, somehow we are each invited, as unique individuals, to restore our inner balance, to re-center ourself in our unique personalities. In a very real way, although we’ve been conditioned through our culture’s single-minded devotion to empiricism, to ignore or deny it, ethereal as it may be, each of us is invited for a “do-over”, a new beginning. No, we’re not restored to ourselves as innocent babies–everything that we have experienced up to now is definitely a part of who we are and the world we inhabit–but even with all the changes we’ve experienced since this time last year, just like last year we can start the process of moral decision with a clean slate–whatever affects our past actions have had, they no longer pre-determine that we’ll err once again. Somehow, without having any deep understanding of how it is occurring, it’s as if our current momentum and conditioning are, at least temporarily, suspended and we can make decisions based on what’s the right thing to do rather than which choice fulfills one agenda or another. The reality is contained in the word “repentance”, re pendere, to be suspended, once again, perfectly balanced in the center between good and evil.
Like all special opportunities, this is a “limited-time offer!” It won’t last forever. Once we begin a new series of choices and actions we start to build a new momentum which will affect all of our choices from now on. And while we can rely that Yom Kippur will return, with all its opportunities, next year and the next, as individuals we don’t know if we will.
Of course, the unspoken question is whether all this is true or if it’s just part of soothing myths we tell each other in order to survive this world. And even if there is such a thing as Tshuva, is it really open to me? Haven’t my past actions, my doubts or even total lack of faith, removed me from this process?
These aren’t easy questions. Those of us who attempt to engage with the world in its current state (and if you’re a believer, then you realize that God has directed it here and that we’re not living in a random and arbitrary confluence of unrelated factors), while still allowing ourselves to remain attached to our tradition and it’s wisdom and insights, have to reconcile the empirical world in which we’re immersed with the intuitive, transcendental reality we also experience. Like anything beyond the trivial, this can’t be solved solely as an intellectual puzzle. We take a number of measures, none of them with any logical basis, to undergo this procedure of Tshuva. On Yom Kippur we fast, denying ourselves even water. We refrain from bathing, sexual relations, worrying about physical discomfort and, somehow, we do experience the renewal. We end the day feeling clear-headed, directed and dedicated. Even though it probably won’t last very long, it seems like we have a do-able plan for the future.
Even those of us who enthusiastically try to participate in this process often wonder if our secret deeds, the ones we’re ashamed to confront, and we all have them, disqualify us from Tshuva. In many ways, this is an opening in combatting despair. In our darkest moments, we all feel inadequate, unfit and undeserving, but while this might be the reality of our feelings, it’s not a very objective one.
The Gemara, in Chagiga, deals directly with this issue in the story of Rabbi Elisha Ben Abahu. One of Rabbi Akiva‘s greatest students, he is one of only three who, along with Rabbi Akiva (making up the fourth), ascends to פרדס, Pardes, or Paradise (actually, this is an acronym for the four levels of meaning in the Torah, פשט, Pshat or simple meaning, רמז, Remez or hint, דרש, Drash or homiletic meaning and סוד, Sod, or secret/mystical meaning. In other words, he was privileged to explore the deepest levels of reality.
Of these four great rabbis, only Rabbi Akiva comes to a good end, “entering in peace, leaving in peace”. One of the others died from the experience and another went mad. Elisha, it says, “cut his roots” which, is taken to mean he completely loses his faith and becomes an apostate. He hears a heavenly voice, which is repeated several times, telling him that of all people, only he is excluded from Tshuva! Without further exploration, he falls into a despair from which he doesn’t emerge.
Our sages are, understandably, worried about this conclusion. We’re taught that everyone person, no matter how many evil deeds they’ve done in their lives, is eagerly awaited to do Tshuva, even just a moment before their death. How is it possible that a brilliant scholar, one so sensitive as to be chosen to accompany Rabbi Akiva, a person with many mitzvot and good deeds to his name, who has acquired a tremendous amount of Torah knowledge, be denied? Not only that, but how could he even think that might be the case? Shouldn’t his earlier training and all his experience lead him to reject this despair?
We’re not told exactly why, but we understand that people generally hear what they are listening for. Somehow in his experiences, Elisha became so alienated from himself and from his people that he only heard what he wanted to. It wasn’t that he was barred from Tshuva, but, rather, he’d entered a situation where it was going to be a lot more difficult for him to successfully achieve it. He would have to overcome his own doubts not only about how the world really is, but who he really is.
Rabbi Daniel Goldberger, zt”l, warned me many years ago when I first spoke with him about becoming a rabbi, that he never indulged himself in 100% certainty. On the one hand, that’s a sincere expression of the humility that comes from realizing that we are finite beings without omniscience. Additionally, I believe, it’s a formula to avoid such severe disappointment that you fall into despair. If you accept that your world-view might be completely wrong, it’s not so devastating for it to be disproved. Perhaps with too inflexible an understanding, even if based on much study, he was incapable of accepting the world as it is and himself as he is. His own inflexibility, and not a Divine Decree, prevents him from Tshuva.
If we’re able to, somehow, free ourselves from our preconceptions, from limiting the universe to our own imaginations, we’ll maintain the realization that there is always room to return, to re-center, to re-calibrate. And we’ll also know that when we come to this time next year we’ll have many temporary conclusions we’d reached over the year which are wrong. Which we’ll have to re-calibrate again. And we’ll celebrate our humanness along with our Creator.
G’mar Chatima Tova