Teshuvah, Gratitude and First Fruits

For Congregation Ner Shalom, September 16, 2011


This month of Elul is a fascinating time. We describe it as "contemplative" since it's already high teshuvah season, "atonement" season for lack of a better word. We are engaged, or encouraged to be engaged, in chesbon hanefesh - our own personal moral reckonings. And to heal rifts with others - our loved ones and sometimes our not-so-loved ones.

Teshuvah is a process that feels very private and contained. The sound of teshuvah is a kind of hush. It has an inward focus, a deep interiority, even when it involves others. In fact that's one of the things that makes teshuvah such a hard task, because it calls on us to build a bridge from our own interiority to the interiority of someone else. Not a meeting of the minds, but an uncharacteristic, often very engineered meeting of the hearts.

Teshuvah is a hard, sometimes painful task. It always feels like the right thing to do, but it does not have a high desirability quotient. We avoid it, or we force ourselves to do it, sometimes at the very last moment, only when push comes teshuvah.

So imagine my surprise recently when I stumbled on a quote from the early Chassidic master, Yaakov Yitzchak Horowitz, the famed "Seer of Lublin." He gave this instruction:

When you pray about teshuvah and you express your hopes, you should say that you want to repent out of joy and expansiveness and amidst bounty, not from sadness and stress and in need and poverty.

I thought, how can this be? Asking for our teshuvahto come from a place of joy and expansiveness and bounty? Because for me teshuvah is all about getting smaller. Contrition feels like contraction. Atonement is about becoming "one" again after some spiritual scatteredness. The word teshuvah describes the act of returning - to the core, to the center of one's being, after wandering. We know how humbling the act of apology is, and taking account of our shortcomings inevitably makes us feel small.

But here the the Seer is suggesting that our goal is to do our teshuvah from a place of expansiveness and abundance. How is this possible to do?

So for guidance I did as I often do and checked out the week's Torah and Haftarah portions, to see what light they would shed. Now these are not pieces of Torah that are about teshuvah or about Elul. In fact, the Torah portion contains the instructions for observing the pilgrimage holiday of Shavuot, a holiday that we left behind over three months ago. And it is certainly odd that we end up reading about Shavuot not during Shavuot but on the eve of the New Year, just the way we read about the Exodus not during Pesach but midwinter. Such is our cycle of Torah reading. But this mashup of two moments - a lived moment and a narrative moment - has been ratified by thousands of years of cyclical Torah-reading. So by this point, looking at how Shavuot ritual and Elul intention dance together is certainly justified.

So I looked at our Torah portion, Ki Tavo and I looked at our Haftarah portion, from Isaiah. And there they were - both surprisingly beautiful and uplifting and full of light and hope.

I'll tell you first about Ki Tavo and its instructions for Shavuot. In Biblical times, Shavuot was a chag, or hajj. A pilgrimage festival, meaning that a pilgrimage was required. To Jerusalem, so that one could walk up to the Holy Temple itself, the heart of our people, the heart of holiness, and offer the first fruits.

(Bikkurim - first fruits - by Estair Kaufman)

So I'll let you imagine it. It would go something like this.

As the first fruits of your field begin to sprout in early spring, you would tie a piece of papyrus around the stem so that you'd remember which were first to emerge. When ripe, you'd picked them. You'd pack them up carefully and head to Jerusalem, which would be full of people from all over the land.

On the day of Shavuot, you would bring those first fruits to the Temple -- not in your arms or in a sack but in a big basket that you wove for the occasion out of willow twigs. You'd probably arrange the fruit and vegetables beautifully, decoratively, in the basket, with an Alice Waters or Ariana Elster-like level of care. No animals, no meat. Your offerings are vegetarian and violence-free.

You'd approach the Temple with your basket of fruit.

You'd place the basket on your shoulder, or maybe on your head, making you look like a somewhat more modest Carmen Miranda, and you'd walk to the steps of the Temple, amidst crowds of people there for the same purpose, all wishing each other chag sameach - happy pilgrimage. Lutes and lyres would be playing and there would be dancing and talking and poetry. Or maybe it would be solemn and the procession would move in a hushed, dignified way, like Catholics awaiting communion.

When it was your turn, the priest on duty would greet you and you'd say, "Today I am affirming to Adonai, your God, that I have come to the land that Adonai promised to our ancestors."

The priest would take the basket from you and place it before the altar or maybe wave it in the altar's direction and place it elsewhere or maybe put it back in your hands for the moment.

And then would be your time to recite a memorized speech, in Hebrew, over which you undoubtedly would have butterflies because your Hebrew is probably rudimentary and this is an important moment. You would take a deep breath and recite words beginning with:

ארמי  אבד אבי

Arami oved avi...

My father was a wandering Aramean...

You probably remember this speech from the Passover seder. It continues:

He went down to Egypt as an immigrant with just a small number of people; but there they became great and populous. The Egyptians were cruel to us, humiliating us and imposing harsh labor. We cried out to Adonai, the God of our ancestors, who heard our voice and saw our suffering... and brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand... and brought us to this place, this land, flowing with milk and honey. And now I bring the first fruits of the land that Adonai gave me.

And that would complete your offering. These words constitute a statement of national history and identity, articulated as family history, and personal identity. My father was a homeless wanderer. Even those who had converted to Judaism said those words, because they were considered to be the spiritual descendants, even if not the genetic ones, of Abraham and Sarah. My father was a wanderer, and then we were slaves, and now we are free.

Missing are the 40 years of wandering in the desert and the receiving of Torah. Instead the focus of this ritual is redemption from despair and arrival at a new beginning. The sweep, the arc is from suffering to offering. I went from suffering to safety, you say to the priest, and here is my offering, here is my gratitude. Over and over, every year.

Suffering to offering.

Oy, what I went through you wouldn't believe. Here, have a piece fruit.

Suffering to offering. Gratitude made physical, made gastronomic. Even today, three thousand years later, we all know that nothing says thank you like a basket of fruit.

Now let me tell you about this week's haftarah. It is from the Book of Isaiah, set in the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and it begins:

קומי אורי כי בא אורך וכבוד ה' עליך זרח

Kumi ori ki va orech uch'vod Adonai alayich zarach.

Arise, shine, for your light has come. Adonai's glory is shining upon you. Darkness may cover the earth...but Adonai will shine on you. You will reflect Adonai's glory. Nations will be drawn to your light, and kings to the brightness of your radiance.

It is a haftarah of hope. It reads like a thesaurus entry; there are probably 8 Hebrew synonyms for the word light within the first three verses. When things seem bleak, Isaiah seems to say, there is not just a light at the end of the tunnel. There is light here, right now, bathing you. Bright, glowing. You just have to believe it; you just have to open your eyes and squint in the brightness.

So what is the lesson then for this time of year? How do these two moments of text reflect on our lived moment of self-examination, self-criticism, and atonement?

I propose a couple ways. One is prescriptive; one is descriptive. That is, one suggests a practice and the other its effect.

So here's the practice. In the discipline of teshuvah, "I'm sorry" cannot be the only mantra. It must somehow be paired with "thank you." Atonement and gratitude need to walk hand and hand. How can we do this?

We might look to feel grateful for the opportunity to become whole again each year. Or we might try to be grateful that we are walking this planet even while we are aware of our missteps. Or maybe we look inside and see we haven't at every moment been our best selves, but we are grateful that we have a best self, a clear image of who we might be that impels us to do better.1

Maybe the practice of gratitude has its best use in our teshuvah work with others. When you ask a loved one for mechilah, for forgiveness, maybe supplement with gratitude. I'm sorry if I've done anything to hurt you; and I'm so grateful to have you in my life. Or lead with gratitude: I'm so blessed that you're in my life; it makes me so sorry that I've hurt you.

This is useful. Because plain old apology has a tendency to hit the brakes on a relationship. It may be completely sincere and necessary and the apology accepted, but it can be followed by awkwardness and sometimes, alas, a hardening, a shell of self-protection against future hurt. But gratitude can soften that hardness. Gratitude can move us forward once again.

And don't stop at words of gratitude. Offer your first fruits, whatever those are. Your creativity. Your wit. Your love. Your help. Your care. Your shoulder. Offer something of the best of yourself to help pave the road ahead. 

And that is, perhaps, why teshuvah is a kind of contraction. Not to make us feel small. But to make room for a new beginning, for our better selves. Teshuvah is not a shrinking but a kind of tzimtzum - a contraction that creates space, like God's first act of tzimtzum, making way for Creation, making way for the first words, yehi or - let there be light.

Your expansive teshuvah - atonement paired with gratitude, will make you radiant. Your expansive teshuvah will pull back the curtains and let the light in or let your light out. As Isaiah told us,

Kumi, ori, ki va orech.

Rise and shine because your light has arrived.

And so may we do our teshuvah differently this year. May we express our gratitude for each other and for our lives and for our best selves. May we offer our best to those around us. May we learn to say, "I'm so grateful for having you in my life; for having the chance to clear the air. I offer you my best. This is my teshuvah." And may that teshuvah let the light shine in all our lives.

And let us say, Amen.

(And then would it hurt to send a basket of fruit?)

1.  I am grateful to Rabbi George Gittleman for this particular insight.