For Congregation Ner Shalom, Selichot, September 24, 2011
We think of teshuvah as an activity of limited duration - like an NPR pledge drive or a back-to-school sale, lasting from the beginning of the month of Elul through Yom Kippur. But our tradition teaches us that teshuvah can be done any day, any hour, any moment. Our introspection and return to our better selves will be accepted by God, if you will, or will be successful and transformative, as long as it is done wholeheartedly. Or brokenheartedly. Just not half-heartedly.
Healing relationships, fixing what we've broken through our actions, committing to try not to keep repeating the same mistakes - these are worth our attention any day, any hour, any moment. But the trick is to remember to do it.
The Ba'al Shem Tov had a practice. He would use the conduct of others as his invitation to engage in teshuvah. So, for instance, when he saw someone around him being angry without cause, or impatient with a loved one, or dishonest with a friend, instead of responding with anger or judgment, he would ask himself, "When have I been angry without cause, or impatient with a loved one, or dishonest with a friend?" Usually, he wasn't at a loss for an instance of exactly that behavior. And he would use the opportunity to make teshuvah. Instead of adding to the pain of the world, he would take the moment to take from the pain of the world.
As some of you remember from a High Holy Day sermon a few years ago, I've tried to adopt a similar practice in the privacy of my car. I always think that driving a car is one of our purest tests of teshuvah. We interact with other drivers, but we are isolated and anonymous - a combination not necessarily designed to bring out our best. So when someone cuts us off carelessly or drives slowly because they're lost and trying to read the street signs, we experience greater freedom to steam or curse or use our hands in especially creative ways. So I try to take the moment to remember the last time I did something stupid or even careless in the car, or was lost and trying to read street signs as traffic piled up behind me. My moments of car-teshuvah calm me and draw from me qualities of empathy rather than anger - which I'm happy about. The roads are paved with enough anger already.
Other Chasidic masters found other ways to remember the task of teshuvah. They looked for messages, for reminders, embedded within the day-to-day.
For instance, Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, it is said, was standing in his home, looking out at the street one year on the 1st of Elul. A shoe repairman came up to the window and asked him, "Don't you have something to fix?" The Rebbe immediately began to weep. "The Day of Judgment is approaching," he said, "and I still haven't fixed myself." And he moved into teshuvah.
Rebbe Simcha Bunim of Pshischa went to the market and wanted to buy something a farmer was selling. The rebbe and the farmer haggled, but they couldn't come to terms. Then the farmer looked the rebbe in the eyes and said to him in Polish: "do better," by which he meant "offer a better price." But when the rebbe returned home he thought to himself that "do better" meant something else: even the farmer was encouraging him to better himself and his deeds, or God's demand was coming to him through the guise of the farmer, and that the time had come for teshuvah.
Once you start looking for these messages, you'll find them everywhere. Like today on my airplane coming back from Boston. We hit a nasty pocket of turbulence just at the moment the flight attendant announced, "This will be your last chance to throw away any garbage." And as my heart beat in fear - I know planes don't fall out of the sky because of turbulence, but it always feels like they will - she repeated, "This will be your last chance to throw away any garbage." And I turned to a moment of teshuvah because, I thought, you never do know when your last chance will be. There is never a reason to wait.
This is the conclusion of another Chasidic story about the famous brothers, Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk and Rabbi Zusia of Hanipol, who would travel together incognito to better learn the needs of the people. One night they asked for hospitality at a small house. The balabosteh, the lady of the house, fed them and found them a place to sleep, explaining that her husband was away working until very late. The brothers went to sleep but woke up near midnight when they heard her husband come in quietly. He sat down at the table in the candlelight to sew up a hole that had torn in his coat so he could wear it again in the morning. His wife whispered to him, "Repair it quickly, while the candle is still burning."
The two brothers heard in this a holy insight: you must fix what needs fixing during this life. There is no other time to do it. Do your teshuvah now, before the candle goes out. Because teshuvah is available every day, every hour, every moment. We just have to remember.
Teshuvah can be a joyous engagement. We can enter with gratitude - that we have better selves to aspire to be, that we have relationships worth repairing, that we care about who we are in this world. So let us do our teshuvah with joy, with gratitude, with or without traditional language or Hebrew words, so that our presence on this planet will be a blessing.
This piece draws strongly from the wonderful material in Yitzchak Buxbaum's Jewish Spiritual Practices.