“If you’re not 20 minutes early, you’re late,” my ballet teacher, Marie Paquet, used to tell her adult students: Without time to leave behind the outside world and prepare to focus, warm up physically and mentally, class could be frustrating, even dangerous. Over the years, I’ve realized that her adage also applies to worship services. Still, life and public transportation don’t always support early arrival to services.
But necessity, as I’m sure “they” rarely say, is the mother of invention in kavanah [intention]….
This past Shabbat, Shabbat Sukkot, I entered the sanctuary un-early and a little frazzled. Moreover, this particular service skipped over some introductory prayers that ordinarily help me focus. This left me struggling to follow the service. But, then, in a moment provided for silent prayer, I stopped struggling and simultaneously “heard,” quite clearly:
“On Your behalf, my heart says: ‘Seek My face!'” (Psalms 27:8)
I wish I could say that this verse instantly helped me find my way into the service. But I can say that I my inability to keep up became suddenly irrelevant. Moreover, I stumbled into a three-part message encapsulating the fall holidays. I am hoping it will carry — for me and others, I hope — the essence of the season of teshuva into the mundane, post-holiday world.
Teshuva is a never-ending process because we are always changing and the context of our universe is always shifting….We need multiple opportunities for teshuva because our mistakes and errors change over time, and our circumstances are fluid.
— Erica Brown, Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe, 2012
I was sitting in the bathtub, counting my toes
When the radiator broke, water all froze
I got stuck in the ice without my clothes
Naked as the eyes of a clown
I was crying ice cubes, hoping I’d croak
When the sun come through the window,
the ice all broke
I stood up and laughed, thought it was a joke
That’s the way that the world goes ’round
— John Prine, “That’s the Way that the World Goes ‘Round” (details)
The “fluid” circumstances Erica Brown mentions undoubtedly bear no intentional relationship to John Prine’s bathwater. But Prine’s song and Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe have something related to say about teshuva, and together they offer a fruitful approach to “recovering” ourselves in this penitential season.
…The past is not a piece of
jewelry sealed in a crystal box
nor is it a snake preserved
in a bottle of formaldehyde—
The past trembles within the present
when the present falls
into a pit the past goes
with it —
when the past looks
toward heaven all of life
is upraised, even the distant past.
–Zelda, from “That Strange Night” (full text, notes)
In a famous midrash, Joseph and his brothers return to Canaan to bury their father, and Joseph notices, by the side of the road, the pit where his brothers threw him decades before. Watching Joseph look into the pit, the brothers worry. They do not believe Joseph has forgiven their past deeds and continue to fear recriminations.
While the brothers in the midrash are fretting, however, Joseph recognizes the pit, despite its painful associations, as the source of all that happened to him later: his incarceration in Egypt, eventual rise to power, marriage and children; and, most importantly to the Genesis story, his ability to help his family when famine strikes their homeland.
Avivah Zornberg writes:
[Joseph] has gone to the trouble of returning to that place of his terror in order to bring closure to the old narrative. He makes the blessing for a personal miracle, claiming the site of his trauma as the site of redemption. By this act, he rereads the pit as a space of rebirth, transforming pain into hope. The grave has become a womb.
—The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious, p.319; Continue Reading