Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Great is Teshuvah: Rethinking Advent

With Advent, Christian disciples welcome a new liturgical year and, with it, the great promises of peace, justice and holy light upon the earth.  The prophet says:
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth...
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious (Isaiah 11:1-10).
It's always seemed to me that we Christians can and should learn from Jewish friends, as we near this new year, as we cross over, from the old to the new.  The cultural apparatus--marketing in hyper-drive, consumerism as religion--trips us up in so many ways.  And Advent is--instead of renewal and reconciliation--a time of chaotic activity and the rehearsal of traditions un-chosen.   

Observing their own new year in the fall, Jewish friends very often turn to teshuvah, a practice of self-examination, confession, restitution and reconciliation.  As Rabbi Toba Spitzer says (below), this very practice is "embedded in the root structure of the world...Before we were created, we were given the possibility of changing the course of our lives."

So I wonder, friends, if we might accept a deeper discipline this Advent season, a more exacting one, a more consequential practice.  What if these first weeks of our new year were devoted to self-examination, and an honest confessional life, grounded in the mercy of God?  What kind of Christmas might we have if we were to devote these weeks to meaningful, specific acts of restitution and reconciliation--in our own lives, in our corporate and congregational settings, among us?  I'm absolutely and most emphatically not suggesting a "christianizing" of teshuvah.  I'm just agreeing with Rabbi Toba: it seems "embedded in the root structure of the world."  And shouldn't our new year, shouldn't every new year have something to do with tapping into that?

Isaiah says, "The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them."  Perhaps he's describing the kind of Christmas where humility, vulnerability and an undefended spirit make way for the coming of Light, the advent of Peace, the true embodiment of Messianic Love.

If you're at all curious about what such a practice as teshuvah might look like, check out the good work and accessible resources our friends at Tikkun have created for their own Jewish holidays!

Thessaloniki, Greece, 2014 (DGJ)
From Rabbi Toba Spitzer, Congregation Dorshei Tzedek, Newton, Massachusetts:
True teshuvah involves naming our transgressions out loud, in front of others, but does not stop there.  We must ask forgiveness directly from anyone we have hurt; and we must refrain from doing the same negative action again, when we are placed in a similar situation.  So the liturgical confession that we enact together tonight is a beginning, it helps prod us into an examination of our actions, but it does not suffice.  And our tradition famously teaches that while the rituals of Yom Kippur can help us atone for any sins we have committed in the spiritual realm, in our relationship to God and our own souls, it does not atone for wrongs done to others–for that we have to engage directly with anyone we may have hurt.
But beyond the mechanics of seeking forgiveness for our wrongs, there is another level on which teshuvah is understood and described in Jewish tradition.  It is a spiritual and psychological process, and a kind of cosmic process as well.  The Talmud bring this teaching from Rabbi Meir: Gedolah teshuvah, sh’bishvil yachid sh’asah teshuvah, mokhlin l’kol ha-olam kulo -  “Great is teshuvah, for on account of one individual person who does teshuvah, the sins of all the world are forgiven.”  Rabbi Hama ben Hanina says something similar:  “Gedolah teshuvah sh’meivi’ah refuot l’olam–Great is teshuvah  for it brings healing to the world.”  (Yoma 86a)  Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Hama are getting at the same truth:  the power of seeking to make a repair for our actions is such that we bring a measure of forgiveness, of healing, not just to ourselves and those around us, but to the entire world.
Another midrashic statement makes an even more powerful claim about teshuvah:
“Rabbi Abahu bar Ze’ira said:  Great is teshuvah, for it existed in the world before Creation”. (Genesis Rabbah 1:4)  Commenting on this midrash, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz writes:  “The implication of this remarkable statement is that teshuvah is a universal, primordial phenomenon…It is embedded in the root structure of the world…Before we were created, we were given the possibility of changing the course of our lives.” (in Kol Haneshamah  machzor, p. 8)
"Teshuval from Fear, Teshuvah from Love," Rabbi Toba Spitzer: at DORSHEITZEDEK.COM.