The Path Towards Renewal

Kol Nidre, Yom Kippur, 5777

I want you to answer a question for me:  If you met someone on the street today and they said they could grant you one wish, what would that wish be?  I am assuming that many of you in some form or another want to go to back in time.  Despite the question’s neutral wording, I hear in it, and I imagine I am not alone, that the answer to this question can only go one way, that its coordinates are pointing to the past.

I would like tell you a story about John Silveira.  John’s friend published a magazine and was short on content, so he asked John if he would be willing to fill out a few ads in the back of the magazine, so that it would appear fuller.  John wrote two:  one personal—he was single—and one for fun.  The fun one said, “Wanted:  Somebody to go back in time with me.  This is not a joke. I cannot guarantee your safety.  You will be paid once we return to the future.”  He found it amusing and thought he would get a handful of bizarre responses that would yield a good laugh or two, while he was really hoping the other would lead to some dates.

Let me pause to tell you that the name of this magazine was Backwoods, so surprising or not, the first ad did not garner much success.  But the time machine ad?  He said, “There was this tsunami of letters filling up the P.O. Box,” and that was before someone placed this ad on the internet and, then well, it took on a life of its own.  He got responses from every continent—yes, Antarctica included!

What were these responses and who were the people who responded?  Of course one could assume there were responses like this one, “Yes, I want to travel to 1984.  My time machine was stolen and I am stuck in 2010.”  People, who shall we say, probably already exist in alternative reality.  But these were not the surprising responses nor were they the rule.  The responses were from seemingly normal folks living with everyday wounds.  They needed to go back in time and say sorry.  To do right rather than wrong.  Not to make the big changes, but the small ones.  To rediscover the person that felt whole.

I share this story because time travel is not only something found in the sci‑fi section of the bookstore, the hinterlands of the internet or even at a baseball field in Iowa.  We cannot allow it to be merely a form of mental or emotional escape because it is real.  It is in the Torah, it is in the Talmud, and, God willing, it is in each of us.

I want us to think of time travel as recognizing our brokenness, looking back towards a time of wholeness while finding the means to reclaim the person we want to be.

We need Yom Kippur to serve as the requisite courage to find that person; to shake our hearts, to compel us to action.  It comes at the precise time we need it because, one more day without healing these wounds, the wounds we pretend are not there because they are not the issues that “keep us up at night,” is one more day we are walking around incomplete.  And, if we are less than whole, then there is certainly somebody else who is less than whole.

So where do we begin?  We must recognize that we are broken- period.  And from there we must seek renewal, not rebirth but teshuvah/repentance—returning to that time when you felt complete, when the luggage you carried around with you was easily stowed under the seat in front of you.  This is the gift our tradition; it is the gift of knowing how to begin again.  Not erasing the past, we are not starting from scratch.  It is beginning again.

Teshuva—spiritual renewal—is cooking, not baking.  Baking is exact—it regards mistakes as fatal sins, whereas cooking starts with the premise that perfection is elusive and no mistake is final.  Just as with cooking, our mistakes simply require being thoughtful about what to do next.  We can fix the parts of our lives that feel broken.

The Japanese have a form of pottery called Kintsugi which is a method of repairing pottery with a gold or silver lacquer.  What is significant about this is not the restorative powers of this method but, its yield.  You see broken shards spliced together—the pot is no more or less useful than the day it came out of the oven.  But this art form says that this piece, this object is more beautiful for having been used.  The Japanese feel the wear and tear and its ultimate repair makes a piece of art that is human.

As Jews we do not forget our past but we add to it.  One poignant example of this is conversion.  Prior to entering the water of the mikveh, the person must shower but not dry off because... the droplets of water that cling to your body represent the entirety of your life up until that moment and your Judaism and Jewish identity requires bringing your whole self.  You must bring all of your past with you.  We also see this in the Torah.

What was our first Patriarch’s/Matriarch’s name?  It was not Abraham and Sarah but rather Avram and Sarai; they each received an additional letter.  Their name change did not transform them into new people; they did not shed their old identity or personality for a new one.  But, rather, God allowed them to become more whole.  God changed Jacob’s name to Israel—to wrestle with God—not so much because he wrestled with the angel but because he was able to wrangle in the turbulence of his life and confront his broken spirit.  This confrontation with his past allowed him to repair the wounds that were shaping his life.  Only then could he mend the relationship with his brother Esau.  The beauty of the Torah is that we see the entirety of our matriarchs’ and patriarchs’ lives unfold—we see their foibles and strengths, pettiness and humility.  We see their triumphs and we see them triumph again.

The Torah understood that its characters had flaws yet it was these flaws that made them our heroes, made their stories worth saving and, ultimately, retelling.

Our tradition is demanding that we confront our shortcomings and the relationships that are damaged because of them.  The worst thing you can say is “that is simply who I am” “I can’t change.”  Rabbi Arthur Green says we succumb to cynicism or other versions of determinism “That serve as excuses for us not to try (Days of Awe, xii).”  Rabbi Yitz Greenberg calls this psychic numbing.  We deceive ourselves into thinking that that thing we said, the action we took or did not take, was hardwired into our souls.  It is almost as if it was not a sin or mistake, not something we need to right because it is in our DNA the same we may have blue eyes or proficiency with language.

We cannot accept this thinking.  Teshuvah, Greenberg says, leads to psychic rebirth.  Renewal is gradual but change is possible and very real.  Change is what is hardwired into our tradition and, into each one of us; that psychic rebirth occurs when you have the courage to seek it out.  To dig out those little things. The things we overlook, the things we miss when we are looking for that big thing we did, the mistake that wears the obvious clothing of hurt.  The big things, they, of course matter, but you know those are there and the road towards forgiveness is well paved.  The big things are actually easier to seek forgiveness for.   

It is now Yom Kippur and you have had a week to think about why we blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah.  What does it teach us?  What does each sound stand for (the full blast of Tekiah, the broken Shevarim and Truah and the final full long blast of Tekiah Gedolah)?  Rabbi Jill Jacobs says, “The shofar reveals a secret: Wholeness and brokenness cannot be separated… only a sincere encounter with this brokenness will allow us to put ourselves back together again, more whole than before.”  What she taught me, what the shofar is teaching us, is that wholeness and brokenness are not two sides of the same coin, nor are they a spectrum with brokenness on one side and wholeness the other- they are intertwined and to know wholeness we must accept brokenness with both our hearts and our minds.  Our lives are rejuvenated and our souls are renewed when we summon the moral courage to confront those shevarim, the truah, the broken notes of the shofar blowing and then, we return not to tekiah but to tekiah gedolah.  The big blast.  The piercing sound that circumcised our soul, allows our heart to grow bigger than before.

The shofar blowing is our soul’s alarm clock; it should stir our insides into thinking about the little things—what is the psychic price of the hurt I have caused?  What is the pain that I carry around with me, and what am I are paying for that hurt?  Think about the depth of the harm you are causing by these small things- the thing you want to go back to, yet we play the game pretending it is not important—allowing these things to live somewhere between our conscious and subconscious.  Allowing it play out in glances and unspoken conversations.

This is true for so many of us, that our relationships are wearing the guise of normalcy, of wholeness when all know that real hurt and pain are being glossed over.  I know it is so easy to think they are little things, “who knows if my Dad even noticed”, “perhaps my friend feels nothing is wrong.”  “They do not actually care.”  But let me tell you—the math of little things is that...they add up to be big things- this is the arithmetic our lives.         

We protect ourselves from what is hard and scary while minimizing our ability to fully live life.  And why?  Because it is so much easier than confronting them and that is why we want a time; approaching fantasy is easier than confronting the power we all have.  We all do this dance, the willful two-step, we run through life so that we cannot stop—or to avoid admitting we do not want to.  We are scared of confrontation.  But, I think, our true fear lies in what might happen if we find a dance partner in that forgiveness.

I began with time travel and I want to return there.  There is an absurdity to time travel.  Whether it is the contours of human made geography flashing in front of H. G. Wells’ Time Machine, the restrictions of human agency in Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder, or even the farcical nature of what returning to the past actually looks like which Marty McFly discovered in Back to the Future.  These forays into the past are attempting to wipe out our memories and their connective tissues.  One of my favorite movies is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which is about a couple, who rather than work their troubled love, undergo a “scientific” procedure to erase all of their memories of each other.  But what obviously happens is that the characters have lost their balance, their emotional center of gravity is out of whack.  They are no longer who they were meant to be, yet with an inability to create any new life.  This time-travel did not erase their damaging memories, it erased their humanity.

What this film and teshuvah understands, is that our memory is what makes us human—to negate or eradicate the joy and pain of those memories diminishes the fact that we were made in the Divine Image.  The ultimate test of our lives is remembering, and how we use our memory.  It is about returning to that one moment not so that you can do it over or white it out but to fix it—making it better is not done in the past but right now.

Yom Kippur is about death—it is a trial run.  The Rabbis imagined it to be a rehearsal, practicing for the real thing, so that when we are on our deathbed it will not filled with regret.  Yom Kippur is offering us perspective.  Tomorrow night you can leave with the perspective, with the clarity of a life looked back on and know how to move forward.  But now I am hear to tell you, to tell myself, that we need to know that we can!

The time-machine exercise, the Rabbis’ rehearsal, is the same move! It is a spiritual technology telling us we can.  Say sorry for how things have evolved; tell your dad/ mom/ your friend “you didn’t mean it.”  Or that you did mean it then but you do not mean it anymore!  Deal with that one thing and deal with it now!  Don’t be stuck in a cycle of stagnation, this can fixed on your way home today!   

But you need to ask yourself:  how would you feel if you did it, what it would do for you if you acknowledged the power you have?

Our fantasies of time travel are sterile and impersonal—the irony of our past is showing us the power of teshuvah.  It is not about rewriting history but rewriting the future—yesterday is only written in stone if we cannot summon the courage to face today and what tomorrow might look like.  

This is my prayer for us.  Unlock the key to the luggage that is overflowing with little things, the stuff that is actually shaping our lives.  That we throw out our hopes of finding a time machine, a fantastical solution to our human shortcomings and then grasp the wisdom of Yom Kippur.  

This holiday is about reminding us we have the time machine, we have the magic, it is the decision the jump in the fire, and know not only will be ok but you will come out more whole.  The person you need to seek out may be sitting next to you—turn to them and return to the person you need to be, so that life can be full and whole once more.

Rabbi David Minkus

The Pulpit Shelf