Meditation on Teshuvah and Healing
By Ken Cohen
It is at the New Year that we are most fully reconstituted as a kehilla kedosha, to touch into the great stream of prayer and wisdom of our Tradition. Although we may seek teshuvah— repentance, or “turning back,” at any time during the year, the unique nexus of surrender and intention undertaken during the Days of Awe allows us to experience healing and transformation, individually and in concert with our brethren. We are, each and all, in our way, in need of healing. Is there anyone completely free from error or conflict, the habitual attachment to which can leave us unwell? When we admit that we have sinned, and resolve to make amends, we allow Divine flow and rhythm to be reasserted within us, and enable shleimut, wholeness to be
restored. In the month of Elul we’ve already begun to prepare, with the inclusion, among other elements, of Psalm 27, “The Lord is My Light,” and a reminder to begin to acknowledge and redress any hurt we have caused in the past.
Beginning with the very positive and expansive, major key melodies of erev Rosh Hashana, we share a great deep transforming breath of joy and expectation to celebrate the birthday of the world. Such a breath is the perfect prelude to any healing process. Shacharit, when we chant special passages to enthrone in our hearts HaMelech, the all knowing enabler, on the most exalted throne, we are preparing to give over the rule of personal webs of stubbornness in which we’ve become entangled. In musaf, Unetaneh Tokef is recited, in which we declare ourselves to be witness to the transcendent power of Compassion Truth Remembrance and Judgment, and our intention to be awakened by the call of the great shofar, and to hearken to the small voice in the deep center of our soul. In Malkhuyot, during the Great Alenu (the only time of the year it is recited near the beginning of a service,) we take the opportunity to emulate the healing self-effacement of Moshe Rabbeinu, who fell on his face before the Creator (Yotzeir b’reishit) in order to avert the most severe consequences for those around him. And we reaffirm the transformative reality of Memory in Zichronot, and of Revelation in Shofarot.
Erev Yom Kippur, just before the Kol Nidre’s formal declaration of intention that we be separated from error and coercion, our machzor asks that we recite “Or zarua la’tsadik, ul’yishrei lev, simcha” – signaling our intention to be the ones for whom light and joy are sown in this world, and thus our hope to be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life. Such acknowledgements and statements of intention enable and strengthen the healing of soul and body, of both individual and community.
Our Torah and haftarah readings during these days are full of stories in which teshuvah and healing are prominently featured. Sarah, because of her accumulated merit, experiences the healing power of laughter when she is released from the painful burden of her lifelong inability to bear a child. The Lord hears the cry of heartfelt regret from Hagar and her child, and does not allow them to perish. Hannah prays with all her might, declaring her intention to serve God, and is miraculously healed
Kol Ma’arav of her barrenness. Abraham forthrightly reproaches Abimelech’s unruly gang for their seizure of the well at Be’er Sheva–this honest acknowledgement between the contending parties brings about a pact of peace. On Yom Kippur we read of the process of cleansing through confession and sacrifice, in which the aggregate of sin is placed upon the head of the goat chosen by lots, who will serve as a vehicle to carry the people’s sins far outside of the community, to Azazel. And of course Jonah relinquishes, after so much pain and struggle, his own personal expectations of what may constitute a just outcome, and, reluctantly surrenders to God’s will, resulting in a major city and her people being spared from destruction.
But the most immediate drama of the season is our own. Amidst the many moods of prayer, we repeatedly make our collective confession: we have been arrogant, mocking, complacent, false, envious, wanton, oppressive…Rabbi Steinsaltz reminds us that the deeper and more intense the realization and acknowledgment of transgression, the more effective the transformation and healing can be.
And the quality of our response at these moments is ours to choose. Can we breathe together and lift our voices to create the optimal conditions for attunement and realignment with the Highest Source, so that our teshuvah ripples out to heal and repair the world around us? Will we set aside our own judgments and contentions, and allow teshuvah, tefilah, and tzedakah, to remove the severity of the consequence of our attachment to error? Immediately after Kol Nidre is recited, we read from Numbers 14:19-20; originally an exchange between Moses and God, but here it applies to all of us: Vayomer adonai, salachti
kidvarecha –“The Lord said, ‘I have pardoned according to your word.’”