It flatters us, affirming our belief that we are a good people, compassionate and just.
Although it’s bad form to take issue with someone who isn’t here to defend himself, I have to say, “Rabbi Hillel, that won’t do.” Especially at this time of year when we are meant to scour our souls and scrutinise scripture to determine what guidance our texts can offer as we reckon with our past and prepare for what’s ahead.
If Hillel was right we could review each time we violated that principle, issue apologies, make restitution to those we harmed and reach Neilah with a clear conscience and a spanking clean soul. If Hillel was right, there would not be competing visions of what Teshuvah is, what it demands of us and what we make of ourselves in the process.
So what would I tell the young scholar who waits on one leg for the whole of it?
That everything in Torah and everything pertinent to this time of year, derives from a single line, delivered twice, in this week’s Parsha. That line—the most positive of all scriptural exhortations is: Choose Life.
Heaven, Moses declares, will not decide who will live and who will die. The choice, is ours. In God’s equation Moses explains when we choose life, we choose the good. When we choose to be good, we choose life. For Rabbis as disparate in outlook and epoch as Maimonides and Joseph Soloveitchik, the implications for our spiritual practice at this time of year, how we engage in Teshuvah, are clear. To extend apologies yet to continue to live as we did before—subject to the same temptations and driven by the same selfish or malevolent impulses–is to dwell in the past. In short, to die.
If instead we were to refer to the past and regard the harm we’ve done to others as our very own cautionary tales we can use them to tell us what it is about ourselves we need to change to keep from re-enacting them.. Teshuvah must be transformative, fundamental and enduring, not cosmetic and seasonal. To do this, to relinquish what we did in the past conscious of the future—is to choose life.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg takes this one life- affirming step further when he asserts that to make Teshuvah is an act of Tikkun Olam. In improving our character, learning from and reforming as a consequence of our regrets, we heal not just the part of the world we have harmed, but we feel inspired to help others, to promote universal well-being.
Not long ago, I wrote to my best friend to say I felt beleaguered, adrift and beset by indecision about what to do about it. In return he wrote, “I have always considered it the business of my life to love my life.”
Loving life, then is in some ways a measure of our engagement with Teshuvah. It is when we take life for granted, feel it as a burden, that we not only miss the point of it, but diminish its value. If all we do at Elul is recommit to loving life, with all of its implications for caring for our health, for this earth, for our family and friends and for those whom we call “strangers” but who are in fact kin by dint of common creation– we will have fulfilled our obligation for Elul.
When we conceive of Teshuvah as choosing life, we can enter the Days of Awe not just with gravity but with joy. Years ago, psychologists ran a test to determine whether it’s possible to discern which children would grow up able to impose self-discipline. Each child received a marshmallow and was told she could eat it at once and get no reward, or she could wait a bit and then enjoy the marshmallow plus an additional treat. The test turned out to be more or less predictive, but honestly good for those kids who seized the moment to enjoy their snack. Unlike the penitential administrators of the marshmallow test, Teshuvah helps us distinguish between those impulses that lead to trouble, and those that enhance our lives, bringing us closer to God and to one another. Habitually choosing life, we often find that there is no greater reward than what presents itself in the moment. Dance to the music, swim in the stream, and if someone hands you a marshmallow, eat it. Now.
Shanah Tovah Metuka.
Diana Shaw Clark, LBC Rabbinic Student
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.