By Professor Melissa Raphael
Teshuvah isn’t a 'now or never' kind of thing. Rabbinic literature reminds us that we need to do teshuvah - whether translated as 'repentance', 'reflection', 'introspection' or 'return' - every day.
It is because everyone’s actions, every day, can harm other people, animals, and plants - not to say G-d, with whom our life is a relationship - that the gates of teshuvah must always be open (Lamm Rabbah 3: 43).
Nonetheless, according to the Zohar (the foundational text of Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism), during the month of Elul, G!d and the world are panim el panim (face to face) and not achor el achor (back to back) as we usually are.
To use the analogy of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, in Elul, G!d has come out, as it were, from behind the palace walls. The king is in the field. In other words, the distances set by hierarchical power, cosmic and mundane, have given way to proximity or presence. G!d is alongside us, accessible to all, working like a farm labourer to bring in the harvest; like the wind rustling through the tall late-summer grass.
In other words, Elul is the great moment when we too are bidden to come out from our state of withdrawal and estrangement from the other, and be present, face to face with, accessible to all whose human or natural petition we may have spent the year turning away from.
For a left-leaning Jew, the word ‘sin’ is really only a disagreeable word for the rupture or damage we do to our relationship with the world by treating it not as a makor hayim (source of life), but as a source of profit. To sin is to treat G!d’s world as a market, as a resource, or as servant to our project. It is a failure of love.
Looking ahead to Yom Kippur, to repent the sin of lovelessness is to seek to at-one-ment or atonement: the restoration of our human unity, and thereby our equality, in G!d. In other words, from Elul and on through the High Holy Days, teshuvah’s will to overcome alienation is an at once individual, communal and cosmic turn.
Let me explain this a bit more. The rabbis understood sin as that which distances you from the community. For them, the community was essentially Knesset Yisroel (the assembly of Israel). But the modern and contemporary progressive Jew looks to mend their relationship with the Knesset of all living things, which is also a way of mending their relationship with G!d.
Teshuvah, then, is about far more than just totting up on the back of a figurative envelope all the things we’ve done since last year that we need to apologise for and try not to do again. Of course, teshuvah should include remorse, confession and repudiation of personal sins - misdeeds, regrets, mistakes and so on. But personal teshuvah must also have a communal or political dimension if it is to be truly redemptive.
Teshuvah isn’t easy at the best of times, and certainly not during a pandemic. Now, when almost all of our active, practical relationships are on some degree of pause, suspended for an open-ended duration by Covid, how, we might ask, can we enter the face to face relationship that is Elul? How can we overcome our estrangements when we are still, through this month, going to be living ‘back to back’, at a Covid-safe distance from one another; when the face we greet is only a small, muted, image - an electronic miniature - of a face?
The Talmud (Sotah 37b) famously tells us that each Jew is responsible for all the rest. For modern Jews, this means that each of us is responsible not just for our fellow Jews, but also for the rest of the world. But again, how, from the isolation of whichever walled space we’ve set up for Zoom, can we still be present to what A.J. Heschel called the ‘immense silent agony of the plundered world’?
I can’t answer that question for you - if I could, my answer would be platitudinous. Covid is different for everyone: many people’s lives have been economically, psychologically, and physically devastated by it; some people’s lives have gone on pause but without significant alteration; some have even benefitted from the situation. Everyone’s relationships are differently affected.
I can only suggest that, even in this moment of pandemic, to ask the question of teshuvah is to inaugurate a messianic politics, because that question affirms the possibility that we can, after Tisha B’Av, after Covid, come back from despair and at least dream of a world returned to its original goodness: to its newborn, pristine state, its quiddity or created essence, before inequality and all the other modes of estrangement.
There is an old debate: is the messianic age dependent on performance of the mitzvot or on teshuvah? If I had to choose, it would be teshuvah.
To make the first small move towards the state of baalat or baal teshuvah (here, having 'mastered', as it were, the art of teshuvah) we need, then, to take a step backwards and think about sin not as this or that transgression, but as a failure of presence - that is, a failure of love.
Martin Buber understood teshuvah as a reply to G!d’s ‘where are you, where have you gone?’ Teshuvah is an answer to G!d and the world which says ‘hineini’: ‘my back is not turned from you, I am not looking down at you, I am ready to live in a just and equitable relation with you.’
There is much of this in Psalm 27, which for about 200 years Jews have been saying twice a day during Elul. As I read it, Psalm 27 envisions the return of the abandoned, hurt and exploited to a world of beauty and shelter in G!d’s tent; a world where soon, if not yet, they will be able to enjoy what the Psalm calls ‘the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living’.
Anticipating Pesach, this Psalm-for-Elul asks them, us, me, to leave the land of the dead - the land of the degraded or enslaved - and return to the House of the Lord, where all can dwell in safety and dignity, all the days of their life.