Category Archives: teshuvah

The Dream of a Better Past – a sermon for Kol Nidre 5776

תשובה / Teshuvah is letting go of the dream of a better past.

That’s a riff off of a famous phrase. Originally the teaching was that forgiveness is letting go of the dream of a better past. Depending on who you ask, it either comes from the actor Lily Tomlin, or from noted Jewish-Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfeld.

Either way, I think it’s equally true of teshuvah. An essential part of teshuvah, of re/turning ourselves in the right direction again, is letting go of wishing that the past had been different.

If only I’d taken that job…
If only I hadn’t hurt her feelings…
If only I’d married someone different…
If only I’d known then what I know now…

We all fall into the habit of wishing that things had been different. We tell ourselves stories about how much better life might be if we had made different choices, or if we hadn’t been dealt a particular hand of cards.

The human mind loves to tell stories. We tell ourselves stories about the past; we tell ourselves stories about the future. I do this all the time! Sometimes it’s as though I am listening, in my mind, to the voiceover narration of the book of my life. “She stood at the Torah reading table in her beloved small synagogue, reading aloud the words of the sermon she had written and rewritten all August long…”

There’s nothing wrong with the mind telling stories. That’s what it was designed to do. We are meaning-making machines. We take in life experience and our minds strive to make meaning from them. But it’s easy to get so caught-up in the stories that we lose sight of the present moment. And it’s easy to get so attached to our stories that we get stuck in them.

Who am I, really? If I set aside all of my “if onlies,” what am I left with? If I set aside my stories about who I used to be, and my stories about who I might become, who am I right now?

Yom Kippur asks us to look inside and answer that question. Who am I right now? Who do I want to be, and where have I fallen short? And am I willing to let go of my fantasies about how if only something had gone differently, I would be in a better place than I am today?

It’s not an easy question to ask. Not if we ask it with our whole hearts, with no sacred cows, with everything on the table for examination. Continue reading

On meteors, the night sky, and seeing ourselves in a new light – thoughts for Elul


A few nights ago a friend reminded us that the Perseid meteors were going to be visible. So around 9pm we turned off all of our lights and went outside and lay on our backs on the deck and stared up at the sky. I knew it would take a while for my eyes to adjust.

From the moment I looked up at the heavens I was awestruck by the sheer number of stars. And I thought to myself: even if I don’t see any meteors, dayenu, it’s enough, because this is so beautiful. And then I saw one streak across the sky, and it was amazing.

I know that we are blessed to live in a place that doesn’t have a lot of “light pollution” — where we can turn off our lights and really see the night sky. And I know that the reason the stars were so visible is that there was almost no moon.

Because this weekend is Rosh Chodesh — new moon. Now the moon starts growing again. This is one of the things I love about being attuned to the Jewish calendar: it means I’m also always attuned to the phases of the moon as she waxes and wanes.

The moon will grow for two weeks, and shrink for two weeks, and the next new moon is Rosh Chodesh Tishrei, also known as Rosh Hashanah.

Rosh Hashanah is four weeks from this Sunday. Maybe for some of you that doesn’t sound like a big deal. So what? You’re not writing sermons or preparing services, so does it really make a difference to you? I want to say today that it can make a difference — and I hope that it will.

Our tradition teaches that this is a month during which we should deepen our spiritual practices, whatever they may be. This is a month during which we look back on the year now ending. Who have you been, since last Rosh Hashanah?

What are you proud of, and what do you feel ashamed of? When were you the best self you know how to be, and when did you fall short? How’s your relationship with God these days — whatever that word or idea means to you?

If we spend these next four weeks in introspection, discerning where we may have mis-stepped and where we forged a wise path, then when we get to Rosh Hashanah we’ll experience those two days of prayer and song and story in a different way.

If we spend these next four weeks rekindling our spiritual practices — be they yoga, or meditation, or prayer, or walking in the woods — then when we metaphorically call up God on Rosh Hashanah we won’t be afraid of hearing, “it’s been a whole year — nu, you don’t write, you don’t call…!”

One Hasidic teaching holds that Elul is the time when “the King is in the fields” — when God leaves the divine palace on high and enters creation to walk with us in the meadows and listen to the deepest yearnings of our hearts. God is extra-available to us this month. What do we most need to say?

Another Hasidic teaching points out that the name of this month, Elul, can be read as an acronym for Ani l’dodi v’dodi li — “I am my Beloved’s, and my Beloved is mine.” The Beloved, in this context, is God. We belong to God, and God belongs to us, and what connects us is love.

The stars are there every night, but we can only see them when there are no clouds and when the moon has dwindled. The opportunity to do the work of teshuvah, repentance / return, is there all year long — but some seasons of the year offer us special opportunities to see ourselves in a new light.

This is a time of month when the night sky is filled with tiny lights. And this is a time of year when we can open our hearts and souls to the light of God’s presence as we do the work of discernment and transformation. Imagine what we might see in ourselves if we take the time to let our eyes adjust.

Here’s to a meaningful Elul.

This is the d’var Torah (really more of a d’var zman, a word about the season) which I offered at CBI yesterday. (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)

D’var Torah for Vayeilech-Nitzavim: Returning in love

Here’s the brief d’var Torah I offered at yesterday morning’s Shabbat service at my shul. (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)


If you only take one thing away from this morning’s Torah reading, let it be this: that teshuvah is a two-partner dance, and that God is always ready to turn to us in love.

This week’s Torah portion speaks in terms of blessings and curses. We might call those “good outcomes” and “bad outcomes.” We know that our choices come with consequences, and that sometimes our poor choices lead us to unpleasant consequences. And we know that sometimes we receive outcomes we didn’t wish for, even when we’ve chosen as wisely as we could.

Torah teaches that when we consciously choose a life of mitzvot, connective-commandments, blessings will be open to us. This doesn’t mean that if we abide by the mitzvot then nothing painful will ever happen to us. But it could mean that if we weave the mitzvot into our daily lives and into our practice, we’ll have more resiliency when the painful outcomes happen, as they sometimes do.

And Torah teaches that when we make teshuvah and turn-toward-God, God is always already turning-toward-us in return, with love.

We’ve all had the experience of hurting someone’s feelings, and then feeling reluctant to apologize for fear of how that person might react to seeing us again. People are complicated. Sometimes we respond from a place of reactivity. But the guiding force of the universe isn’t like that. When we make teshuvah, God responds to us in love.

If you’ve paid attention to the Torah readings we’ve been encountering over the course of this whole year, you might feel inclined to argue with that. It’s true that in Torah, God does not always seem to respond with love. Personally, I think that one of the things we see in Torah is the children of Israel learning how to be a people, and God learning how to be our God.

Like any new parent, God seems to respond out of anger sometimes. But if we remember that the name God gives to Moshe at the burning bush is Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, “I Am Becoming What I Am Becoming,” maybe that can help us understand God as constantly growing and changing. God is in the very process of growth and change.

Here is one thing I know for sure: that ahavat olam, neverending love, is an essential part of God. Perhaps it isn’t a coincidence that we read this portion each year as Rosh Hashanah approaches, precisely at the time when we might be getting most anxious about our journey of teshuvah. “Don’t worry,” the Torah seems to be telling us. “It’s going to be okay. God will greet you with love, no matter what.”

On the heels of that teaching comes one of my very favorite passages in the whole Torah:

11Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. 12 It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” 14 No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.

This mitzvah, this connection, this instruction, is not beyond us. It doesn’t require us to be someone that we’re not. It doesn’t demand that we change altogether before we even attempt to take it on. This is a mitzvah which is already sweet in our mouths, already encoded in our beating hearts. Place two fingers on a pulse point and feel for your heartbeat. Lub-dub, lub-dub: you turning toward God, God turning toward you. You reaching out, God reaching back.

Make teshuvah. Turn in the right direction again. Align yourself with your highest dreams and hopes. And you will be received with infinite, neverending love.

Entering Elul

Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,

On Tuesday evening, August 26th, we’ll enter into the new lunar month of Elul. Elul is a very special time on the Jewish calendar; it is the final month of the old year, and it’s our time for the spiritual “ramp-up” process which will prepare us for the Days of Awe.

In Hebrew, the name Elul is spelled אלול. These four letters can be read as an acronym for the phrase Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” That’s a quote from Song of Songs. In this context, the Beloved is God. Elul is the month when we remember that our relationship with God is quintessentially a relationship of love.

Jewish tradition teaches that during Elul, “the King is walking in the fields.” This is the month when God departs from the divine palace and wanders in the meadows, among God’s people. In this metaphor, it’s presumed that during most of the year God may be difficult to access (like an earthly king in his palace, protected by guards and by layers of beaurocracy) but during this month, God is right here with us, all of the trappings of royalty discarded, ready to listen to us as a friend listens to another beloved friend. What would it feel like to wander in the beautiful fields (perhaps right here behind our synagogue sanctuary) and speak quietly with God, knowing that God is listening with compassion and with love?

This is the month when we deepen our practice of teshuvah, repentance or return. Teshuvah is the spiritual work of looking closely at our actions and emotions, our thoughts and our souls, and discerning where we’ve missed the mark and how we could do better. Some sages teach that the month of Elul is the time to apologize and repair our relationships with other human beings, so that during the Ten Days of Teshuvah (between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) we can focus on repairing our relationship with our Source.

There’s a custom of blowing the shofar every day during the month of Elul. The shofar is a kind of spiritual alarm clock; when we hear it, it’s meant to wake us up! If you’re not able to blow shofar (it’s not among my skills, for sure), you can listen to someone else blow it.

Embedded, above, is a YouTube video of someone blowing shofar for Elul. And if you have a smartphone, and want to hear the shofar this month on your phone, there’s an app for that: here’s a Shofar app from RustyBrick (for iPhone and iPad) and here’s Mighty Shofar (for Android phones.)

If you’re looking for materials to help get you “in the mood” for teshuvah, for self-reflection, and for the coming Days of Awe, I always recommend Rabbi Alan Lew’s This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation.  And/or, feel free to borrow or buy a copy of Elul Reflections, a paperback collection of the Elul meditations I wrote last year during this holy month. (I have several copies in my office, and if I’m not here when you drop by, there are also copies on the bookshelf right outside my office door, with a little sign indicating that you can help yourself to a copy.) I have six copies to lend out; if you want to buy one, they cost $8 in person or on Amazon.

One final Elul custom is reading psalm 27 every day. There’s a gorgeous translation of the psalm in Psalms In A Translation for Praying, by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z”l (may his memory be a blessing.) And/or, you can hear or sing Achat Sha’alti, an excerpt from that psalm — “One thing I ask of You, I earnestly pray for — that I might dwell in Your house all the days of my life, knowing the beauty of You, and dwelling in Your holy place.” What does it mean to dwell in God’s house? Maybe it means recognizing that wherever we are, that place can be a holy place, a place where the divine presence can dwell, if we only open our hearts. Kein yehi ratzon — may it be so!


Rabbi Rachel