In this week’s parsha, Va-yelekh, the people are getting ready to cross over to the land of Canaan, an epic journey.
For them Canaan is the future, the Promised Land, but it’s also their past, the home of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. For the Hebrew tribes, going forward is a return to their true home.. And on Shabbat Shuvah, we do the same. We look back on our year so we can have a better future, a future that is about returning to our true selves.
This too is an epic journey. This is after all, Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat of Return.
In Va-yelekh, Moses quotes God telling him that God is about to deliver the people to Israel and it’s going to be fabulous but almost immediately, despite how good things are, the people will start doing bad stuff and worshipping idols and so God is going to have to punish the people and life is going to get horrible. So God is telling Moses to tell the people that even thought God knows this is al going to happen, God knows they’re going to screw it up, knows this for a certainty, and is still sending them to Israel, still giving them the opportunity to make good even though God knows for a fact that they won’t. God promised them a land of milk and honey and God keeps God’s promises despite knowing for a certainty that we will mess it up. No matter what we do, God will be with us.
And so it is with teshuvah, isn’t it? The path for return and redemption is clear. We know where to go and what to do and we mean to do it. And then, for a certainty, we will screw it up with new mistakes.
Each year on Yom Kippur we do a vidui, a confession. We do it communally as we recite the Ashamnu and the Al Chet. We beat our breast and admit to all sorts of heinous thoughts and behavior. Each year we return to shul and we think about God and One-ness and connection and history and we think of who we have hurt and mistakes we have made and we are sorry and w e aplogize to those to whome we can. We repent and we are sincere, really sincere. Forgive us, pardon us, help us atone.
Then God or tradition or our conscience or the community says yes, you are forgiven, you are pardoned, you have atoned. Until the next batch of mistakes and hurts, probably not deeply evil, I suspect there are few murderers, rapists and exploiters amongst us, but still, we know for an absolute certainty that we will commit a whole new batch of sins, but if we make teshuvah, if we pray, if we are kind and loving, we will be pardoned and forgiven and we will atone. Every year. The same epic journey of self examination, repentence and sin. Over and over, we return to the truth, no matter how uncomfortable that may be.
I sometimes get a look on my face, I used to call it my Mass Transit face, because if I have it on no one will sit next to me on a bus or subway no matter how crowded it is. It’s the face I put on when I’m nervous or scared, and I’m scared most of the time. I know many of you who know me superficially will not believe that, but I am. Petrified.
For years I didn’t even know I had that face but one day when I was sitting on a crowded bus, with an empty space next to me and many people standing, I finally asked myself why no one wanted to sit next to me. And then I realized that my face was really tense, particularly my upper lip. So I memorized that face and took it home, and went to the bathroom mirror, tensed my upper lip and made the face.
This is the face: For those of you reading and not seeing this, the face is angry, tense, scary, not a face you would sit next to. I saw that face in the mirror and was horrified that I walked around with that face all the time.
That was bad enough, but what was really shocking was that the face in the mirror wasn’t mine, it was my mother’s. My mother was a very interesting, creative and clever woman, except when she wasn’t. When she wasn’t, she was depressed and enraged and abusive and kind of crazy. That’s my Mass Transit Face, the face of a furious crazy woman. Yikes. I confess, I show this face to the world, to you, much too often. I’m sorry. I am trying not to.
As the rabbi told us on Rosh HaShanah, we all have many faces, panim.
I think there must be another face, underneath all those other faces, I wouldn’t call it a happy face, it’s more complex than that. I think it’s sort of a First Face, the true self. I’m not sure what it looks like. I can’t do it for you on command, I wish I could.
Life creates many reasons and opportunities for screwing up, but The angry face and the first face are both true to who I have become. But perhaps I think of the true face as showing me the way to the land of my soul. I have been trying to return there more and more: teshuvah for myself. I think this is how I end up at the end of Yom Kippur.
But that’s the end of the process. This is the middle, Shabbat Shuva. I want to be in connection with the One-ness, whatever that is on any given day. I want to be in God’s presence. I have developed a mindfulness practice that will help me step back when the fear and the anger jump up, so rather than react I can see the truth of a situation, and act with intelligence and compassion. This is letting me see more and more that I can do good and be good and thus more often return to and live in the land of my soul.
I suspect that you all have versions of these angry and first childhood faces, and all the other faces of our lives, P’nei Chayeinu, and that you, like me, also struggle to keep them in balance and to do good.
The RAMBAM, Moses Maimonides, writes in “Hilchot Teshuvah”, The Laws of Teshuvah: (3:4)
“…Every person should view himself all year as if he were half innocent and half guilty. And that is the way he should look at the world as well, as if it were half innocent and half guilty. If he would do just one sin, he would thereby tip both himself and the entire world towards the “guilty” side, and cause it great destruction. And If he would do just one “Mitzvah,” he would tip both himself and the entire world towards the “innocent” side and cause for himself and for them salvation, as it says “The Righteous Person is the Foundation of the World” – because his being righteous tipped the world for good, and saved it.”
I want to tip the world for good. I think you do, too. And I know with absolute certainty that we will screw it up and we will get out of balance. But God promised to stick with us anyway. And that is God’s true face. It doesn’t matter what God means to you. Whether God is a being, a construct, a spiritual force, the Eternal Connection, our Great Myth, the power of goodness, the first Being, the Is/Was/Will Be, God is always with us. The power to return to our true selves is always with us.
As Micah writes,
19God will take us back in love; God will cover up our iniquities, God will hurl all our sins Into the depths of the sea.
We can forgive. We can be forgiven.
On Rosh Hashanah it is written
On Shabbat Shuva we return
On Yom Kippur it is sealed.
And Teshuvah, Tefilah and Tzedukah
Restore us to our place.
Teshuvah, when we return to our true selves;
Tefillah, when we stop time in holy conversation;
Tzedukah, when we transcend self;
Blessed One-ness, remembering our true faces even when we forget them.
Return to the land of your soul
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