Repentance is Suffering – Rosh Hashana 5774

Towards the end of the first chapter of Hilkhot Teshuva, the ways of repentance, of return, Maimonides makes the following startling assertion:

Even though repentance atones for everything and the essence of Yom Kippur brings atonement, there are some transgressions for which atonement comes immediately and others sins which can only be atoned for over the course of time…

If a person violates in a manner worthy of spiritual excision or execution by the court and repents, repentance and Yom Kippur have only a tentative effect.  It is the  sufferings which befall a person which  complete the atonement. He will never achieve complete atonement until he endures this suffering, for concerning these transgressions the verse in  Psalms (89:33) states: “I will punish their transgression with a rod.”

The idea that our efforts at repentance will come to nothing unless we are afflicted by God with suffering seems very problematic:  it takes away the agency and creativity we tend to view as essential to teshuva, the sense in which it is an opportunity given to us, a compassionate breach in the strictly just fabric of the universe.

Is it possible to find meaning in such an apparently theocentric world view, one which seems to return religion to an infantilising reliance on the supernatural?

Thinking more naturalistically, there might indeed be an obstacle to any sense of teshuva which isn’t preceded by suffering.  Without suffering it seems hard to feel that we have done something wrong, that we have strayed, that we have acted without fidelity.  It is in the pain of suffering that we discover our error and failing, it is through a alienation and disorientation that we sense our falling short of the life we hoped to lead.

In suffering, something becomes conscious, our soul cries out and makes itself known to the rest of our body.  Pain bespeaks a discord between self and world, or, indeed, between what Winnicott called our ‘True Self’ and our ‘False Self’.  A harmony is shattered, something which operated smoothly suddenly functions with abrasive grinding.

Suffering does not then relate to a problematic and childish concept of punishment, but can actually help us understand the more sublime idea of revelation.  In suffering, a truth of our existence is revealed to us.  It may be hazy and unclear, shrouded in clouds of thick smoke, and it may take us a long time to work out exactly what that truth is, but suffering is the starting point.  It is the nexus between the natural and the ethical, the connection, if you like, between heaven and earth.

Suffering, however, does not come easily, or naturally.  We erect endless defences against feeling the pain of others, and a heavily armoured fortress against our own personal hurt.  To see that we have wronged another, to imaginatively step into their shoes is terrifying, not least because it disrupts our narcissistic self-image of being a ‘good person’.

Suffering then takes courage, we need to ready and prepare ourselves before we can suffer, before some truth might be revealed to us.

Part of this preparation takes place throughout the month of Ellul, as we plead through psalm 27:

Teach me Your way, O Lord, and lead me in a smooth path.

For Maimonides , the supplication here is that our ego not get in the way of our quest to return, that we not experience the blockedness which sometimes lies in the way of teshuva.  We ask God ‘remember your mercy and lovingkindness’ (Ps.25), all too aware of the fragility inherent in forgiveness.

And yet, I have a confession to make:  I do not feel well prepared for this Rosh Hashana.  The block is strong, the ego is tight, the narcissism is very well defended.  I have no idea what my return might look like.  I sense that I am distant, but the suffering is very vague, I am not able to interpret it, to glean meaning from it.  The thickness of my slumber has not yet been pierced by the cry of the shofar, my soul feels like it is underwater, heavy and directionless.  Swampy, sludgy; I am experiencing none of the lightness I crave.

Perhaps I should be glad not to be suffering acutely, but there is a thirst for something elusive, and I sense that some suffering needs to be traversed in order to arrive at it.  I pray for that burst of sudden clarity, not another clever idea, but a personal truth, a revelation of something of the self, an insight which will shift me, create an opening.

The Shulkhan Arukh reports a custom of fasting on the eve of Rosh Hashana, and perhaps its source is in a similar sense of panic, in a need to feel something real prior to our day of soul searching.

Psalm 27 ends on a similar note of ambivalence:

‘Lulei he’emanti lirot betuv Adonai…  – were it not for my belief in the possibility of seeing the Divine goodness…’

The thought is left without conclusion, there is no spelling out of what might happen ‘were it not’ for the possibility of grace, of an unexpected and sudden experience of clarity and unity.  There is simply a sense of fractured longing, ‘were it not’, of a soul clinging to a distant hope from beyond.

Perhaps this is all the preparation one can hope for, a reminder of distance, a desperate cry – again from Psalm 27 – that God not hide his face from us.

It is a paradox lost on many that in these moments of distance our appreciation of the Divine can be most real, that we make the most generous allowance for Its independence and elusiveness.

Perhaps this is not then the worst way to go into Rosh Hashana, a day as much about the majesty of God as about the weakness and frailty of man.  In our moments of being lost we have a sense of the magnitude of life, the complexity of it, its infinite and endless intricacy.  Here again, the Infinite becomes real, and the limits of our understanding confront us abruptly.

I pray that the majesty of the day – malkhiyot – act as an instrument of awakening – shofrot – such that there is a return and remembrance – zikhronot – which can move us and re-connect us.

May we return to the land of the living, and may the words of its book shed clarity on the suffering and confusion we endlessly experience.

Mourning, not Melancholia – Tisha B’Av 5773

On Tisha B’Av we reflect upon destruction, upon trauma, upon loss.

While the rest of the world is light-headedly embracing the frivolity of summer, we cast our fishing rods deep into the sea of memory, revisiting the archetype of destruction at the bottom of our psyche.

Why do we do this – have the lessons of Jewish history not already sufficiently traumatised us, does not its apocalyptic mood hound us all too heavily as we try to experience the simple joy of life?

There is truth to that, but we mourn today not because we need more trauma, but because we have yet to complete what Freud called our ‘mourning work’.

To mourn is to register loss, to relinquish something, to know that we will never again be fully complete.  We are ejected from the womb, weaned from the breast, usurped in sibling rivalry and banished from the eden of childhood innocence:  our entry into the world is along a boulevard of ruin and loss.

So much is promised, and so much is taken away.  we are left longing, painfully so, pining to return to these earlier states, to the wholeness and fullness which defined them.

We might ask a different question: is the ‘mourning work’ ever complete, can we ever fully come to terms with such harrowing loss, can the vision of wholeness ever be totally abandoned?

In one sense, it surely cannot.

The personality that we build is in response to these losses, the cultures we erect serve to let us cope with the pain.  We work with the pain, we harness it, but we do not fully leave it behind.

It is a curious paradox, but the personality which is built upon hiding the pain, upon denying it, that will be the personality which promotes the persistence of pain, which gives it a constant source of life.  There is no elixir of eternal life like suppression; denial is the surest way to keep something vital and creative.

The personality or culture which acknowledges loss, which encourages consciousness of our incompleteness, of our desire to return to a greater sense of fullness, this is the personality which will be truly strong, which will be resilient, creative, sensitive and generous.  Pain, anger and resentment are slightly defused, it’s harder for them to get going when the loss is in full view.

When the sages visited the ruins of the temple, they saw foxes emerging from the Holy of Holies.  The source of life had become a playground for vermin, integrity and holiness supplanted by sly cunning.

The sages wept, but Rabbi Akiva laughed.  He had visited the site of trauma, the loss was in plain view, yet he did not experience it as paralysing or debilitating.

When the rabbis asked him to explain himself he responded by quoting the prophecies of Uriah and Zekharia.  Uriah prophecies desolation, whereas Zekahria has a vision of rebirth and regeneration. Rabbi Akiva emphasised that the two are intimately connected, that the existence of the former is what safeguards and ensures the latter.

Rabbi Akiva was embedded within the prophetic framework of loss, longing and hope, and the interplay between these was central to his vision.  By keeping one eye on the loss, he is more able to see the hope, and, perhaps more importantly, to connect with the joy.

Megillat Eikha ends on a strange note.  The whole book is a stage by stage dealing with loss, going through shock, anger, existential turmoil, soul searching and eventually, in the final chapter, crying forth in prayer.  At the end of that last chapter, there is an urgent plea:

‘Return us to you oh God, and we will return;  our days will be made new, like they were before’

The ultimate response to the loss here is return, a consciousness of return, an incorporation of the desire for greater completeness.  This neither denies nor suppresses loss, it rather tolerates it respectfully as one of our core aspirations.

It also hints at the impossibility of returning to the past, it will always be a ‘new’ past, a past re-acquired through creativity.

In the haftara of the day the onus is less on God and more on the people:

‘Seek the Divine where It might be found, call out to It when you sense Its closeness.’

Again, the yearning is placed at the centre, it is a creative response to the ravages of suffering.  It is a given that we will never entirely merge with the Divine, but it is also thought that it will be better to have a healthy object or address for our longing.  It should be one which will inspire us in the ways of truth, justice and love; not one which will fetishize specific aspects of an irretrievable past.

We yearn for the unreachable, but somehow that allows us to expand, to stretch, to grow. It enlivens us, filling our veins with oxygen.  It doesn’t cripple us with brooding and melancholia, doesn’t close us back in upon ourselves.  It doesn’t limit and stifle us, forcing us to live in a world of artificially limited emotional bandwidth.

The lovers of the Song of Songs are never fulfilled, and it was again Rabbi Akiva who insisted that this message was the Holy of Holies, that it was the ultimate religious lesson.  There is pining at the centre; unity for him only came in death.

Jewish life is littered with references to the loss of the temple, when we marry, when we build a home, the psalms we recite before grace after meals.  Shabbat too marks something of a loss, the cessation of the Divine hand in creation, the awareness that we have transitioned to maturity, that we have left the secure canopy that our parents provided for us.

Tisha B’Av is really the first day of Ellul, the beginning of the trajectory of intensified return which propels us through to the High Holydays.  As our seeking leads to scrutinising our personalities, we dedicate ever more creative energy to the memory of loss.  From destruction we create, from the horror we re-rekindle desire.

May this be the start of a year of profound rebirth, and may we be spared from further trauma whilst engaged in this task.