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.

Money – Fetishizing the Future Shabbat 119

We encounter today a story which may take some of us back to our childhood:

Joseph-who-honours-Shabbat had in his vicinity a certain gentile who owned much property. Soothsayers  warned the gentile:  ’Joseph-who-honours-Shabbat will consume all your property.’ 

So he went, sold all his property, and bought a precious stone with the proceeds, which he set in his turban.  As he was crossing a bridge the wind blew it off and cast it into the water.  A fish then swallowed it.

The fish was subsequently hauled up and brought to market on the Shabbat eve towards sunset.

‘Who will buy this fish just now?’ cried the fish sellers.

‘Go and take them to Joseph-who-honours-Shabbat,’ they were told, ‘as he is accustomed to buy in order to honour the Shabbat.’

So they took it to him.  He bought it, opened it and found the jewel therein.  He sold the jewel for thirteen roomfuls  of gold coins. 

A certain old man met him and said, ‘He who lends to Shabbat,  Shabbat repays him.’

It certainly works as a nice story for the children, but I think there’s actually a whole lot more going on here.

In the character of the gentile , (I’m not sure why it’s a gentile, and I don’t really attribute much significance to it, surely there have been many Jews who would fit this mould!), we meet a man who is deeply anxious about his property, about his money.

This manifests itself in a variety of ways.  It is significant that he consults soothsayers in order to learn the fate of his fortune – he is caught up in the future, worried about the fate of his wealth.

He does not seem to be able to enjoy the benefits and luxuries that his wealth might proffer upon him in the present, his peace of mind does not seem to have increased in proportion to the size of his bank account.  Rather, he seems to be enacting that other dictum of the sages:

‘More possessions leads to more worry.’ (Pirkei Avot 2:8)

So he engages soothsayers and, more than this, he responds to their warning with credulity.  I want to say that this is characteristic of a mind that is ill at ease, that it responds to the most unfounded and paranoid of suggestions and treats them as hard fact.  Something about its lack of centring, about its lack of rootedness, means that it lacks contact and connection with the plain realities in front of it, with the starting point of hard evidence which the simplest of minds would readily grasp.  No, it is fragile, hallucinatory, and all too susceptible to the crazy doomsday whisperings of the unsound, to the tale of his undoing which arrests him.

Perhaps he is indeed haunted by such a sensation, he may in some sense be feeling that he is coming undone, unstuck,  and that this proclamation of such by the other is only a confirmation of what he has known for a long time, of the worm-like secret which has been eating away at him over the years.  He is perhaps unable to bear the burden of plenty, to live with the inequality that his wealth creates.  Something about it separates him from his fellows, and this alienation, this exile, has become for him a torment of soul shredding proportions.

Let us now turn to his response to the soothsayer’s warnings.  He decides that the best strategy is to sell all of his property and concentrate his wealth into one precious jewel.

On one level, this would seem to only be taking him further from any capacity to enjoy his wealth, to derive actual and material benefit from it.  In his determination to prevent someone else from stealing or obtaining his property, he has in a sense stolen it from himself; he has removed from himself any advantage of his affluence.

The concentration of the wealth into the jewel seems to symbolise a process of fetishization.  The jewel is of virtually no use, but it instead embodies a magical quality for its owner.  It is his superstitious response to the otherworldly prophecies he receives; he responds to the witchcraft with some sorcery of his own.

His money is in transit: the more he tightens his grip on it, the further it slips away from him.

And yet, with all of this paranoia surrounding his money, he exposes it in its totality to the slightest act of nature, to a gust of wind which removes his turban and blows it into the water.  One almost has to read an unconsciously wilful act of neglect here; he almost couldn’t bear the tension and was somehow desiring its end.  The death drive, with its magnetic force of dissolution, seems to have overwhelmed him.

In the character of Joseph-who-honours-Shabbat we seem to encounter someone of precisely the opposite nature.  The name by which he is known, Yosef Mokir Shabbei, might also be translated as Joseph-whose-wealth-was-Shabbat.  He holds Shabbat dear, he cherishes and values something which has a powerful impact on his soul and spirit, something which is very much tangible in the here and now.  He is not distracted by the future, he is not imprisoned by worry and a sense of impending doom.  He is bound to the moment, living in intimate proximity to the source of his joy.

The jewel comes to Joseph not because he is looking to get rich, not because he has bought a lottery ticket or invested in a spirit of speculation.  His wealth arrives because he has a reputation for sparing no expense, for using every last penny he has, in order to honour Shabbat, in order to enrich the day one with every possible delight.

He comes to wealth because he has no interest in looking after his money, in worrying about its future life.  He has a healthy relationship with his property, he understands that if it is not used, if it is not put to work in enhancing the finer and more sacred aspects of life, then it becomes empty, it becomes a tormenting and divisive fetish.

We notice that the first thing he does on obtaining the jewel, presumably once Shabbat was finished, was to undo its fetishization, to release its value into an abundance of gold coins which could then be spent, which could be used to bring better things, things of real value, into the world.

The soothsayers’ wording is particularly prescient, they use the term ‘akhil’, literally ‘eat’, to describe what Joseph will do to the gentile’s wealth.  He will re-translate it into something tangible, something nourishing, something which can actually enhance a person’s health and wellbeing.

The story ends with the observation of the wise old man that one who lends to Shabbat will be repaid by Shabbat.

On one level, this speaks of the difficulty in keeping Shabbat at a basic level, in the financial and career sacrifice that it seems to demand of us.  It is a non-trivial challenge to prioritise Shabbat when other demands are in the foreground, demands which whisper to us of the security and future benefit they will bring to us and our families.  Trust in Shabbat, he promises, and you will be repaid.

On another level however, he is speaking of the shift in perspective that Shabbat might offer us.  ‘Suspend your concern for the future, release yourself from the anxious worship of financial accumulation and embrace the life of the spirit, the immediacy of your desire.  Use this pause to connect and re-root, and all manner of surprising benefits will follow in its wake.’

As we said recently, Shabbat offers us a loosening of the soul, a release from the ordinary anxieties that separate us from our truer selves.  Money, and our complicated and tortuous relationship with it, can play a big part in this alienation, in the ways in which we fail to live in the present, we fail to be present, on account  of the future.

It is the perfect seducer, it begins with the promise of answering real and palpable needs, then at some point it takes on magical qualities, promising us everything the future has to offer, provided we make a Faustian pact against the present.

Eventually we might fetishize it, we forget why we wanted it, but we only know that we must have it, that it is all that matters.

It has perhaps never been harder to untangle ourselves from this web of confusion, never has there been an age where genuine value and monetary value have been so messily interlinked and amalgamated.  The theology of the market, whose collapse we are still struggling to really understand, has profoundly and disturbingly warped our thinking.

We can only hope that the experience of Shabbat, the joy in real and present experience that it offers, can help us to re-calibrate our inner scales somewhat, and that we can return to our lives a little more attentive to the right things, a little less haunted by what the soothsayers might threaten.

The Poetry of Boundaries Shabbat 4 & 5

So I’m warming up to these discussions in Shabbat, to these musings on the boundaries.  And it makes sense, if what I said the other day is right, if rest is about being able to hold strong boundaries and protect the self, then I can understand why all of these early musings are so concerned with the boundary.

Where do we draw the line between the private and the public, and what does it mean to exist in both of these spheres.  For Rabbi Akiva, an object in flight is considered to have come to rest.  The Rabbis differ: for them a being that is forever in flight, whose feet never stop to touch the ground, who is always hovering above reality, is not considered to have come to rest.  To rest is to have roots, to be grounded, to be settled.

And how does Rabbi Akiva conceptualise movement, transition?

For him it has two aspects: removing oneself from one place, and coming to rest in another.  And he perhaps emphasises the removing, the uprooting; maybe that is bound up with his personal narrative, with change, with creativity, with yearning until his dying word.

Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi is also concerned with roots: if something lands on the branch of a tree, we look to see where its trunk is located.  The nature of the growth is dictated by the soil it is rooted in.

Is this a natural thing for an aristocrat to say?  Is the class war flaring up again?

Or not.  Perhaps he is a fan of the first psalm:

The righteous one is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season

and whose leaf does not wither.

Rabbi Yehuda thinks differently about movement: for him it is about entry and exit, it is about transitioning between dimensions, not about an abrupt departure, about wandering.

His life was different from Akiva’s, it was more of a series of smooth passages, less a succession of existential upheavals.

More on movement:  If one runs to catch something, do they abrogate the responsibility of the one who threw it?

People project into us all the time: their hatred, anxieties, jealousies.

How much do we run into these, do we receive them almost willingly?  Can we too easily become complicit in the dark manipulative arts that surround us, can we be too eager to absorb and accept the other’s criticism and insult, no matter how unfounded?

The more we run into it, the more we shape ourselves as a receiver, the more we are liable.

Maintain the boundary, do not allow the other to violate you inappropriately.

Encourage them to contain their own distress, to find the spirit of rest through respect for the boundaries.

A Very Peaceful Ending… Berakhot 62, 63, 64

There’s something remarkable about choosing to end this volume of Talmud with such a serious meditation upon peace.  After 64 pages of dispute and argumentation, encompassing excommunications and numerous altercations, the following claim might seem a little bit hopeful:

Rabbi Elazar said that Rabbi Ĥanina said: Torah scholars increase peace in the world.

Really?  Don’t they just increase strife and fractiousness?

I remember Rav Yehuda Amital citing Rav Kook as explaining this idea in the following way.  Torah Scholars are indeed a combative lot, and we are right to be concerned that sometimes they may get carried away with themselves, that their aggression might become overheated and excessive.   But that notwithstanding, when people are engaged in the study of Torah, when people are ‘breaking themselves’ to understand the meaning and spirit of the Divine word, and when they are truly arguing for the sake of Heaven – l’shem Shamayim –then the powerful energy they bring to it serves an important purpose.

When opposing scholars lock horns in this way, they force each other to question and clarify the truth that they lay claim to, the heat of their argument acts to refine and purify their ideas.  What emerges from this cauldron of debate is a higher form of Truth, an expression of ideals which was much greater than either of the participants could have arrived at on their own.  It is a Truth which is richer, more multi-faceted and more illuminating.  And, claims Rav Kook, it is only with such a Truth that genuine peace is established.

There is always the possibility of a partial peace, of an apparent peace, of a peace which is brought about through the suppression and denial of difference.  But it is a weak peace, its roots are not sufficiently deep, the slightest inflammation of the underlying tension will cause a new eruption of acrimony.

Real peace, lasting peace, must come about through the resolution of difference, through a serious and thorough engagement with the issues which divide.  Rav Kook is expressing a tremendous optimism here both in the power of dialogue and in the power of ideas.  He is asserting that underlying the most apparently intractable disagreements there is a harmonious synthesis which can emerge under the right conditions.

And he is making the perhaps even bolder claim that this deeper and larger Truth will almost of necessity change the ways in which people interact and conduct themselves.  He is asserting that Truth really is the beacon by which people live their lives, that even the most hard minded of thinkers take their lead from the suffused subtleties of the Divine Light.

Bringing this idea to the therapeutic arena, anyone who has experienced half decent therapy knows that a good therapist draws something out of a person, that they act as a catalyst for an individual to give voice to the conflicts and confusions which have been unsettling them.  And through facilitating this expression of the unconscious, through enabling a new level of articulation to be reached, they help a person attain a new level of clarity, they foster greater insight into the troubles which have been distressing us.

The therapist will often do this through the gentlest of touches, through the smoothest of gestures, though sometimes the more combative approach will also have its place, as we’ve touched on lately.

There is another aspect of peace which I would like to consider, the sense in which it is connected to completeness, to wholeness.  In the Hebrew language, peace – shalom – is rooted in the idea of being complete – shalem.

A sense of fullness, of completeness, of profound satiety; these are the benefits I have been granted through this demanding engagement with the Talmud, through immersing myself in the currents of history which flow through its pages.  It is not, on the surface, an easy read, and yet, in a very surprising way, it brings peace to my mind in a manner that other reading material does not.  It is different from losing oneself in the narrative of a novel, nor is it the same as being assaulted by a heavy tract of theory.  It is more like becoming part of a conversation, one which stretches across hundreds of generations.  It feels like one is taking a seat on a bench in the study hall of Hillel and Shammai, of Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Akiva, of Rav and Shmuel.  The text has an almost musical quality, one’s concentration isn’t linear, it’s more dynamic than that, more wave like, more rhythmical.

There is something alive in it, it is not one voice, with the harmonious and integrated drive that would follow from that.  It is more like a symphony, a wide range of voices, and on every page we are in suspense as we wait to see who we will stumble across, who will cross our path and how long they will stay for.

This experience is described by the following verse, one of the last words of the Tractate:

A great peace awaits those who love your Torah, they will no longer stumble and fall.  (Ps. 119.165)

To love the Torah, to engage in it with an open heart, is to have the possibility of this peace, of a rooted completeness which will prevent one from stumbling, from becoming lost.

May we blessed to experience more of this as we continue our voyage through the Talmud, may the spirit of a well earned peace permeate the whole of our being and all of our relationships.