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.