Teshuvah and Rejuvenation
A Sermon for Erev Yom Kippur
Rabbi Stephanie Kennedy
October 4, 2022 • 10 Tishrei 5783
Last Shabbat, my wife and I and our two-and-a-half-year-old daughter got lost. We went to a friend's place for lunch and then to a playground. As the afternoon wound down, we headed home. I should note, in an effort to have distraction-free family time, we had left our phones behind. We know the neighborhood fairly well, so I was confident we could find our way home. And, we started out on the right path ... after all, we knew which hidden stairs to take.
Looking back, I realized that we must have walked past a crossroads and missed a turn. All the while, our daughter was somewhere between falling asleep and having a tantrum. As a first-time parent, I’ve become increasingly aware of the special urgency ignited by a toddler on the edge of a meltdown. We picked up our pace ...
... Until we realized that we didn’t recognize the street we were on. A man wearing suspenders and looking at his phone was sitting on a wall: a sort of GPS fairy, I hoped. I asked him if he knew how to get to Park Boulevard. “You’ll hit Park Boulevard if you continue in this direction ... but there’s a big hill,” he said. I was not too concerned. My experience of the East Bay has involved stumbling upon many unexpected hills.
With continued optimism, I offered to take my daughter from my wife’s arms -- she was refusing to get in her stroller and insisted on being carried. As the hill stretched upward and onward, my ignorant sense of invincibility waned, conquered by the unpredictability of what felt like a never-ending upward incline. Multiple times, my wife and I looked at each other as if to say, “Should we go back and try to find the turn that we’ve missed?” But, and I’m sure many of you can relate to this: the further we went, the harder it became to change our route.
Barry Straw first described this psychological phenomenon in his paper, “Knee Deep in the Big Muddy,” coining the term, “escalation of commitment.” If I understand correctly, escalation of commitment is a human behavior in which "an individual facing increasingly negative outcomes ... nevertheless continues the behavior instead of altering the course.” The act of turning back, of changing our route after so much effort felt impossibly hard. We felt the physical pain of a sunk cost.
At this time of year, as we enter Yom Kippur, conversation often focuses on reflection and change. What do we need to do differently? How do we repair and apologize for the ruptures we have caused? In my own case, after navigating new parenthood in the isolation and the loneliness of a pandemic, moving across the country, keeping up with the commitments of a new job, the thought of being asked to do anything more, to do anything hard and internal, is exhausting. So many people are just struggling against burn out, trying to catch their breath. In fact, as I was writing these words, my wife sent me an unprompted text just saying, “I'm so tired.”
How do we grapple with the big, deep work that our tradition is asking of us, while being so incredibly depleted?
One answer I’d like to consider is found in the Torah -- in the story of Joseph. It’s one of my favorite stories of change and repair. Joseph is reunited with his brothers after years of estrangement. These brothers had sold him into slavery and faked his death. Since then, Joseph had risen in the ranks to become a very powerful man in Egypt. And when his estranged brothers stood in front of him, they didn't recognize him. Joseph constructs an elaborate scheme to test them, to see if they have grown and changed or if they are still the people who, out of jealousy and spite, tried to kill him. To our surprise, we discover that the brothers have indeed changed. It is when they demonstrate that they understand the grief and pain that their actions have caused their father that Joseph finally reveals himself, and weeps intensely, expressing forgiveness.
The Torah is filled with stories of brothers fighting. Each inheriting the grudges from their parents. The moment of repentance expressed by the brothers and the forgiveness of Joseph marks a break in this cycle. It changes our inherited narrative.
The next time we see two brothers meeting is when Moses walks away from the burning bush to meet his brother, Aaron. And rather than meeting with animosity, they meet with an embrace. Where there could be rivalry between older and younger, where there could be jealousy over who is favored, there is love and support. The repentance of Joseph’s brothers, and the forgiveness that follows is transformative. It changes their story and it changes our story.
Teshuvah is the Hebrew word for repentance, and we hear it a lot at this time of year. But the word teshuvah at its root means “return,” it's a type of renewal. Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, wrote in 1941 in his Rosh Hashanah sermon:
“Teshuvah ... is also a kind of creativity. The Hebrew word teshuvah means repentance and return. However, as a creative act, teshuvah is not a simple return. We return to who we are meant to be, but have not yet become. We return to growth and possibility that has lain dormant within us and not yet flourished, much as a sculpture lies hidden within a brute block of stone. That is why the process of teshuvah, as painful and even humiliating as it can be, is in fact very joyous and hopeful.”
I have long loved the quote that “forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past.” In the broken pattern of sibling rivalry, the Torah highlights that teshuvah can be the creation of a better future.
This is the work of a lifetime ... please don’t think that I’m saying you are supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it. Because it’s hard. It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat out won’t want to. But some days you might be able to experience your teshuvah as generative and creative.
This is my deepest hope for you all this Yom Kippur.
May the painful work of recognizing the turns we’ve missed, the muddy holes we’ve dug ourselves into, and the areas in which we have fallen short also be the catalyst for joyful growth and hope. May it not only be a respite, but a refreshing source of rejuvenation in this exhausting world.
G’mar chatima tova.
May you be sealed in the book of all good things.