There is a Taoist teaching that "if I don't change direction I will end up where I am heading." Sometimes I am amazed at the trajectory of my life. How is it that I ended up here doing this, in this body and life? And, then the corollary questions: How am I living? Where am I headed? Do I have to live like this? How might I change?
Recently our son, Adin, (3 1/2 years old) taught me a beautiful lesson. I was cooking dinner and had lost track of time, taking too long to prepare the (overly) involved meal. By the time the food was ready, Adin was too tired, beyond hungry, and not at all interested in coming to the table for dinner. The situation, and Adin's deteriorating mood, quickly worsened. Adin responded to our attempts to coax him into eating with anger and defiance. Our son, (who generally has a wonderful and loving temperament,) completely lost it. He hurled some of his strongest toddler language: "I do not like listening to you!" "You are not my friend!" "I am a mean boy!" Eventually I had to give him a time-out at the bottom of the stairs.
As I watched him in his "time out", I remember feeling my own emotions of sadness and anger in my body. It was unsettling to see him suffering, and to witness his loss of control, and I became further unsettled as I was upset for feeling upset-- I wanted to enjoy the nice meal I had made for my family!
Then, suddenly, in a moment of calm, Adin got up and walked to the table. As he climbed up onto the chair and into his green booster seat he said, "No, I am not a mean boy." He settled into his chair and with a smile he began eating his food. We had a lovely dinner.
I don't know how it happened, and it certainly did not precipitate a permanent change in his behavior, but that night Adin did something that I work so hard to practice: teshuvah. In English, this word is usually translated as "repentance", but in Hebrew it also has the resonance of "returning", as it comes from the root "shuv/שוב", which means "return."
That night Adin modeled teshuvah. Somehow, he was able to let go of, or move beyond, the incredible momentum of anger and frustration he was experiencing to choose something that was good for him and others.
I feel like an expert (don't we all?) in experiencing the visceral power of my emotions. When they rise up they can easily take control, clouding my sense for what is compassionate and right, and carrying me to do and say things that I know will be harmful. The mere intensity of that tidal thrust of emotions buttresses my sense that I am right; the emotion adds such great weight to my belief in all the stories about the situation and how that other person is wrong and I am right. That night, Adin turned directions, he did teshuvah.
Teshuvah is the ultimate goal of the season. Sometimes people say, "this is just who I am and how I will act." This holding tightly to the status quo is undercut by teshuvah. Teshuvah is predicated on the reality of change; it is not a question of whether or not we will change but rather how-- and in what direction-- we will change.
This season of returning and turning begins in the most appropriate of places-- with Tisha B'Av, the 9th of Av in which we remember and mourn all of the destruction in Jewish history. The First and Second Temples were both destroyed on the 9th of Av, and other landmark events are also marked by this date--including the final date by which the Jews of Spain were to be expelled in 1492, the declaration of war on Germany in 1914, and the beginning of the exterminations that took place at the Treblinka concentration camp in 1942.
We begin the season of the Days of Awe with Tisha B'Av because we must begin not with a New Year's Eve kind of resolution (which nearly always have short shelf-lives), but rather with acknowledging in the deepest possible way that we are broken. On Tisha B'Av we allow our hearts to break, and we feel the brokenness that already exists in our hearts. We break without needing to know the way forward or how we will rectify all that we have broken. We just break. Typically, we don't allow ourselves to really feel the brokenness of life because it interferes with our narratives of wholeness and continual growth. We may intuit that to feel broken is a failure. So we cover over it with busy-ness, blame, buying or other escapes. Or, conversely, we may feel so broken that we are paralyzed by the brokenness. We may feel overcome with darkness and feel unable to move on from traumas of the past.
Tisha B'Av allows us to really feel the brokenness in a way that is neither about ignoring or obsessing. Tisha B'Av prepares us to "turn" through opening the heart and bearing the soul. We acknowledge that many of our usual stratagems for keeping our head above water and feeling happy and good simply do not always work. We mourn the ways that our behavior, and that of society, have fallen short. And we do this without fear of getting stuck in this place because we know that Tisha B'Av is only the beginning. And it is from this place-- from the very bottom-- that we begin to move forward and upward. As the Psalmist declared, "From the narrow place I call to the Divine; I was answered with expansiveness." (Ps. 118:5)
I hope you will join the Center for Jewish Mindfulness as we move through this season of transformation together. It is time we turned.