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Rabbi’s Elul Message this Week

Shalom Shir Tikvah community,
Last week’s Elul email contemplated teshuvah translated as “repentance.”  Teshuvah is also translated as “return.” This meaning is derived from the Prophet Jeremiah’s plea in the Book Eikha, “Lamentations.” The book is an account of the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the Jewish people. They stream down the road, homeless immigrants looking for safety and shelter, for peace. Among the final words of the book, we read hashiveynu, “return us”:

  הֲשִׁיבֵנוּ ה’ אֵלֶיךָ וְנָשׁוּבָה, חַדֵּשׁ יָמֵינוּ כְּקֶדֶם. Bring us back to You, HaShem, and we shall return; renew our days as at the beginning.
(Eikha 5.21)
Hashiveynu – “cause us to return,” or, “help us to do teshuvah.”

We sing these words at the close of every Torah ritual, and if you are feeling poignant, it is a moment to think of losses: innocence, optimism, the belief in a place of safety and certainty. Thinking of them and longing for them is the human condition that leads our people to a theology that sees the Garden of Eden as a symbol not only for the beginning of life but also its apotheosis, which is to say that life’s highest possible point of development is that condition which life was at its beginning.

“The soul you have given me O G*d is pure,” we recite in the first prayer of the morning tefilah. We are born good, and whole. Then life happens, and we are broken into the adults we become, scarred, incomplete, and trying our best. In some ways we are our own worst enemies, unable to allow ourselves to embrace life and love out of fear that we will be hurt.

Hashiveynu – The desire to return is not to go backward, but to seek to close the circle and thus find wholeness again on the other side. As the poet puts it, “the last of earth left to discover is that which was the beginning”:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always–
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”
The Berditchever Rebbe, who was always the defender of the people of Israel, once addressed G*d with the observation that life was very hard, and Jews struggled to survive and fulfill mitzvot. How were they to do teshuvah when some were ill, some were struggling to make ends meet, some were suffering the loss of loved ones? Since G*d had created and allowed the conditions of the Jews’ suffering, well then, said Reb Levi Yitzhak, the least G*d could do was meet the Jews halfway. “Return us to You,” the Rebbi said, quoting Jeremiah, “and we shall return.”
During this month of Elul may you find a sense of support coming to you from everywhere around you as you seek to return to your best self, not going backward but regaining the truths you already know, and seeing them more clearly now.

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