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7 Things I Learned About Teshuva From My Sabbatical

12/23/2015 03:58:51 PM


Rosh Hashanah 2010

Hello. Shannah Tovah! I missed you.

As most of you know I was away last year on sabbatical. My sabbatical was in many ways a life changing experience. My gratitude for this opportunity is enormous.

The fact that this time away coincided with our nation’s recession; a time when many in America, and some of you, were out of work or experiencing financial challenges changed the experience of my sabbatical. It heightened my awareness of my very privileged position. My awareness of privilege was further sharpened by the knowledge of poverty in the world which makes life so precarious for many that even taking a day off, never mind months, might mean considerable hardship.  I tried to be constantly mindful of this privilege, working hard to take full advantage of this sabbatical opportunity to develop myself as a rabbi and as a person.

I am also aware, that I could not have this experience alone. My wife Sarah offered support and flexibility as we planned this time. I was offered mentoring and guidance from many teachers. I am thankful to Rabbi Darby for the grace and dedication with which he acted as the sole rabbi for Bnai Keshet during my absence. But most importantly I could not have done this without you.

This congregation had to commit significant resources to make my sabbatical possible and be willing to have a different kind of year while I was away. I know that many positive things emerged in my absence, and I am also aware that in certain ways this was a difficult year for the community. I also know this was an absolutely necessary experience for me. My gratitude to this community for making it possible is enormous.

Thank You!

And for any way in which my absence caused pain or harm to anyone here, I sincerely ask forgiveness.[1]

When I shared insights about sabbatical with a small group of you this July and with others of you individually, I have reflected on the relationship of sabbatical to other examples of interruptions in people’s lives. Some of these like my own are welcome: a year in a new town, going off to college, starting a new career, having a baby. Others are unwelcome and painful interruptions: a year of divorce or repairing a broken relationship, a period of unemployment, time spent battling or recovering from illness. These periods of interruption can be profound when they lead us to re-evaluate who we are and how we exist in the world. They force us to examine what we care about most.  Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are also meant to interrupt our lives in just this way.

With the hopes of sharing a little about my sabbatical with you framed by these Days of Awe, which are a kind of annual micro-sabbatical, I want to offer this list of 7 things I learned about teshuva – or personal change, while on sabbatical:

  1. Don’t get let the trip you planned get in the way of the trip you are on.

We went to Israel for a lot of reasons but a major one was to strengthen our children’s sense of themselves as Jews and their connection with Israel. I worked hard to introduce my kids to the Jerusalem I love, the Old City, the shuk at Mahane Yehuda, the Western Wall on a Friday night.

But if you asked my kids what they loved about Jerusalem they would tell you first, the swimming pool on Emek Rafaim St., second, the abundance of ice cream and third the day we spent trying to escape the heat in Zedekiah’s tunnels where they pretended for hours to be archeologists.

            We stayed in the Jewish Quarter in the Old City at a Bed & Breakfast. Every morning we were served breakfast on their roof which had a magnificent view of the Dome of the Rock. From the beginning the kids were attracted to the shiny golden dome that dominates the skyline of Jerusalem. Early in the morning, on our last day, I was finally went with my son Akiva to look at this holy Muslim site atop the Temple Mount.

It was remarkably quiet. Tourists are not allowed during Muslim prayer time, so there only a few Muslims present, and hardly any tourists. As we approached to within about 20 yards of the Dome of the Rock, Akiva said, “It is so beautiful, I could drop to my knees.” And then he did it, he dropped to his knees. My son was finally having a spiritual moment in Jerusalem it just happened to be at a holy Muslim site rather than a holy Jewish site.

            And the truth is, it was a beautiful and holy moment. The contrast between this quiet serenity and the noisy, frenetic, crowded experiences we had at the Wall couldn’t have been greater. I came to this moment with my own history, with all the baggage you could imagine about Jerusalem, the Western Wall, The Temple Mount, and with my own hopes and expectations. All of this could have gotten in the way of me noticing or accepting this holy moment that was right in front of me.

It is so easy to get caught up in judging our experiences in relationship to old expectations, rather than simply being with what is. Often the experience or insight we are looking for is right in front of us but we have to be willing to be present with the moment as it is rather than as we had hoped it might be.

            Rabbi Richard Hirsch told me– “You think you are taking a sabbatical, but in fact the sabbatical takes you.”  Be open mindful on these days of awe, the experience you came to looking for may not be the experience you get. The experience you have may be the one you need.

  1. Be wary of casting blame

We all have a lot of excuses for not working on our personal issues, but one of the most common and most accepted in our society is that we are busy. “Oh, I’d love to – FILL IN THE BLANK – but I am just so busy these days. Swamped at work! The kids are all over the place! I am so over-committed!” And of course it is true – which is what makes it such a dangerous excuse.

As I prepared for my sabbatical I had a lot of personal goals – things that I wanted to do in my life, that I felt I never had enough time for because I was so busy. Things like exercise more, deepen my spiritual practice, and work to make our house feel like more of a home. And though I wouldn’t quite have admitted it, I often excused my failure to do these things by blaming work.

Sometime around the end of October, I remember realizing – alright, I have more time, I have more spaciousness, I am not going to meetings several nights a week but yet I still haven’t improved these habits of self-care. I had to face the facts that however busy my normal life might feel, it was not solely to blame. With my normal excuse unavailable, it became clear that the responsibility for making these changes was my own. It was at this moment that I really got started.

            On the Yamim Noraim our liturgy doesn’t leave a lot of room for blame. It doesn’t say, we have sinned before you by closing our heart or by deceit, but it wasn’t our fault. It simply says we have done wrong and we should change. Yes we should look carefully at what seems to get in the way of us making change, but in my own experience, it can be far too easy to stop once we have found this impediment rather than starting to figure out how to work around it. It is far too easy to say: “I have let myself down but – aha! I have an excuse! My work, my family, my personality is to blame!” When what we really need to say is, “Good! I think I figured out what is getting in the way of change, so now what do I do?”  The problem, the challenge, the character trait – might or might not be to blame. What is important is our desire to change and renewing our effort to make that change.

  1. Fake it till you make it,

One of the things I did last year was work part-time doing community organizing with Paterson congregations in the coalition New Jersey Together of which Bnai Keshet is a member. The need to take action in Paterson is as profound as the group is diverse. One of the biggest issues there is a feeling of insecurity and fear in the face of crime. I remember at one of our first community meetings a young teen stood up as said, she was angry that her parents wouldn’t let her go out at night because it was unsafe, but more angry that her parents were right.

In response we developed a Safe Streets Campaign. When Deputy Police Chief William Fraher came to our assembly to respond to our demands that officers be deployed to walk the beat in the 10 block corridor between and around our member churches of St. Paul’s Episcopal and First AME Zion, we could tell that we were not the type of community group he was used to dealing with. Unlike the perfunctory community police forums, with either narrowly defined interest groups or disconnected individuals, we had a room filled to capacity with over 150 Protestants, Muslims, Catholics, Jews, African Americans, Hispanics, Whites, and Arab-Americans, clergy and congregants across a diverse economic spectrum. And we ran the show. We set the agenda. After telling our story, we asked, Deputy Chief Fraher if he would commit to our Safe Streets plan with a simple, Yes or No.

You should know, in our preparatory meetings with Officer Fraher he had consistently represented himself as anti-community policing. Officer Fraher is a big, tall man, with a shaved head. He has a tough, no-nonsense way of communicating. To him community policing sounded too touchy-feely, like asking officers to join in basketball games and offer counseling to kids in need.  But something in our action, perhaps our assertive but respectful dialogue or the stories of fear and crime that were shared, perhaps a projection of power; led him when we asked, “Will you commit foot patrol officer to be part of this partnership?” to say, “YES”. Our community policing plan has now been expanded throughout the city even in areas where we have no member congregations.

I’ll tell you a secret. We didn’t have a lot of power and we didn’t think he’d say, “Yes,” but we asked anyway. We did our research, we stated our demands, and we held the police and each other accountable to these demands.

When it comes to teshuva you don’t have to wait until you’re sure of your success to try. If you are unsure you can make the change in your life that you need, try any way. Fake it. Act as if you can. Take action and this will inevitably create a reaction. And in this action you may find your way to holding yourself accountable.

  1. Sometimes the hardest thing to do, is nothing

I spent a lot of time last year meditating. In addition to my daily practice I went to two different weeklong silence retreats for rabbis. Yes you heard right – Rabbis – Silent – One Week!

We tend to think that when we are talking, we are really doing something. Many of us have jobs where all we do is talk. Many of us feel like we have to talk to understand ourselves. “Let me just talk this through with you.” Or “I’m just thinking out loud.” But I have noticed that very little of the noise in our lives, even the talking, is very real communication. For me at least, alI the talking, music, news programs, television, even silent voice in my mind, when I read newspapers and books can actually be an escape from being present with myself, my fears, my emotions. Talking can be used fill to up the moment, leaving no room for the fears that emerge when we remember just how narrow this bridge of our life really is.

At the conclusion of each of these week long retreats we had a ritual of re-entering into speech, in which each participant got to speak to group. In each case, I couldn’t speak without weeping. After seven days, I am finally asked to say a few words and all I could do was weep. I think for me, the experience of truly being with myself, of coming to peace with my own mind was so delightful and in its own way so heartbreaking, that tears were perhaps the only honest thing that I could have offered in the moment.

Being quiet is a great way to become reacquainted with ourselves and it is a good way to start noticing how our minds work. In silence we can notice message tapes that are constantly being generated by our minds. With a quite we can to consider if these messages are productive; if they are messages we want to react to. If you want to make change, being quietly mindful of your thoughts and internalized messages is a great place to start.

  1. Sometimes the hardest thing to do, is nothing Part 2

So the truth is meditation is really not the same as doing nothing, meditation, at least at my level, is still a lot like doing something. But trying to stop being a congregational rabbi for a year, that was a whole other kind of learning to do nothing.

One of the deepest teachings for me of the last year is about what happens when I stop doing all the things that I usually do to affirm my purpose in life. A great majority of these can be summed up in the title Rabbi. Last year I stopped giving sermons, leading services, tutoring bnai mitzvah, performing weddings, counseling the bereaved, going to meetings at the synagogue, answering emails that begin “Dear Rabbi,” writing newsletters… You get the idea.

I’ll be honest, I often let my self-worth and self esteem rise and fall in relationship to my sense that I am impacting people, my community, the world. When things I am a part of go well, I feel energized, powerful and contented and when they go badly I blame myself. Regardless of the fact that my presence, my involvement may have been only one small factor in its success or failure. I am humbled by the obvious truth that the synagogue survived without me. Many of us work hard to assure ourselves that our lives have meaning and that our existence matters. Some of us work because we are afraid to stop, afraid of what might arise if given space.

We should work hard. And we should strive to have an impact, but we should do so with the humble understanding that we are but one, the world is large, and our successes or failures are not completely under our control. They are impacted by many other people and conditions. None of us are so critical or so important that we can’t stop, that we can’t cease from our constant labors.  

If President Obama can find time in his day for basketball, time in his week for a date, and time his calendar for a vacation, so can we. If as it says in our tradition God worked for 6 days to create the world, but on the 7th day shavat vayinafash, God rested and was re-ensouled,  shouldn’t we also find time to do nothing, to rest and find our souls?

Sometimes the change we need is just a break. Sometimes our rejuvenation will only emerge from rest.

  1. The Text is For You.

As a rabbi I get to spend a fair amount of time studying Jewish texts, but very little of this is really for its own sake. When I sit down, to study the weekly Torah portion, I know I better find something to say pretty quick or I won’t have a devar Torah on Shabbat.

Last year I spent a lot of time studying Hasidic masters and in particular Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev. I was moved by what it felt like to read this text only for myself. To read commentaries on the weekly parsha and have the most important question be, how does this resonate with the life I am living?

   Jewish prayer and Jewish ritual is filled with text. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are experiences overflowing with texts. These texts, these prayers have power. They have thousands of years and millions of Jewish lives behind them. But this real power is dependent on how we treat them. Can we read and listen to these texts with the belief that our lives really do hang in the balance? Can we read them with the assumption that we are doing something profound and meaningful, rather than perfunctory or hollow?

Most of the prayers we do on Yom Kippur we repeat 5 times over 24 hrs. The assumption is that we might find truth in one of these prayers or for that matter in all these prayers, each time we read them.

When you are working to create change the texts of our tradition, the Torah, the prayers are your friends. When you are suffering, when you are faced with a challenging question, when you are in doubt, when you are looking for resolve, try sitting with a text – the liturgy or weekly parsha is a good place to start but really it could be any text. Sit with this text and look for connections to your life at this moment. You are bound to find it.

Our tradition instructs us regarding Torah, “Turn it and turn it for everything is in it.”[2] The Jews have always used the Torah to speak to their lives and to express their values, and guess what?-- We are the Jews!

Number 7: What’s the Real Point Anyway?

More than two years ago, when Sarah I were hatching a plan for my sabbatical, we were taken off guard by how stressful it was. Here was this tremendous opportunity and yet judging by the tone of our conversations, you might have guessed it was an immense burden. What we discovered was that the many options opened up by this interruption brought to the surface all the aspirations and all the rough spots in our lives.

Should we go away for the year, or be home so that Sarah could develop her career? If we go to Israel or somewhere else will our children thrive or suffer? If I follow one passion, one area of study, what others will remain neglected?

At some point I realized that whatever the program, where ever we lived, whatever I studied, it would be secondary to the never ending work of learning how to be human. The things I wanted to work on most: whether study, meditation & organizing, or spending time with my family, exercising and eating right, were all important before the sabbatical and will remain important my entire life.

The word teshuva, means turning but it specifically has a connotation of returning. The assumption of Judaism is that we are all perfect the way we are, we were created in the image of God and that we all have our own unique mitzvah to perform in the world. But somehow we get diverted from our path, we get distracted chasing after pleasant things or running away from hardships.

Teshuva is at its core our effort to be fully alive. Of course we need a way to make a living, and we need to do things that are fulfilling, and of course we have obligations to fulfill, but none of that is really why we are here. We push ourselves to achieve, to accomplish, to accumulate but these things fade, as we also will fade. We are alive for such a short time and our lives will never be replicated. We are here to become fully human, fully ourselves, each in our own holy way.

The work of teshuva was important last year, and will be necessary next year, but we can only do it now. Teshuva is not about trying to be something we are not, but rather about being exactly who we are. It is not about getting somewhere else, it is about being here completely, right now.

Teshuva means coming back to this.


[1] My thanks to Rabbi Toba Spitzer for sharing her sermon, "Seven Things I Learned About Teshuva From My Sabbatical” with me. Many of her ideas were helpful to me in shaping my own thinking. In a few cases I have used her wording almost verbatim without direct attribution. Her sermon can be found at

[2] Pirkey Avot, 5:26

Sat, June 15 2024 9 Sivan 5784