It’s that time of year. No, I’m not referring to the pumpkin spice lattes adorning chalkboards across the city or the sudden proliferation of fall-themed imageryon the Internet. I’m referring to that term laden with years of Jewish PTSD and identity crises, sending the solar plexus and bowels of self-identified – and non-identified Jews into a frenzy. It’s the High Holidays, and for many familiar with the term, the one that comes before it: Elul. The Jewish month that precedes the High Holidays, a month known to all as a time for “Teshuvah”, that ancient word that’s been mistranslated more times than I can count as “Repentance.” That term that refers to “saying sorry”, “being a better person”, “erasing all the bad things I’ve done,” “asking for forgiveness”, and all the other things that are typically last on the to-do list of your average modern citizen. We want to be better people, sure, but our New Year’s Resolutions are more about losing weight and finally taking that online course than stepping back into the dirty places of arguments and feuds forgotten to clear up all the crap that’s gone on with our friends.
Except Elul isn’t really about saying sorry, and Teshuvah isn’t really about repentance. The High Holidays aren’t about spending a day bored in the Synagogue, and they’re certainly not a manmade trigger point to get you to hate your heritage even more when you find that the Temple is so damn hard.
Elul, when described in Jewish thought and teachings, is referred to as a time when “The King is In The Field”, The King, meaning the Divine. That God that you feel so far away from when you’re dealing with deadlines and debt and traffic and screaming children – that God is right here, in the field, come down to hang out with you and ask how you’re doing and how your life can be better this year. That prayer, that intention that we set up in the High Holidays, is ready to be heard by the innermost and uppermost levels of Divinity. Because the King is in the field.
The terms used to describe it, passages borrowed from the Bible, are ripe with imagery of Divine love and benevolence: From Song of Songs, “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine”. It’s not just the King deigning to come below to His constituents below – it’s the King and subject, intertwined, completely dependant on one another – for there is no king without a nation; and there is no benevolence without one to receive. The heavens open at this time of year, the universe is ready to bestow, and all it takes is for us humans to open up our hands.
But when we open those hands, sometimes they’re a little dirty. Sometimes we don’t have all the tools at our disposal to receive; the buckets are full of other gunk so we can’t take in the shining pure lights and delights that are waiting for us. So we need to tidy up, to prepare ourselves for all that is coming, and that’s where Teshuva comes in.
Teshuvah, the phrase most often translated as repentance, comes from the root Hebrew word to “Return”. Return to your highest self, get back in touch with who you really are, and shine that Divine light for all to see. We’re all born as love, it’s what we’re made from, yet the longer time we spend in these bodies on this earth the more we forget. Look at a child. She hasn’t forgotten, skipping around dancing with butterflies. He hasn’t forgotten, building an intricate ecosystem of leaves and twigs. They see the divinity all around us, and they are in touch with that Divine spark that powers their existence by fully expressing their unique selves.
Yet we live in this earth, and we have things like society and structure and family and physical health to keep up with, so we build up beliefs. Ideas about who we should be and what we should do, and even when those beliefs no longer serve us, even when we see that they were often fed to us by people who knew less than we do now and didn’t have our best interests at heart, we continue to believe them, and so we follow the programming left in our hearts. We continue to expect the worst, to react to triggers, to allow our wounds and our traumas to govern our actions and reactions, and in doing so, we get drawn down deeper into the quicksand of self-doubt, self-loathing, lack of trust, depression, anxiety, fear and anger. We forget that we are still those butterfly-chasing light beings of our youth and have the capacity to create that, in an instant, by shaking hands with the King that is in the Field and getting back in touch with our Divine selves.
The High Holidays are about cleaning up, but not because Mom is standing over you telling you that there’s no Nintendo til you clean your room. It’s because when your room is clean, it feels so good you just want to luxuriate in that space for longer and enjoy the sparkling surfaces. The High Holidays are about cleaning up because the Divine Infinite knows that you are a sparkling shining being who deserves to shine at full brightness and therefore once that diamond is polished, It gets to shine through you, too, and there’s more Light in the world for everyone – what a treat!
God – Divinity – LoveLight – asks you to shine because by shining, you make the rest of the world shine; and by cleaning up that surface and making space, all the good things can come true. We can stand with our arms folded, bent into fetal position, fearful of what the world might bring to us and holding on to our old wounds, or we can lurch forward, open our arms and our hearts, and receive all the good things that are waiting for us.
In Psalms, the verse reads, “Open your hands and sustain all living beings with your Will”. The Divine will is there, ready and waiting, to give and sustain all of us with endless love, abundance and light. It’s only when we prepare the container, when we open up the space, that we can take it all in.
So we focus on who we are, as divine light beings. We remember that our highest selves are pure, and true, and not sullied by the “sins” or regrets of youth and times past. We go back into that space, visualize who we truly are, and from today, start to act that way. We open our hearts for the space of light that comes in – for where there is light, darkness cannot enter, and where there is love, there’s no room for fear or doubt. We remember all that’s been in the past and instead of hating ourselves, regretting with should’s and could’s, we thank ourselves for showing up today, for deciding to be a better, stronger, brighter person, and thank our past selves for teaching us. We clean the slate with others so they see our determination to move forward, even if it hurts to scrub that crust off the bottom of the pan. And we know in our heart of hearts, that if we were faced with that same challenge again, we would do different.
Because now we know who we are.
Creatures of Love, children of the Divine, souls of Light, warriors of God.
We are our Beloved’s. And Our Beloved is Ours.