The Vitality of Feeling: Teshuva in a Broken World - Rabbi Adina's Yom Kippur Drash

Berkeley Community High Holy Day Services, JCC East Bay

Yom Kippur, 5779/2018

Rabbi Adina Allen



As I sat down to write this drash and consider what words I might share on this YK day, I thought about my own process of teshuvah - repentance and return - the primary act of this high holy day season. The Rambam explains that Teshuvah is a three step process: Admission of wrong done, regret and resolve to never do it again (Hilchot Teshuvah). If the wrong involves another person, there is an added step of seeking forgiveness from that person. Yet the teshuvah I feel compelled to make this year is for things that I cannot ask forgiveness for, and cannot stop from continuing to happen. It is for transgressions I feel implicated in that are much bigger, broader and more amorphous than can be encapsulated in these three steps. Dr. Avivah Zornberg teaches that the truest teshuvah is not toward the answers, but rather, toward an openness to the questions themselves. This year, I have a lot of questions.

The other night I stood at our sink washing dishes from our family’s dinner, listening to a story on the news about Venezuelans being starved by their government. Bands of folks are taking to the hills, in flip flops, with a few snacks and cigarettes, buoyed by the hope that refuge in Colombia or Ecuador is only a week’s walk away. In reality, it is at least a month’s journey by foot, over mountain peaks, some 10,000 feet high. As they walk they are passed by buses and cars, but they have already traded the few valuables they had for food, so cannot afford a ride, and none are offered freely. They sleep on the side of the road, wash in streams when they can find them, and tend to their blisters and wounds in water’s cool. “Leaving is tough,” one tells the interviewer, “but staying would have been tougher.”

The Talmud teaches, “When the community is in trouble a person should not say, ‘I will go into my house and eat and drink and be at peace with myself’ ” (Babylonian Talmud, Masechet Ta’anit 11a). Yet, there I was, listening to this story of real human lives, real suffering happening at that very moment, standing in my comfortable kitchen, scraping food scraps into my compost bin, mulling over what to offer my children for dessert.

This is not just this particular night, and this is not just this one story. This is every night and every story. It is not just me, but all of us. For the headlines we scroll through, the people we drive by on the street. The deluge of information that flows through our social media feeds and into our homes in the form of news allows us to know intimate details about what’s happening to people to whom we have no first hand connection. In the midst of our workday we hear about atrocities happening to those in Myanmar and Xinjiang. As we are folding our laundry, stories of Aleppo and Rwanda. Between trips to the store, on our way to a friend’s house we see what’s happening closer to home in our own communities - folks huddled in tent encampments, or are reminded of those we don’t see because they are behind bars in jail or locked in detention centers.

The Talmud, in a passage discussing the domino effect of our actions, ends with the Aramaic phrase Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh (Shavuot 39a). All of Israel are responsible for one another. We might say, all people are responsible for one another. We are all implicated. Through our tax dollars. Through the representatives and officials we elect. Through our witnessing. None of us are isolated individuals who stand alone, and no issue is isolated so that it in some way doesn’t touch us. The community is in trouble. We should not be at peace.

The dictionary defines community around sameness: groups that occupy the same place or share the same characteristics. In ecological terms, a community is defined as a group of interdependent organisms. This was the definition that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to when he said, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” We live in a world in which we are inextricably linked - not just person to person, but truly in a more global sense. The word responsibility in Hebrew - achrayut, contains within it the word acher - other. We are responsible for one another and for those seen as “other.” Our actions or inactions directly affect the lives of those whom we have never met and never will. Then, what is appropriate for us in seeking teshuva? Is teshuva even possible?

How do we deal with wrongs committed against those whom we don’t know personally, whom we can’t - and should not - seek out for forgiveness, but whose suffering we’ve witnessed and and in some way contributed to either directly or indirectly through the strands that weave us together in this inescapable web of interconnection?

The Talmud tells a story of a disagreement between the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai. Given all the pain humans cause one another, they debated whether or not it would have been better for humans not to have been created at all. They argued back and forth on this issue for two years. In the end, the House of Shammai won, arguing that it would have been better had humans not been created, but, since they had been, the passage teaches, let them examine their actions. Others say, let them feel their actions” (Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 13b). Our ultimate strength is our ability to open our hearts to feel.

During my senior year in college I took a year-long colloquium class: EPIIC (Education for Public Inquiry and International Citizenship). Each year this class focuses on a different global issue. The year I took it the issue was Oil and Water and all of the geopolitical implications contained therein, where we investigated broad-reaching questions such as: What are the politics and economics of our National Energy Strategy? Should water be considered a common good? How do extractive industries impact indigenous peoples? What is the relationship between oil and water and environmental refugees, environmental degradation?

In this graduate level course we were assigned more books than any one person could reasonably read in a year such that we had to divide up the reading between those in our study group and make digest outlines for each other. None of us individually could possible absorb the amount of information we were being asked to take in. Nor could we emotionally process the substance itself.

The content of what we were learning was immense and intense and aroused in me extreme emotions of sadness, fear and grief. Our class sessions were focused on enhancing our intellectual understanding of the material. What year, specifically did NATO enact that treaty? What were the names of the six river basins in the Amazon that were destroyed? What percentage of water is controlled by multinational corporations? Nowhere was space to process or even acknowledge the emotional component of the work we were engaged in.

Facts are important; feelings are essential. Though I gained a mastery over the material, I felt an increasingly pervasive sense of numbness which inhibited me from being able to take what we were learning and do something truly valuable with it. There remained this enormous emotional burden connected to the facts and figures that was not spoken of and was unaccounted for.

Given the grief and suffering we cause one another, perhaps it would have been better had we not been created at all, but, since we have been, let us feel our actions. Without feeling we can do none other than recreate the same situations and systems we have seen, learned about and participated in. When there is no space for feeling, there is no possibility for transformation, no chance for something new to come out the other side.

The unacknowledged burden of feeling - the contradictions, the confusion, the horror, the sadness, the helplessness - needs a space to be felt, and this is not something we need to or even can do alone. The burden is way too big for any one of us, and intellectual discourse alone is insufficient as a means to change. We all need spaces and places to be with the immensity of this life we’ve been given and this world we’ve been born into. To acknowledge the pain and brutality, to let in the beauty and mystery and love, to feel the heartbreaking sadness and jubilant joy of what it means to be a human being in a world in which we are all tied together. To be with what is - in our world and in our own personal lives - so that we may allow what is to become what’s next.

It was my experience in EPIIC that led me to the rabbinate, to turn away from graduate studies in the field of environmental science and to turn towards a path of ritual and ceremony, of community and meaning making, of creating spaces to hold what is hard and celebrate what is good. To be with what is, in a way that connects us to others and to something greater than ourselves. This, I believe, is what Judaism has to offer. This is why we are here together today.

Hillel taught: Do not withdraw yourself from the community; Do not be sure of yourself until the day you die; Do not judge other people until you stand in their situation; Do not say “It is not possible to understand this” for eventually it will be understood” (Pirke Avot 2:5).  

We gather to experience our shared humanity. We gather because deep down we know the armor that we’ve erected deadens and disconnects us from our vitality and from any possibility of change. We gather because it’s all too big for any one of us to hold on our own. We gather because we know that true and lasting change comes from a place of love and connection, something impossible to find alone, at our kitchen sink. We gather because in one another’s reflection we catch glimpses of who we are and what we’re here to do.  

This year, I invite us to expand our notion of teshuva to include the messiness of feeling. We are being asked to turn the quality of our attention to that which cries out to be witnessed and to support each other as our hearts and consciousness expand. Here’s an invitation to a practice for the coming year - it’s simple and it’s hard. San the headlines. See what from the news calls you. Commit to following it throughout the year. Permit yourself time to take in the news and space to feel what it brings up. Follow where it leads you. As Avivah Zornberg reminds us, true teshuvah is not toward the answers, but rather, toward an openness to the questions themselves.

“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing,” writes Arundhati Roy. This is the world in which we realize our interlocking interconnection and throw open our notion of community so that it embraces all of humanity. May we help one another to attune our ears, open our minds, and strengthen our hearts for this world that is on her way, and in so doing may we discover the unique role we each may take to prepare for her arrival.