Of Turtles and Teshuvah

turtle This year, over kosher vegetarian cholent and (yummy) grilled tempeh and tomato sandwiches, I made teshuvah at the National Havurah Institute where I was teaching a class on the Torah and Qur’an.
The teshuvah I made was with an old classmate of mine from JTS Rabbinical School. He had been a student who marched to the tune of a different shofar, and we other students were often unkind in response. Now he is a leader in a spiritual movement from which I have gained many blessings. Seeing that he was on the faculty roster of the Institute, I determined to connect with him and apologize, nearly twenty years later. Presciently perhaps, he was there to teach a class on Tikkun Olam.
My teshuvah, an apology, was accepted with quiet surprise, kindness and respect. I felt happiness to be part of a community and a profession that made personal and spiritual growth (a reward of teshuvah) such as this easy and acceptable. Afterward, I kayaked across the lake and saw several turtles sunning themselves on logs, and a slippery otter leaping from low branch to water and back again. Teshuvah can be made anywhere, and its rewards are just as personal and diverse. (If I were to ask for a reward – that didn’t involve my children — it would be to kayaking and see an otter leaping, with the blue heron fishing to the right, a beaver lodge in construction to my left.)
There is no period of limitations on teshuvah, no assigned location, nor any required time of day or year. Teshuvah means Return by way of apology and desire to do better, Return to ourselves and each other, in other words, Return to God. All the created world sings of it. All the universe brings its rewards, as personal as an otter’s face peering out of the water. Rewards such as:
A long missed smile. (A hug, perhaps a kiss.)
That heaviness in the chest lifted.
A singular restfulness, anger melted away.
That certain lightness of being.
The possibility of new beginnings.
Restored personal dignity and self-respect.
With teshuvah, all these can happen at any time of year. Because of our very humanness we also schedule it for these High Holy Days. We come together and try to create a community which encourages the peacemaker in all of us. This time of year more than any other time, we can openly grapple with our baser selves, the ones who want to hold on to resentment and grudges, nurse old wounds, nurture ancient fears.
It’s time to get free. For ourselves and with one another. Free to be the person we thought we could be. Free to be the community of which we once dreamed. Free to say to each other without reservation, I am sorry. Free to answer, “Let’s do better, together.”
Free to paddle out onto that mirrored lake, immerse into the quiet mystery of parts that fit together, and know peace.

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