Yom Kippur 5773: What I learned about Teshuvah from moving

Return again, return again,

Return to the home of your soul.

 This year, more than any other year, I feel I have come home.

 The last time our family moved was when we returned to Boston from Jerusalem in 1995.Within a few weeks, I became the new rabbi at Temple Hillel B’nai Torah. For nearly seventeen years, we made the drive from our townhouse in West Newton to West Roxbury. Though it didn’t seem so far away, over time we decided that we would prefer to be closer to the shul, to live in the city, and to have our own house.

Two years ago, we began to put the pieces into place, painting the rooms, upgrading the kitchen, fixing all those little things that hadn’t worked for years.  Last summer we went through the eleven or twelve bookshelves in the house and gave away hundreds of volumes, starting the process so often called de-cluttering. But I think of it as repurposing. Every book, every kitchen item, every piece of clothing, every tool that we were not using could find purpose in someone else’s life. It served us once, or we hoped it would. Now the time had come to give it a new home.

 By March we were ready to put the house on the market. By some miracle, at the same time, we found a jewel of a house right in the neighborhood, a short walk to Hillel B’nai Torah. Within two months, we had sold the home we had lived in for 22 years and moved into a new home.

This move was the biggest change in our family’s life, in my life, in seventeen years. Though it all seemed to come about quickly and easily, the transformation that came over our day-to-day experience was profoundly renewing and deeply satisfying. Achieving this monumental change took energy and attention, emotional fortitude and unity of purpose—much like the task of teshuvah that we are seeking to accomplish in this holy time.

Teshuvah is a form of transformation. Whether returning to the person we once were, or becoming someone we want to be, it begins with an intention to make a change in our lives. Teshuvah can be as dramatic a change as moving to a new home, or as small as saying “I’m sorry” with a heart full of regret.

Like moving, the work of teshuvah involves leaving something behind, while heading toward something new. The Sefat Emet teaches that the Kol Nidre prayer that opened our service this evening is all about separating ourselves from our past and giving ourselves a new start. Every year when we hear the Kol Nidre chanted, we have moved from where we were last year, and hope to be in a new place—spiritually and emotionally, if not physically—than we were a year ago.

 Several years ago, I spoke about what I learned about change from installing new carpet. Several years older and I hope a little wiser, I want to offer you the lessons of transformation, of teshuvah, that I learned from moving.

 Where do I go? Begin with setting an intention

We were fortunate to have time to plan our move. We did not need to uproot our family and our lives. We spent time considering the best time to move, then listed what we really wanted from our new home:  being walking distance to the shul, living in the city, having privacy, finding a place that would welcome friends and family for Shabbat and holidays. We needed a backyard that would accommodate a large sukkah and a dining room that would host a large Pesach seder, and rooms for both our kids to come home.

Deepak Chopra talks about the importance of attention and intention in making change. He says: “…conscious change is brought about by the two qualities inherent in consciousness: attention and intention. Attention energizes, and intention transforms. The quality of intention on the object of attention will orchestrate an infinity of space-time events to bring about the outcome intended.”

While we may be energized by attention to a problem, determining our Intention, the direction we want to go in, may take time. My intention became clearer over the course of weeks and months. As we repeat throughout these holy days, in the words of Psalm 27:

"I ask only one thing from my Source, I have only one desire: to make my dwelling a house for God, every day of my life."

On this Yom Kippur, what is it that you desire to change, to become and what is your intention?

I can see clearly now: Discernment

Before we could look at houses, we needed to prepare our home for the market, and determine what we truly needed to take with us. This has been an ongoing process. It began when we had to “stage” the house, to make it look less “lived in” so that others might imagine it as their own. Tchatkes came off the shelves, family photos came off the walls. Easy enough. But then we had to clear out furniture. In other words, we needed to empty the bookshelves.

Books are a rabbi’s primary resource. Each one is a treasure. How could I part with them or even put them in storage for the few weeks or months it would take before we sold our house and bought a new one? It was my first moment of recognition that this transformation was real, and that I had to have the discernment to know what to hold onto and what changes I was seeking.

As we went through the books, and everything that came afterward, we created three piles: one to keep, one to give away, and one to throw away. We found items that were memorable and lovely and worth placing in storage and others that brought back memories, yet could be let go. Many things we had collected over the years had gathered dust in untouched corners. We learned what was essential and what had lost its essence.

Each child’s plaything, each dress, each box of letters was precious in its own way. As we pulled them out of closets, boxes and shelves, they brought waves of memories. Old letters from the 1980s (when people actually wrote letters) from friends I still keep touch with, friends I have left behind, friends who longed to be closer to me and friends I yearned to know better. Some I kept, some went into recycling.

Toys and games that had survived previous culling, reminders of every stage of our children’s growing up. Some I kept for the promise of the future, some I gave away to Cradles to Crayons. The dress I wore to Aviva’s bat mitzvah party, taken to a resale shop. Boxes of photos, carefully attended to, one by one. Some returned to the box, others sent into oblivion. The index cards from our wedding, noting who came and what gifts they gave us. So many people who are no longer with us, nearly three decades later. And the cards, no longer needed as long as the memories survive.

How to decide? Who shall live and who shall die? These are not people after all, but objects that harbor memories. They could not all fit into our new home. So we asked ourselves: what is its purpose? Would someone else have more use for it? Or is it of no use to anyone at all?

This process of discernment is a powerful spiritual practice, at the heart of teshuva. Holding on and letting go is a lifelong process, whether in moving, maintaining relationships, or changing old habits.

Rabbi Simcha Bunim taught about the Exodus,

“More difficult than getting the Jews out of Egypt was trying to get Egypt out of the Jews.”  God saved the Israelites by getting them to eliminate Egypt from their hearts. We might believe that if we change our physical situation, then our problems will be solved. But Simcha Bunim suggests that it’s likely that many problems are not physical, but are trapped within our own minds. (Michael Rosen, Quest for Authenticity, p. 216)

As you consider the focus of your teshuvah, what help do you need to take the Egypt out of your own mind?

We've been traveling over rocky ground: Faith in the midst of confusion

Intention can only go so far. We all know the Yiddish expression, Man plans and God laughs. While I tend to be an optimistic person, I learned more about faith when things were not going right than I did when everything went according to plan. Days before our house went on the market, we made an offer on a beautiful colonial just half a mile from HBT, near the library, with lots of aspects that were on our wish list:  a sunroom where we could eat breakfast every morning, a basement family room for tv and games, a shed in back to store our sukkah. When our offer was accepted, it seemed that God was smiling on us, giving us the house we always wanted.

 Aware that it was an old house, we thought we were prepared for the inspection. But as the inspector’s list got longer and longer, old electrical system, old pipes, old furnace, we began to wonder: was this the house of our dreams or a house of nightmares?

For several days we weighed whether to bring in contractors to estimate the cost of the work. During the time, my mind was filled with confusion—a state that I’m not generally familiar with. Longing for a clear answer, I found that it is in times of confusion that my faith is most essential. Not just faith that everything would turn out all right, I knew that. I had to believe that I could live with the confusion for as long as it lasted.

Teshuva is like that too. Confusing at times. We may not know which way to turn. We may be tempted to give up, go back. Sometimes, though, there is no turning back, only fear of moving forward.

Faith is easy when things are good. True deep faith comes when things are difficult and challenging. Being with the suffering, not escaping from it, takes courage. Faith requires being open and allowing whatever is coming to emerge. Faith is not a foundation of certainty; rather it is acceptance of the risks that come with change.

With deep faith came clarity about what to do next. We left that house behind, and within three days, we walked into our dream house and said, yes, this is the one. And the next day, someone walked into our house and made an offer.

It’s so hard to say goodbye

Purim came and we baked hamantashen as usual. By Pesach, we could not host seder in our empty home and were grateful to be with friends for the holiday. Aviva and Yonah returned home for their last visit in the house they had grown up in. We chose that precious moment to say goodbye as a family.

When Aviva was not even two years old, we moved into 65 Prospect Street from an apartment in Newton Center. At the time, I found a sweet children’s book that has accompanied us every time we have moved. Goodbye House has taken us from Newton Centre to West Newton, from West Newton to Israel, and from Jerusalem back again to West Newton. Each time, we read the book as we walked through the rooms and cherished the memories.

So a few weeks before this move, the four of us spent an hour saying Goodbye House. We sat in each room, sharing stories of what happened there, funny stories and sad stories, recalling moments of childhood fantasy, of temper tantrums and loving embraces, of Shabbat and holiday meals, practicing piano and drums and French Horn, watching Sesame Street, Arthur, Barney and Red Sox games. As we told and heard each others’ stories, it was as if the memories were being pulled off the walls and into our hearts. When the house was emptied a few weeks later, we left nothing behind. Everything we wanted, we could carry with us.

At the end of Shabbat we have a ritual called havdalah to mark the transition from holy time to everyday time. When we say good bye to Shabbat we appreciate the special moments of the day before returning to the hustle and bustle of the work week. By saying good bye to what we leave behind, we acknowledge that all of our experiences, the most painful and the most joyous are worthy of our attention. Though not every object can fit in the moving van, the memories stay with us forever—but only if we remember to remember.

Teshuva is like that too. We cannot leave the past behind us unless we acknowledge and own it, embrace it as part of us. The past stays in our memories, but without weighing us down.

Land of Hope and Dreams

We have lived in our house now for five months, and every day offers a shehecheyanu moment. We have enjoyed getting to know all that is new and different. We rejoice over every room, every cupboard and drawer, every touch of style and grace that the previous owners had bequeathed. The roses and lilies and morning glories in the garden awaken us to the wonders of creation each day.

Walking in the neighborhood is the greatest gift of our new lives. In our new location, I am finding pieces of myself that had been hidden away, like the paper letters I had unearthed from the 1980s. When we left Israel to come back to Boston seventeen years ago, I expressed that my biggest regret would be not to be able to walk as much as we had in Jerusalem. Now I find ways to take a walk every day.

Teshuva is like that too. Rediscovering the parts of ourselves that we long to bring back.

And each time I walk, my eyes are opened to something new. The colors of the houses, the lawns and gardens, the slope of the roof, the shape of the windows. Rather than walking in a distracted state, attuned only to what’s going on inside my head, I find magic and wonder in the world as it unfolds day by day.

In a recent Torah portion, Ki Tetze, I found a teaching that spoke directly to this experience. We are taught:

 When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof,” (Deut.22:8).

 No, our new house does not have a parapet, a guardrail to protect people from falling off the roof. But Rabbi Noam Elimelech taught on this verse:

 “This is the intention in the verse: ‘when you build a new house’ – when you experience some new joy – ‘you shall make a parapet’ – you should raise this joy higher and higher, since we build the parapet on the highest part of the house.”

 “Putting a parapet on your roof” is instead, a practice of lifting ourselves up in gratitude. In Noam Elimelech’s teaching, “when we experience some joy from the Blessed Creator, we should make a point of putting it into words. Bring this joy into expression through words of Torah, prayer, songs or praise, in order to connect this joy above in the Blessed Creator.” In other words, find a reason to say Shehecheyanu every day.

 As if this were not clear enough, Rabbi Jonathan Slater explains that this means we should say, “WOW, A NEW HOUSE!” He goes on to explain what I had come to appreciate these past few months: “How often do we move right by something new and miss the opportunity to see in it a moment of ‘new joy? This lesson is such a reminder of what we might experience when we say ‘shehecheyanu.’ First, there is the experience. Then, there is the directing of heart, mind and intention back to the Source.

“It is not something that we are to ‘enjoy’ and keep to ourselves. It is not a possession, so much as an inspiration.... Rather than hoarding joy, we are to bring it into the larger cycle of experience; return the energy through our words of Torah or prayer.”

These words that I am speaking tonight are my personal expression of gratitude to God for the joy in my life. As you reflect on the changes that you seek, what changes in your life deserve celebration?

Postscript: Confusion Redux

My life has changed dramatically in ways that I discover every day.

And yet, I know it will take more time to adjust than I anticipate. I am also aware that the excitement of being in a new place will eventually wear off.

 I often teach that in the Torah, the children of Israel never arrive in the Promised Land. At the end of Deuteronomy, after 40 years of wandering and 5 books of the Torah, Moses dies and the children stand on the other side of the Jordan, about to enter. But instead of moving into the land of milk and honey with them, we return to the beginning, Bereishit, once again.

 This is a powerful reminder that life is not about getting there. Likewise, teshuvah is not a finish line. It’s an ongoing process. The transformation continues as we get lost, get confused, feel regret and wistfully recall what once was. We are not who we once were and we can see how far we have come. And then: where did I put that pitcher? Where do we keep the extra sheets? And how do I get to the airport from here?

 Displacement can lead to despair and regret—did I do the right thing? Am I really supposed to be here? Rather than get annoyed at having to drive an extra half hour, or get frustrated that I have to look for something that should be much more accessible, I can turn my confusion into an opportunity to rejoice: I am here now! I have made it! There are new roads ahead to explore!

One of the greatest lessons of moving and of trying to change is, above all, patience. Learning to fill the waiting time with wonder, taking in what is happening right now, in this moment. It didn’t take long to discover that impatience never gets you there any faster. So be compassionate with whatever is causing the delay—the slow checker in the grocery store, or the package that arrives late, or the contractor who takes longer to finish than they so optimistically promised,

Every time I thought of sitting down to write this talk, I became distracted by another box that needed to be emptied, or a shelf that needed to be filled. All summer, I found projects to make the house better. It was hard to stop, since every time I turned around, I found something else that could be fixed. I believed I could reach a place where everything was perfect.

But perfection isn’t the goal. We are all a work in progress. Gain a little and then live with it.

Throughout the process of teshuvah, of transformation, we need to remember that God is in the details. Each box that’s unpacked, each drawer that’s filled, each repair that needs to be done, has a purpose. And sometimes, the task can wait and need not be finished all at once. As long as we can look back and see what we have accomplished and live with that, we can be certain that we are home.

 The Layers

by Stanley Kunitz

I have walked through many lives,

some of them my own,

and I am not who I was,

though some principle of being

abides, from which I struggle

not to stray.

When I look behind,

as I am compelled to look

before I can gather strength

to proceed on my journey,

I see the milestones dwindling

toward the horizon

and the slow fires trailing

from the abandoned camp-sites,

over which scavenger angels

wheel on heavy wings.

Oh, I have made myself a tribe

out of my true affections,

and my tribe is scattered!

How shall the heart be reconciled

to its feast of losses?

In a rising wind

the manic dust of my friends,

those who fell along the way,

bitterly stings my face.

Yet I turn, I turn,

exulting somewhat,

with my will intact to go

wherever I need to go,

and every stone on the road

precious to me.

In my darkest night,

when the moon was covered

and I roamed through wreckage,

a nimbus-clouded voice

directed me:

"Live in the layers,

not on the litter."

Though I lack the art

to decipher it,

no doubt the next chapter

in my book of transformations

is already written.

I am not done with my changes.

 May we all be blessed with the capacity to bring transformation into our lives, the faith to weather the changes, and the gratitude to note the wonders that inhabit this divinely-touched world wherever we turn.

 Ken yehi ratzon.

 Rabbi Barbara Penzner

Kol Nidre 5773


Posted on May 25, 2014 .