What approach should I take this year?
I’ll keep it simple. I’ll try to start the new year with a clean slate. First, I’ll make a list of mistakes to correct. Borrowed books not yet returned. Student papers not yet marked. Family health insurance forms not yet filed. Friends in need not recently visited. Then, I’ll correct the mistakes.
Oy, these tasks will never be completed by Thursday, the first day of the new year.
Maybe I could just do what time allows: I could communicate about them. Then I could get at least partially through the four traditional steps of teshuvah, articulated by medieval thinkers, and summarized by Rabbi Reuven Hammer: (1) Acknowledge that I did wrong. (2) Feel bad about it. (3) Seek forgiveness and make reparation. (4) Not repeat the behaviour.
Clearly, by making the list I’ve (1) “acknowledged the wrong.” And yes, I (2) “feel bad about it.” (So bad I prefer to escape by sitting outdoors in the sun’s healing warmth.) And I could email to (3) “seek forgiveness,” even if I can’t “make reparation” by completing the tasks before Thursday.
But I won’t graduate any time soon to (4) “not repeating the behaviour.” Undone tasks pile up on my desk because I am chronically overcommitted. I know too many people; I am interested in too many things; I hate saying no when someone says, pretty please!!!
Yes, I should and will do the urgent tasks. But should I call it teshuvah? It’s just an annual rush to deadline, ritually repeated year after year. As Kohelet says, “All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full; to the place from which they flow, the streams flow back again” (Ecclesiates 1:7). As the years end and begin, the piles of work diminish, and then grow again.
My actions do not change; I accomplish nothing.
Still, I will not despair.
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz reminds us that we live in multiple worlds of consciousness: worlds of action, emotion, intellect, and spirit. Each world has its own laws, its own entities, its own causality, and its own sense of space and time. Acts of teshuvah reverberate through all four worlds.
Even if I accomplish nothing in the visible world of action, something may have changed on a subtle level. Even when we are powerless to act, says the Piacetzner Rebbe, if our heart breaks, an angel carries our prayer before the metaphorical Throne of Glory.
As I reflect, my implied prayer is answered. I become more aware of nuances of feeling. And I realize: sometimes, I avoid a task because it triggers painful memories. Because it is connected with past hurts, slights, confusions, or fears.
In order to change, I must forgive.
I’m ready for a teshuvah practice that targets the world of feeling. Each night, as I wind down for sleep, I will perform the traditional bedtime forgiveness meditation. Breathing into my heart, I will lie on my back, and visualize some fragments of broken interactions, allowing them briefly into consciousness and then letting them go. Then, I will recite the traditional words:
Ribbono Shel Olam! Master of the Universe! I hereby forgive anyone who has angered or who has upset me, or has done me any harm; who has harmed my physical body, my possessions, my honour; anything pertaining to me; whether accidentally or intentionally, by speech or by deed, in this incarnation or any other; any human being. And may no one be punished on my account. May it be Your will, Adonai my God, and God of my ancestors, that I continually walk upon the path of holiness and that I do not lapse into unconsciousness or indifference. May I receive the power to transmute past unconscious thoughts, words, and deeds into radiant awareness and loving right action.
Slowly, by their own causality, in their own time, feelings will shift, complexes will untangle, emotional wounds will heal. (So my past experience with this practice teaches.) No, I will not change by Thursday’s deadline, in tune with the hustle, bustle, fun and stress of New Year celebration. But I will begin the forgiveness practice. As my inner world of feeling shifts, so will my performance in the world of action.
To ask forgiveness with full intention, I will first need to forgive. Such is the logic of the world of emotion.
Image: clipartpanda.com. Translation of traditional bedtime reflection by Rabbi David Zaslow.