Teshuvah: Can it Change the Timeline of Your Past?

Teshuvah: Can it Change the Timeline of Your Past?

A black and white 1950s wedding photo of my parents, Ruth and Bernard Duhan, who taught me about teshuvahCan teshuvah – repentance, renewal, and return to God – change the past?

In Parshat Haazinu (Deut. 32:1-32:52) Moses speaks to his spiritual community. You have lived a full life. You have seen God at work. Seen God challenge you, answer you, comfort you, sustain you. And you know a miracle when you see one.

But a new generation is on its way. They don’t know God yet. They have not learned humility and compassion. Cannot not see miracles. They will turn away. And they will feel that God has turned away from them.

Until they’ve spent a few years in the school of hard knocks: life, that is. Then they will grow in spirituality. Then they will reach for God’s love and protection. God will seem to them like a mother eagle hovering over her nest, devoted and powerful.

For many years, I was part of that new generation. Super self-reliant, with no patience and no empathy for my hovering father.

At first, my father and I were close. When I was five years old, we walked hand in hand to our neighborhood synagogue, playing guessing games. When I was fifteen, we took long walks to other synagogues, discussing the rabbi’s sermon all the way home. One night when I was sixteen, I slipped up on kosher observance. I washed the meat dishes and put them in the dairy dishrack to dry. My mother accused me of being “potted” – i.e., smoking weed. She appealed to my father for help. What did my father do? He hired me to work for him. His faith in me motivated me to be more trustworthy. And he knew exactly where I was after school every day!

My father made all my educational decisions. Jewish Day School for elementary and middle school, at the amazing Solomon Schechter School of Queens. Public high school at Stuyvesant High School of Math and Science – even though I wanted to go to the High School of Performing Arts. For university, Dad chose the very academic and very Jewish Brandeis. I wanted to go to the politically radical Oberlin college. But Dad won, again.

By the time I graduated, I was sick of Dad making decisions for me. It didn’t help that he continued to try to set up job interviews and blind dates for me. Of course Dad’s intentions were good. But we needed a new adult to young adult closeness. And we couldn’t figure it out, so what we got was an irritated distance.

Dad also loved to read. He introduced me to the work of Talmudic scholar and translator Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. I read Rabbi Steinsaltz’s book The Thirteen Petalled Rose. This work of Kabbalah expresses Rabbi Steinsaltz’s personal spiritual philosophy.

There’s a chapter on teshuvah. Rabbi Steinsaltz writes: real teshuvah is real change. Real teshuvah changes an entire timeline of past events.

For years I did not understand this teaching. When you make a mistake, you fix it. But you can’t change what happened. How can teshuvah change a timeline?

Rabbi Steinsaltz understands human consciousness on a Kabbalistic model. There is more to reality than our everyday eyes see. We live in four worlds of consciousness, even if we don’t always pay attention to them. A physical world of action, an emotional world of feeling, an intellectual world of thought, and a spiritual world of being. Each world has its own kind of timeline. And its own kind of teshuvah.

The physical world operates with linear cause and effect. You do an action; it has predictable results. When you act badly, you can’t change what happened. You can only try to soften the negative impact and vow to act differently.

But the emotional world has a different timeline. Sometimes we don’t feel the impact of an event until years have passed. Sometimes we feel intensely even after may years have passed. And sometimes we have a sudden change of heart.

That’s what happened with my father. When I was 35, my father became ill. After his diagnosis, I felt only pity, compassion and love. Suddenly, all my irritation vanished. The distance between us closed in an instant. The emotional timeline changed; the fifteen years of hurt disappeared. And we had seven more beautiful years together.

The intellectual world seems to have no timeline at all. Big concepts like “justice” and “goodness” are relevant in most times and places. Imagination goes in all directions, ignoring time and space. New information changes our experience of the past.

After my father died, I found he had a letter I wrote when I was fourteen. A letter I never sent, addressed to parenting expert Dr. Haim Ginott. “Dear Dr. Ginott,” I wrote, “I go to a small Jewish Day School. I consider it very delaying to my development.”

For the first time ever I realized: my father had read the letter. That’s why he chose to send me to a large high school, with many challenging courses and a hyper-intellectual curriculum. In fact, my father knew me well. He had a good understanding of what I wanted and needed. Our relationship had actually been quite different than I imagined. This new information changed my history.

Emotional and intellectual teshuvah are miracles. Potentials built into the human psyche when God created the world. Gifts of redemption for human beings – as Parshat Haazinu suggests. My father taught me to believe in these miracles. I miss him very much.

Presented as part of a guest dvar Torah (sermon) at Congregation Beth Israel, Vancouver.

  1. Beautiful. Touching. Inspiring! Thank you for such an intimate look into your family…and into teshuvah

    1. Thanks for this lovely note, David. When I presented it out loud, several people responded by sharing their own family stories. It was more universal than I realized! Shana tova. Thanks for all your holiday resources.

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