Rabbi’s Message: Sep. 1, 2014

Return Again/Gotta Be Me

Sharey t’shuvahl’olam p’tuchim / The gates of return/repentance are always wide open.
Eicha Rabah 3

G’dolah t’shuvah shem’viah r’fuot laolam / Return/repentance is tremendous as it brings healing into the world.
Talmud Bavli, Brachot 32a

Hu haya omer: Eem ein ani li,mi li? Ukh’sheani l’atzmi, mah ani? V’eem lo akhshav, aymatai?/ He (Hillel) would ask: If I am not for myself, who will be? And I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?
Pirkey Avot 1:14

Whether I’m right or whether I’m wrong
Whether I find a place in this world or never belong
I’ve gotta be me, I’ve gotta be me
What else can I be but what I am
“I’ve Gotta Be Me,” by Walter Marks (and made famous by Sammy Davis Jr.)

Return again, return again, return to the land of your soul
Return again, return again, return to the land of your soul
Return to what you are, return to who you are, return to where you are
Born and reborn again…
Return again, return again, return to the land of your soul
“Return Again,” by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach


We are now in the month of Elul. Elul, the month that precedes Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, has always been a month of preparation for the Yomim HaNarayim / The Days of Awe.

Rabbis have traditionally taken this month to be an extended occasion for vigorous finger wagging and pious-sounding reprimand-filled talk of repentance in order to shake their flock into remorse for misdeeds and to obtain a favorable verdict on the Day of Judgment. T’shuvah! T’shuvah! Repent! Repent! was thundered at the congregation in various but always stern ways.

T’shuvah does have a meaning of repentance. Let’s call that the “lower t’shuvah.” If I did something wrong to another, I must feel regret for my actions, resolve not to replicate such actions, make an effort to apologize, and provide the proper compensation for those actions. This would be a form of t’shuvah as repentance. This is something we can all understand and accept. It becomes a bit dicier when we now turn to uniquely religious matters. Let’s say I eat the wrong brand of salami (this is just an example, as I keep a mainly vegetarian diet). Does this formula work here? First, I would have to conclude that there is a god who is personally insulted that I ate the wrong brand of salami. I would have to believe that this god is so mad now that he will punish me for eating the wrong brand of salami. He likes other brands better because his favorite rabbis have their names printed on them. This would be a pretty petty god. We can see that this formula may not always work. Today, most Jews are not strictly observant concerning Jewish religious practices such as kashrut and Shabbat. Can they really engage in t’shuvah as repentance when following Rosh Hashana services they are likely to go dine in a restaurant that is not kosher? In terms of correcting one’s behavior toward others, the lower t’shuvah is an effective and necessary procedure. As for one’s religious practices outside of the world of Jewish fundamentalism/Orthodox Judaism, it is quite irrelevant. I believe Shabbat and kashrut to be very important, but that they should be encouraged as uniquely Jewish, healthy, healing, and meaningful spiritual practices that can bring one closer to God, creation, and fellow Jews and as tangible ways of expressing Jewish pride and identity. In my opinion, imposing guilt and a threat of heavenly punishment as ways to encourage observance are ineffective and quite irrelevant.

Let’s briefly talk about the “higher t’shuvah.” T’shuvah literally means return. But return to what? My rebbe, Reb Shlomo, used to emphasize telling people what’s right with them, not just what’s wrong with them. I have heard it said that figuratively Shlomo would hold up a mirror for people to look in where they could see “just how gevalt you really are!” Over the years as we all go through our own personal struggles, we can forget who we really are. We can let go of beautiful dreams and goals. We can forget to use and actualize our unique talents and abilities. We can become accustomed to accepting a version of ourselves laid upon us by others that is so much less than who we really are. So we all need to embrace an “I’ve gotta be me” approach to t’shuvah. We need to return again, return again. Let’s take Hillel’s advice as to how to accomplish this. We have to first acknowledge that we need to return to who we are for our own good. However, it shouldn’t be only for ourselves on the individual level. When we can self-actualize and become our true selves, we have so much more to give to others. We can also help each other to be the best version of ourselves. We can hold up that mirror for each other to look into and see just how beautiful we really can be. And if not now, when?

B’Shalom, L’Shana Tova U’m’tukah/ A Sweet and Incredible New Year to All of Us,


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