These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

On Teshuvah

Posted on September 13, 2013 by Eva Neuhaus

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smallMy friend Adam Mayer posed a question that stuck with me through the Days of Awe: What is the most effective way to do teshuvah? How can we forgive ourselves and others completely?

Here are some of my reflections:

1. The fact that we’ve done bad things doesn’t make us bad people.

Examining our shortcomings enables us to see our patterns more clearly so that we can transcend them. However, defining ourselves by the ways we’ve missed the mark leads to negative self-image, which makes us more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors. Shame researcher Brene Brown offers the following definitions of shame and guilt: “Shame = I am bad; Guilt = I did something bad.” She writes that “shame is positively correlated with addiction, depression, aggression, violence, eating disorders and suicide,” whereas “guilt is inversely correlated… with these outcomes.”

Distinguishing between the less-than-wonderful things we’ve done and the kind of people we are can help us change our behavior more effectively. If you see yourself as a good person who’s done some bad things, you have a better chance of amending your transgressions and taking positive action in the future than if you see yourself as a horrible person, since our actions emerge from our self-image.

2. Continuing to feel bad about what we’ve done won’t make it better.

Often we prolong our remorse about what we’ve done because we think it will keep us from doing it again. This is actually not true. Learning from what happened, asking for forgiveness when appropriate and acting differently the next time is effective. Continually feeling regret about the past drains our resources in the present.

3. Expect to screw up.

Perfection is unattainable, yet many of us strive for it anyway. Releasing ourselves from the burden of trying to be perfect allows us to be more present to the beautiful and messy reality of our lives. One of my teachers, George Bertelstein, is a Pipe Carrier in the Lakota tradition. He writes,

Each encounter we have with the Sacred in Everything and Everyone is just such an opportunity. And we just cannot get it right. And we have to forgive ourselves completely each time and try again when next we are offered the opportunity.

4. Immersing in the Divine returns us to ourselves.

Albert Einstein famously declared that “no problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” In order to change, we must make a quantum leap to a higher level of consciousness and sync our lives to that reality.

Leviticus 16:30 refers to Yom Kippur, saying: “תִּטְהָרוּ יְהוָה לִפְנֵי.” My teacher Dr. Meesh Hammer-Kossoy points out that we can read this in two ways: “before God, you will be purified” or  “in the face of God you will be purified.” We can view immersion in the presence of God as a mikvah that purifies us and returns us to ourselves. Our ability to let in light, to let the Divine into the dark places inside of us is what allows forgiveness to happen.

Terry Gross of Fresh Air interviewed Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Anglican bishop. He spoke about his prayer life in the midst of the controversy surrounding him: “What I do is I sit quietly, and close my eyes, and—I let God love me…that’s where I remember who I am, and Whose I am.”

Connecting with God enables us to see our lives playing out inside of a Divine matrix. Our challenge is to make the leap to mochin de-gadlut (“big mind”), to see ourselves as God sees us and work backwards from there. We can hold the tension between the two like overlapping transparencies on an old-fashioned projector: here’s the vision of my wholeness; here’s where I am now. What do I need to do to get to there from here? Seeing ourselves from big mind enables us to align with our own divinity and move through the world from that place.

הי let us see ourselves clearly; help us see ourselves through Your eyes. Give us the courage we need to open to You in each moment, to act as You would have us act, to be the people You would have us be.

Gmar Hativa Tova. May we be inscribed in the Book of Life for a sweet, fulfilling year.

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