We are deep in the month of Elul, a time in the Jewish calendar when we should be similarly deep in introspection. We should be enmeshed in the process of tshuva -- repentance, or literally, returning. By inspecting our behavior, confessing our sins and asking for forgiveness from each other and from God, we hope to secure for ourselves a successful upcoming year. I would like to refocus the discussion though. I think that the process as such is incomplete.
For years, I have been going through the repentance and confessional liturgy in the same way. I take some time and think about my myriad sins. I feel bad about them. I try to own them and accept the responsibility and blame and make whatever recompense is possible while I try to change my behavior so as not to repeat them. On Yom Kippur, I go through the litany of sins and have one of three reactions as I klop my chest:
1. Yup, I did that. Klop a bit harder
2. Well, I considered that or know someone who did that. Still klop with some force
3. I never did that but I'm saying that someone must have so I'll klop.
I have worked at not having the 4th reaction: "What the heck even IS that? I'll klop to keep the rhythm but, come on!"
But I think I have been missing the point. I have to start asking the central question, what did I do?
Tshuva is about returning. The assumption is that I was in a good place, or even, call it the clean slate-home position at the end of last Yom Kippur. Net sum zero. And over the year, I got dragged into negative territory by my sins so I need to return to zero by saying "sorry" and meaning it. But then I'm still a zero. I need to ask not what did I do wrong, but what did I do?
I also have to know that "doing" isn't about me. Sure, I prayed. Sure, I ate kosher, kept the Sabbath etc. I did a bunch of things which should count in my favor. But did I cut myself off from others in a way that my behavior had no real power or impact? Sure, I need to be for myself because no one else can be for me, but was I only for myself? Is that what I did?
As a parent, did I inspire my children not just to perform ritual but to have understanding? Did I help them access meaning and significance so that they wouldn't be going through the motions but expressing a sincere love in their practice of Judaism? Kids don't always ask questions, and often aren't even persuaded by word-based answers. Did I demonstrate a sincerity which helped the bridge the gap from cold, technical study into inspired and warm living? Did I make them do stuff or help them look forward to doing stuff? As a teacher, did I show my students that religion isn't a compartmentalized set of beliefs and texts but is a way of interacting with the world on all levels which enriches even non-religious intellectual investigation? As a member of a community, did I support other people in their pursuit of improvement in their spirituality?
Did I work hard to be the role model of the person comfortable with the demands of his religion and not only ready to, but excited to have the chance to fulfill them? Did I approach my performance of the mitzvot with a zeal that others could see? Did I give others a reason to think that maybe the choice to be observant might make sense because someone who made that choice can still be a person that others want to be like, all around? I once tried to inspre a bunch of 12th graders simply by saying "I can't convince you to have faith, but I hope you see that I have faith and am a reasonably educated guy who leads a full life. Maybe there is no contradiction so you shouldn't shy away from the possibility." Did I, in my more private moments, still feel what I was doing was more than good, or right, or even necessary, but interesting and special? Did I invite my kids to share it with me so we could discover and explore together or did I make it just what they had to do, like a chore -- something for them to say "when I grow up, there is no way..."?
I hate to say it, but the words of "losing my religion" by R.E.M. are beginning to make sense (I'm not a fan of the song, and if I could find a way of citing Driver 8 as a tool to inspire religious fervor, I would). As a parent and teacher, I am in the corner, separate and apart and yet also in the spotlight. And am I losing my religion (not in the personal sense, but maybe "missing the point of religion" or "contributing to a communal loss of religion") because I said too much and yet I haven't said enough. There might be a second verse but I generally turn the song off well before that.
Now, in the month of Elul, I should be looking at what I have done that requires confession and change. But I also need to look at how I can do more, not just less. How I can show my kids, my students and my peers that I am happy being who I am and doing what I do, and that my connection to my Judaism is neither a burden, nor a simple fact of life, like breathing, but a boon, a prize that I am lucky to have and eager to share.
So my resolution for this year? Don't just stay out of the negative and don't just be happy accentuating the positive. Make ever moment an opportunity to show that engaging in the process is itself something I hold on to for dear life. Not just to be a Jew, but to live as a Jew all the time so that others see that living as a Jew is a pretty darned cool thing.