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Rabbi Larry Pinsker

Rabbi Larry Pinsker: Rosh Hashanah 5773 -An example of tshuvah from Impressionist Painter Pierre Bonnard

Rabbi Larry Pinsker, posted September 12, 2012



Moses Maimonides, born in Spain in 1135, served as rabbi, physician, and philosopher to the Jews of Morocco and Egypt until his death in 1204. He was the revered guide to Jews throughout the areas governed by the Moslem caliphs of his day – well beyond the borders of the communities he served directly. His works of religious explanation, interpretation, and guidance deeply influenced Jews facing complex challenged in communities from Yemen to Morocco.


Maimonides wrote an ethical treatise titled Shmona Perakim (Eight Chapters) as a commentary to Pirke Avot (The Chapters of the Fathers). He wanted to demonstrate that there were similarities in Aristotle's ethics and the teachings of the ancient rabbis, and that what we Jews believe is the ethical ideal in human life is found in both ancient Greek philosophy and Jewish teachings. In his introduction to Shmona Perakim, Maimonides made the daring claim that “One should accept the truth from whatever source it proceeds,” noting that while such truth was certainly found in Jewish sources, it could also be found in the works of great philosophers like Aristotle.


The pleasure of discovering that life yields complementary truths suggests that the wisdom found in Jewish teachings is not isolated. Perhaps there is a widespread or even universal yearning for life to be guided by certain ideals and virtues.


A number of years ago, I read an unexpected and beautiful example of the practice of teshuva, one of the primary practices associated with the High Holy Days. One of the most interesting explanations of teshuva is that it is a turning toward or a return to our best self – the person we long to be, fulfilling the image of God within us. Judaism teaches that the past is unchangeable and the present is already formed, but we have the ability to influence the future. Through teshuva, we acknowledge our mistakes, repair the damage that is within our power to correct, and then direct sincere apology, together with a pledge to not repeat the past, to those we have harmed. We reorient ourselves so that we make better decisions. We acknowledge dissatisfaction with ourselves so that we move beyond accumulating complaints into incremental change.


In making teshuva, we are doing something that may evoke forgiveness from others, but our primary instrument is learning from what happens when we fall short of our highest ideals. Teshuva is not only about confessing and atoning for mistakes right now, but also about developing a lifelong process of self-correction. It is learning to live life confidently as a work-in-progress.


In a wonderful essay on teshuva, the Hasidic scholar and theologian Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz reminds us that


[Teshuva] is one of the ultimate spiritual realities at the core of Jewish faith. Its significance goes far beyond the narrow meaning of contrition or regret for sin, and it embraces a number of concepts considered to be fundamental to the very existence of the world. …


[Teshuva] does not bring a sense of serenity or of completion, but stimulates a reaching out in further effort. Indeed, the power and potential of [teshuva] lie in increased incentive and enhanced capacity to follow the path even further. The response is often no more than an assurance that one is in fact capable of repenting, and its efficacy lies in the growing awareness, with time, that one is indeed progressing on the right path. In this manner, the conditions are created in which repentance is no longer an isolated act but has become a permanent possibility, a constant process of going toward. It is a going that is both the rejection of what was once axiomatic and an acceptance of new goals. [The Strife of the Spirit. Italics added.]


I found an unexpected and gentle example of teshuva in Annie Vaillant’s book about the French painter Pierre Bonnard. She writes about how Bonnard sought out his old paintings in museums and private collections in order to examine their imperfections. In each location, he would add a touch of color or a set of half-tones to paintings that had been on display for years. In one museum, Bonnard persuaded his friend the French painter Edouard Vuillard to distract a guard; then Bonnard extracted a tiny box containing paints and a toothpick-sized brush from his pocket and added the tiniest touch of colour to one of his canvases. Once Bonnard was caught removing the protective glass from some of his drawings in order to make more almost-imperceptible corrections. He said to the curator of the museum: "They aren't nailed to the walls, are they?"


This practice set his mind at rest. But how could Bonnard’s obsession with re-touching his paintings and drawings be teshuva, which we sometimes define as a return to God and a righting of one’s life? The answer is that returning to God and repairing one’s life involve purpose and intention. They don’t require grand transformations. Incremental positive change in how we have dealt with others is a victory. To Bonnard, his work was instruction in possible ways of seeing the world, and he longed for each of his works to represent the integrity and honesty of his vision.


In fact, over his lifetime, Bonnard earned great admiration for the way his ideals infused both his work and his life. During the Second World War, the elderly Bonnard struggled to survive in a devastated France, and was deeply dependent upon the kindness of his neighbours. As he had been kind to them during his life, so they were to him, sharing whatever they could: an egg, a few extremely scarce potatoes, a little coffee, some black-market sugar.


No one expected Bonnard to pay them. Yet one morning his neighbours were reduced to tears. Bonnard’s housekeeper left his home carrying a great roll of watercolours tied up with an old bootlace. Bonnard, a man who prided himself on paying his debts, chose to disregard the wartime rise in the market value of his artwork and gave his paintings and sketches to his neighbours. After the war, those who held on to his works found that each was worth a small fortune.


If being religious or spiritual in Jewish terms is to have any meaning, it must build connections between people rooted in ancient ethical ideals – what Dr. Lawrence Hoffman has called “sacred communities” and not on the “limited liability institutions” that exist like gas stations servicing people without ever engaging their souls.


The most difficult task in “spiritual leadership”, in my view, is to remind Jews that being comfortable with “things as they are” is not necessarily a good thing. There is no point to attending High Holy Day services unless we are ready to progress from the way we are now toward an ever-greater commitment to ethical idealism. For many people and human institutions, an easy, self-congratulatory mediocrity sometimes replaces human striving to transform unsatisfactory conditions. The very essence of the High Holy Days is to be dissatisfied and find ways to fulfill a longing to be live up to the greatness of the divine spark in our soul.


We are drawn to our annual High Holy Day prayer marathons because we long to be connected to something inspiring, something greater than ourselves and our lifetimes that imparts quality to life.


However disappointing events may be in the world, when we assemble on the High Holy Days, we are celebrating the extraordinary love and respect our tradition pours out for human beings and their potential. Whatever we may have experienced in our long history, we choose to remain remarkable optimists. You are probably familiar with Saul Tchernichovsky’s poem “Credo”:


Laugh at all my dreams my dearest; laugh and I repeat anew

That I still believe in man as I still believe in you.

For my soul is not yet sold to the golden calf of scorn,

And I still believe in man and the spirit in him born

Let the time be dark with hatred; I believe in years beyond;

Love at last shall bind the people in an everlasting bond.


Given the history of our people, this is an extraordinary declaration of hope. The declaration that “I still believe” shakes off disappointment and directs us to a distinctive role within humankind. We believe in ourselves, but there is plenty of room for other peoples of good will.


That is why teshuva is not “repentance” (a word saturated with meanings foreign to Judaism) but rather “return” and “tikkun atzmi” – “repairing myself ”. It is the first step toward true tikkun olam – “healing the world”.


May the arrival of a new year bring with it the Divine gift of teshuva. Shana tova u’metuka – a good and sweet year for everyone!


Rabbi Larry Pinsker

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