I was 47 when I drove four other rabbis in my teal Windstar minivan from Philadelphia to the Catskills for a mindfulness meditation retreat. None of us were meditators, and none of us could imagine being speechless for any length of time at all. Talking is a primary occupation of rabbis. If rabbis excel at anything, it is filling silences with words.
When we sat, we were supposed to focus our attention on the breath, noting what thoughts arose and then returning to the breath and the present moment. I was not having a lot of success. My mind kept wandering. My body ached and itched. I couldn’t get past the third breath before my mind went swirling away on a monster roller coaster.
The next day, I met with Sylvia Boorstein, the retreat leader, for a scheduled fifteen-minute check-in to tell her this practice wasn’t for me.
“I don’t want to empty my mind,” I confessed. “I love to daydream. It’s where my poetry comes from.”
Smiling, Sylvia reached out and touched the back of my hand gently. “No, Jacob, that’s it! That’s exactly the practice of mindfulness! We are not trying to empty our minds. We want to notice the ever changing flow of thoughts in our consciousness, so that we can remain in the present moment and not become too attached to whatever thoughts and feelings happen to arise and depart.” Her smile was bright and wide, but her tone was earnest, almost urgent.
I continued to practice mindfulness meditation into the night and when I woke up the following morning. What arose was an intense flashback to the moment ten years before, when my youngest daughter Hana, then almost three, was bitten in the face by a rabbinical student’s dog. Hana adored animals and bent over to hug a dog that was sitting in the sun outside the seminary. Startled, the dog snapped back at Hana and took a chunk out of her left cheek.
The next hours were as wrenching as any I had ever experienced. I rushed to the hospital emergency room, arriving to see Hana’s face stitched up with a mesh netting that covered her entire cheek. I sat up with her through the night as she whimpered and tried to pull at it, worrying what the scars would look like after the wound healed. Most of all, I felt powerlessness as I realized that we could not protect our baby girl. I’d known that, but I hadn’t often faced it. In those hours, it was the constant refrain.
Now at the mindfulness retreat, the chaotic scene with Hana in the seminary lobby ten years before reappeared in all of its intensity. I saw my wife Bella sitting and holding Hana, staunching the flow of blood as my friend and colleague Bob bent over and tried to help her. At the time, I was in the fog of shock and had never fully beheld that scene. Nevertheless, the images had remained intact, buried deep inside me. They surfaced in my mind, and I felt like I was in the seminary lobby again, terrified, as if no time had passed.
I took deep breaths and my heart raced as I tried to push the scene from my memory. Finally, I requested an emergency meeting with Sylvia to talk about it. After she had listened to my story, she asked, “How is Hana now?”
“She is completely healed. She has a bit of a crooked smile, but nobody notices it except for Bella and me.”
“And is she afraid of dogs?”
“Incredibly, no! She is still as much in love with them as ever. She is inseparable from our dog Jenny. She is so resilient. It’s miraculous.”
“Jacob,” Sylvia said, “This is beschert. Do you know the Yiddish term?”
“Yes, my mother often used to use it to comfort me. Beschert means that it’s ‘meant to be’.”
“Meant to be for some purpose,” she added. “It’s beschert that all of this has come up for you this morning. Here is what you should do. Go back out,and when the scene returns, don’t duck. Hold it and notice everything you can about it, what feelings arise, how it feels in your body when you remember it. Everything. And then…let it go. Send it on its way. It will return, and when it does, do the same thing again and again. Each time it returns, it will be a little less potent, less frightening. Don’t duck. When you run, it only gets more frightening.”
Out in the field and then in the meditation hall, I followed Sylvia’s instructions. Each time, I allowed myself to experience the trauma in all of its intensity even though I wanted to run. I noticed the tightening in my chest, the knots in my stomach, the shortening of my breath, the dilation of my eyes. And each time, the scene was slightly less powerful.
By the time we broke silence two days later, I believed that this practice of mindful meditation worked—better, in some ways, than all of the hundreds of hours of therapy I had experienced in my life.
How have I understood my mother’s belief that everything is beschert, that everything is meant to be for some purpose? I do not believe that everything is predetermined, either by a divine plan or in some other set of causal cosmic equations. It was not inevitable that toddler Hana would slip away from her mother and hug a sleeping dog that would bite her. It was not predestined that I attend that particular retreat in 1998—I could have easily decided not to go. Nor was it inevitable that fourteen years later, 27-year-old Hana would choose to swallow a fatal dose of medications on the morning of May 27th, 2011.
The meaning is not in the event itself, but in what we do when the event occurs. There are always opportunities—“invitations” if you will—to react one way or another. The meaning that I attribute to any circumstance, when I am able to do so at all, is not in the event itself, but how I respond when it ricochets out of my control. I could duck from these experiences, but instead I welcome the flashbacks as an entry to a new, liberating way to explore the eruptions of my soul.
Teshuvah is a combination of my work, my practice and my good intentions together with a subliminal, imperceptible, wonderful phenomenon that seems to arrive out of the blue from somewhere else.
How do you do teshuvah (repentance/return) anyway? If you are like me, it’s one thing to express the noble sentiment that you would like to change, but it is quite another to actually change. Somehow, my food addictions linger after the Yom Kippur fast. I forgive those who have hurt me, but the pain (and therefore the anger) remains. I am essentially the same person in October that I was in August, despite the best of intentions!
It’s not that I don’t believe in the transformative power of spiritual practice. I do! Through regular practices of prayer and meditation, I walk through my days with an awareness of the blessed mystery of existence. By cultivating kind, compassionate thoughts about people—and by treating them with kindness—I am a much more generous, forgiving and loving person than I was before.
Practice works, but not on a predictable schedule. You can’t do teshuvah in the one day of Yom Kippur or the three days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur or the 40 days from the New Moon of the month of Elul through the Day of Atonement. Teshuvah is a prescribed activity twelve months a year, but even if you practice, you don’t know whether or when it’s going to have its transformative effects. You work on being less self-centered and better at listening to others, and you just can’t seem to break out of your personality flaws … and then, one day, you notice that you’ve changed! Is that because change is incremental, so that it takes time to notice it? Or because change is a mystery, an event of hen(grace/ an unearned gift)—a term that shows up frequently in our liturgy that we may not have noticed or understood.
The rabbis taught that there is a divine voice (bat kol) that calls out from Mount Sinai, saying over and over again: “Shuvu! Return to Me you wayward children!” The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, interpreted this to mean that the Giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai was not a one-time event. Rather, the divine voice calls forth to us perpetually, at every moment, inviting us to return. It’s a voice that most of us can’t hear most of the time because of the noise, the distractions, the busy nature of our daily lives. But when we truly listen, when we cultivate our “hearing” through practice, sometimes, unexpectedly, the voice becomes audible, and I know exactly what to do, after days or months of feeling confused. The voice was always there, but I couldn’t hear it.
How can you believe in a voice that is not measurably audible? It may not be audible, but it is measurable. Notice it when you, your loved ones or your co-workers change—mature and re-orient perspectives in ways that you could not have imagined a year or two ago. Teshuvah is a mysterious process, indeed! It is a combination of my work, my practice and my good intentions together with a subliminal, imperceptible, wonderful phenomenon that seems to arrive out of the blue from somewhere else.
Rabbi Jacob Staub is professor of Jewish philosophy and spirituality at the RRC, where he directs the Program in Jewish Spiritual Direction. He is co-author of Exploring Judaism: A Reconstructionist Approach (Reconstructionist Press). Reprinted from Ritual Well.
Shanah tova to all, looking forward to welcoming you. Click on the flier to enlarge it.
Thanks to our HH chair, Adina Abramowitz, for all her hard work. And thanks to all who are taking on roles to make it all happen!