Thursday, September 3, 2009

15 Elul. Beginner’s Mind – Renewing our days as of old

There is a line of prayer that we recite many times over during the High Holydays. We also sing these words every Shabbat when we return the Torah to the Ark. And the original source of the words are from the end of the book of Lamentations (5:21). These are the words:

Hashivenu Adonai eilecha v’nashuva
Chadeish yameinu k-kedem

Take us back, O God, to Yourself, and let us come back
Renew our days as of old
(translation by Rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shalomi).
Reb Zalman, in a booklet published by Aleph on Teshuvah, teaches a way to understand those last few words, ‘… as of old.’ So often, when we know we have done something wrong, one emotion connected to our desire to do teshuvah is to wish we could return to the moment right before the deed. Like a child who breaks a vase in the house, who tries to reassure their father, ‘I’m going to be ok, I’m going to be good now, daddy’. Some of the prayers of the high holydays, when read at face value, can feel a bit like this. We feel the shame of the acts, and the remorse, but the High Holydays offer the potential for something much more. In fact, many Jews think of these days as being all about guilt – understandable given the tone of much of ancient liturgy, but unfortunate because a different approach could leave us feeling truly joyous.

A higher spiritual level of doing teshuvah requires us to address the motivation that led to the act in the first place. Rather than focusing only on the deeds, we are called to look deeper at our patterns and intentions. When we come to know ourselves in this way, and re-enter a scenario with the awareness and intention to act in a way that is more God-centered, we open ourselves to what Zen practice calls Shoshin -  ‘beginner’s mind.’ To do so requires an awareness that the way we responded to a situation before, based on our own histories, experiences, assumptions, etc. is not a given. If this was the only way we could experience and understand our world, how would it be possible to change the outcome were we to return to a similar situation in the future? But by knowing our habitual tendencies, understanding when they do not serve us or serve God, we can truly begin the year anew, with new possibilities opened to us.

Experiencing the world with ‘beginner’s mind’ – returning to a place before our past behaviors interrupted our ability to ‘tune in’ to the spiritual homing signal that our soul emits – this is a truly freeing, joyous experience. Much better than brooding on all that guilt!
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

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