Turning

At the very core of what the month of Elul is all about is the notion of teshuvah, which in Hebrew, translates more or less to “repentance.”  Indeed, the actual root of the word “שוּב”means to turn or to return.  Let’s return to a few different aspects of teshuvah, of what it means to turn. 

The beginning place, as with any return, is of having a place from which we start, a home base, a point of origin, a beginning.  Indeed, our tradition speaks about the notion of return as restoring us to something that happened earlier, that marked a more pure beginning.  Modern psychology, as well, often speaks about a person’s childhood as establishing the core traits of our personality, which we then re-enact, and hope to get right at some point in our adult lives.  The psalmist speaks of such a beginning, such a return when he says, “Restore us, Holy One, God of Hosts, let Your face shine, and we shall be saved (Ps 80:4).”  Indeed, the Mahzor repeats a similar prayer, which we also recite in the evening prayers in the Siddur, “Hasivenu Adonai Elecha V’nashuva Hadesh Yamnu K’kedem.  Restore us, Holy One, and we will return.  Renew our days as of old.”  The first turning is to know from whence we have come, and then to turn back to that time of beginning, to that pure time, to that sacred time, to that start. 

So I ask, what is your home base?  What is the place to which you can always return, the place for which you long? How do you go home again? 

The Talmud, in one of its more enigmatic phrases, in the tractate Yoma, which deals with this very season, observes, “All the turns that a person should turn, should be only to the right and to the east.”  You will notice, if you watch observant Jews at prayer, that when they turn, they turn only to their right when they’re in the sanctuary.  That practice derives from this verse.  But the aspect that catches my attention, is that whichever way we are turning, we are turning toward the east. And surely every Jew knows that in turning to the east, we are turning towards Jerusalem.  That city is our home.  It is there that we began.  And it is from Zion that goes forth Torah.  Perhaps that’s why the great Hasidic master Rebbe Nachman of Breslov observed, “Everywhere I go, I am going to Jerusalem. “ He meant that every decent thing he did and every new thought he thought was one step closer in returning our people to its ancestral home.

His colleague, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdechev, modified the phrase when he quoted it. He said, “Everywhere I go, I am going to myself.”  The difference I think, is that for Rebbe Nachman, the purest time in our people’s history was when our people and our land and our Torah were one.  And since then, we have been journeying the world, sometimes in triumph, often in tribulation, but ever seeking to return to that ancient and pure beginning.  For Rebbe Nachman, turning is always returning.  For Levi Yitzchak, turning has to do with finding our center. So I move now to the second type of turning – the turning of finding our essence, of finding our core.

 When I was younger, I used to enjoy molding ceramic objects.  I would shape pots, and I would sit at the potter’s wheel, which in the days when I was a teenager was a tool you moved by kicking. Nowadays, they push an electric pedal and the wheel turns. What remains the same, though, is that the ceramicist takes a lump of clay and places it on the center of the wheel, and then as the wheel spins, helps the clay to remain centered.  By giving a nudge, by adding pressure, the potter hopes to keep the clay in its proper balance, centered, which then allows the pot to grow.  We speak of this very image in a prayer that we will soon recite, “Hinei ka-homer b’yad ha-yozer. We, Holy One, are like that clay, and You are the artist.”  That is a prayer to be centered, to know our core and to keep that core at the very center of where we are. 

So I ask, what is your core?  What is your center?  What is that part of yourself that you cannot abandon without walking away from who you truly are?  Is your life balanced, centered?

This kind of turning is not a turning to get back to some earlier time; it is a turning to remain true.  And in that regard, I think again of the lines of the psalmist, “Torat elohav b’libo, the teachings of his God are in his heart (Ps 37:31).” One can be no more centered than when placing the Torah at the core. 

The events of the past year have sent us spinning in an entirely different way and the turning that we have been doing is one of spinning out of control.  We have been reeling in pain and in agony and in sorrow.  This kind of turning has no center, it simply spins, and the spinning itself takes over.  It hopes for no return to some earlier, purer state; it is wild and uncontrolled.  And yet that spinning out of control, while terrifying, can also be intoxicating, can also be liberating.  In being out of control, we may also find our truest self.  Rabbi Eliezer, one of the great sages of antiquity, taught his disciples, “Turn one day prior to your death.”  And his students said to him, “Master, how can anyone know what day is one day prior to their death?”  And his response to them was, “Therefore, repent today, because tomorrow you may die (Shabbat 153a).” 

Rabbi Eliezer summons us when spinning out of control to make spinning what we do, and to turn again and again now and not to postpone the important work of returning to who we are meant to be. Who knows, but tomorrow we may die? I think of certain laboratory tests, in which there is a planned spinning out of control, used to separate different kinds of ingredients. One purifies by spinning rapidly.  And I pray that our turning will also bring that kind of distillation that will lead to clarity.  Perhaps God had that kind of cleansing spinning in mind when God said, “You are as if newly created.  What had happened in the past has already been forgotten (Sifre Devarim, Piska 30).” 

I can’t help it; I’m a rabbi so when I think about turning, I think about how we read the Torah, which is itself, a constant act of turning and returning.  But unlike the kinds of turnings we’ve considered so far, this one has neither center nor starting point because we are always engaged in the reading of Torah. We are always turning those Atzei Hayim, those trees of life, and reading new passages.  As soon as the Jewish people finish the end of Devarim, we start that same day with the beginning of Bereshit, the Book of Genesis.  The paradigmatic Jewish turning is a turning of Torah.  “Yohanan ben Bag Bag omer, “Hafoch ba, V’hafoch ba, d’clua ba. The great master Yohanan ben Bag Bag said, “Turn it, and turn it, for all is contained in it (Tanna De-Vei Eliahu Zuta 17:8).”  This kind of turning stands outside of past or present.  The Torah is always now, an eternal present.  And it stands outside of geography.  No coincidence that we receive the Torah after slavery and prior to entering the land.  The Torah is always on the journey.  And when you think about whom you encounter when you are outside of time and outside of space, in eternal present and eternal now, why, you meet the Holy One, who stands likewise outside of space and outside of time. 

I have one last kind of turning I want you to consider. Of late I have become very interested in physics and cosmology. So I want to share with you a little tidbit about planets and turning.  Before I got into this diversion of mine, I used to think that what the moon was doing when it was orbiting around the earth was that it was turning in a circle. I have learned, however, that an orbit is free falling.  That is to say, objects naturally fall in a straight line.  An orbit is when that object falls in a straight line, but is continuously deflected from that line by the gravity of something very large, very close.  The moon, were the earth not here, would just zip along straight.  But because it is so close to its mother, the Earth, its straight line is constantly deflected into what becomes a circle.  It is the pull of earth that makes the moon’s line bend.  And this kind of turning is perhaps the most important of them all.  This is the turning of recognizing that we turn toward that which is summoning us.  And I wonder if perhaps what is turning our orbit is not the Ancient One of Days, the one who has been tapping us on the shoulder across the millennia, and bidding us to turn yet again?  My colleague, Rabbi David Blumenthal, writes, “The way to Adonai is not straight, it has ups and down, twists and turns.  Perseverance is the method.  Returning is not a triumphal march.  Like any real therapy, if one works hard at it, healing moves  forward by circling backward. Repentance, turning, is a backstitch.” 

When I focus on this great cosmic free fall, deflecting by the gravitational pull of something large and steady and constant, I think about turning and turning without end.  Turning without end is just another word for a dance.  It may be that the turning we are called to do before God is one of rapture and joy, of dancing in the presence of the Holy One, as did King David when he returned to Jerusalem with the Ark.  Maybe the turning that we should focus on is not one of sorrow and mourning, but of exultation – that we are in the presence of something so magnificent, so unpredictable, so unanticipated and unearned that all we can do is click our heels and spin and dance.  And so I end with the unlikeliest of quotes, from a German mystic from the 13th century, Matilda of Magdenberg, who turned a phrase,

I cannot dance, O Lord,
Unless you lead me. 
If you wish me to leap joyfully,
Let me see You dance and sing. 
Then I will leap into love –
 And from love into knowledge,
And from knowledge into the harvest,
That sweetest fruit beyond human sense
And there I will stay with you, turning.

 

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson (http://www.bradartson.com) is the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University where he is Vice President. He is the author of The Bedside Torah: Wisdom, Dreams, & Visions (McGraw Hill) and Jewish Answers to Real-Life Questions (Alef Design).