Tuesday, September 30, 2014
Teshuva for Turbulent Souls
I can’t imagine testing potential medicines and chemicals on myself, yet in the 19th century, it was not so rare for scientists to use themselves as their own guinea pigs. In one of the chapters in “A Short History of Nearly Everything”, Bill Bryson tells the fascinating and often humorous stories about those who did so.
Of the philosophers, both general and Jewish, whose works I have read, I have seen two approaches. The first is what I would call clinical. Their discussions of various topics are logically arranged and scientific, or at least, as scientific as philosophy can get. The second group is made up of turbulent souls, to borrow a phrase from Stephen J. Dubner. They study philosophy, not as dispassionate analysts, but as if there very existence depends on it. They are not just trying to understand things. They are seeking to know God and themselves.
As Yom Kippur gets closer, I have been doing quite a bit of reading and studying. As I read some of Heschel’s “Man is Not Alone” on Rosh Hashana, I had to put it down. This was no rationalist discussion of proofs of God. Heschel’s words gave me the discomfort of standing in the presence of God, as opposed to merely thinking about Him. Rav Shagar’s “Shuvi Nafshi” is nothing if not penetrating, intimate and revealing. Coupled with the viewing of a documentary about Rav Shagar, I was left with the sad yearning to sit and study at the feet of this open and honest man, who left the world before his time.
What is teshuva and do I even aspire to understand, let alone to act on that understanding? As I force myself to remember to add the words “HaMelech HaKadosh” to the Amidah, I have not sufficiently looked for Him inside of it. Late at night, as I prepare for a shiur I will be delivering on teshuva, I am, alternatively challenged and pained by Rav Shagar’s words, and the need to pull back and distract myself by checking Facebook. Dare I discuss and try to explain teshuva, when it is only in my mind, and, I fear, likely to go no further?
I have (I am?) a turbulent soul. How do I cross from the clinical understanding of teshuva, the almost voyeuristic experience of seeing Rav Shagar’s exposed soul, to looking inside myself? I don’t know what scares me the most; what I might see, that I might fail, or that I might succeed. The door of this dark room is open before me, showing a glimpse of the light outside. Dare I exit, or will I, once again, merely wonder about the Source of the light?