Yom Kippur 5772 – October 7-8, 2011
“The Power of Doubt and Teshuvah”
By Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, Ph.D
Quite often, congregants and students have complained to me that the Yom Kippur service feels a bit foreign to their modern sensibilities, and that they do not feel connected to some of the themes and claims in the liturgy. The theme of guilt, asking for forgiveness, and finding forgiveness through prayer and good deeds feels alien to them. Firstly, they do not experience G-d as that punitive, nor do they feel that they should do good deeds merely to find expiation. They do not believe that a loving G-d would punish them so severely if they ‘miss the mark’ and do not fulfill their duties. They naturally feel a sense of guilt when they harm another human being, and feel a sense of shame when they do not measure up to the high standards that their potential suggests that they should achieve. But the fear element of ‘who shall live and who shall die’ as a result of behaving inappropriately does not fit the image of G-d that they believe in.
What happens when one faces a disconnect between one’s inner held perception of G-d and the words of the liturgy, or alternatively a piercing discord between some literal readings of passages in our Scripture and inner soulful feelings within that do not mesh with these verses? Quite often these realities can create a sense of doubt within the self, doubt in the tradition, and thus instead of coming closer to tradition during the High Holy Days many of our young people feel distanced.
Another factor that creates doubt in our communities is the terrible tragedies and darkness that we perceive in the world today. In addition to tragedies and plagues all over the globe, (starvation in Africa, hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, terrorist bombings, etc.), as Jews, we feel particularly upset and chagrined that, after all these years, neither Right wing nor Left wing politicians can create a warm peace in Israel and the Middle East. It makes us question G-d’s loving Providence, and we attempt to rationalize by positing the view that G-d allows for free will, so that it is we human beings that must solve the problem and that ultimately G-d’s ways are mysterious, and this Earth is given to us to care for. As Scripture states: Hanistarot L’Hashem Elokainu, V’Haniglot Lanu U’l’vonainu. (Devarim 29:28). The Kabbalists suggest that this darkness is a remnant of the activities of Amalek, which according to Hebrew numerology (gematria) equals the Hebrew word for ‘DOUBT’ (Safek). Both Amalek and Safek = 240. When Evil (Amalek) is allowed to run rampant in the world it dims G-d’s light and wounds the faithful energy, making it inaccessible to our rational perceptions and introduces the impulse of doubt in our souls. When Amalek (Evil) triumphs in the world, we question the Presence of G-d, and are left with doubt.
However, our Sages teach us that within the energy of the Tzaddik, and indeed the potential that resides within each of us, resides the ability to experience and extract the light from within the darkness. (Within the Galut (exile), is the Gilui (revelation), and the Geulah (redemption)). It is indeed, the suffering of the darkness that motivates us to awaken to what we authentically do believe in, to shake off the mendacity that has dimmed our souls, and to gird our loins to go out and start acting on this Teshuva energy that is so palpable during this season. We are able to acknowledge and let go of our blind belief in dogma, face our doubts with courage, and truly reawaken our connection to Hashem. Hashem creates an opening for us during this season (Ani L’dodi V’dodi Lee- I wait for my beloved to return) when we make this honest effort. G-d wants our honest open heart, welcomes our desire to reconnect, and returns the warm energetic Light that surrounds us with certainty once more. The miracle of Teshuva is that it comes out of the blue and impacts us when our egos weaken, when we are in a state of doubt, but yearn for the light and clarity, and a return to Hashem. It is G-d’s Grace that appears when G-d senses our isolation and yearning, and G-d bestows an opening for our ‘return’. We are then filled with gratitude. We reconnect to the beautiful words of our liturgy, ‘The earth is filled with Your abundance,’ and feel G-d’s light throughout nature and the gentle, beautiful human souls that we encounter.
Our Sages teach that Teshuva was created BEFORE the creation, and the Paytan (Poet) in Selichot (penitential prayers) says, ‘Peles Koach Hateshuvah, K’neged kol Hakochot’ – “The power of Teshuva outweighs all the other powers.” So when we begin to authentically search for the G-d that speaks to us (and we say, ‘Zeh Keli V’anveihu’, ‘This is my G-d and I will glorify Him.’ and we make it ‘My G-d’), when we return out of our existential angst and doubts, our energies become very powerful in our search and we break through all the shrouds that Amalek has rendered and feel the sweetness of our Creator once more.
‘Uri,Uri Yeshainim’! Let us awaken this year, awaken from our slumber, reach out and fight through our doubts to what our souls know, that the light exists within and without. When this is achieved, there will settle upon us a great inflow of the Divine Spirit, and the holy soul that always abides within us will be awakened once more. This awakened light of the soul may then unite with all the life forces that abide in the universe and become a vital center of life finding splendor and spreading Grace in every aspect of creation. It is in the heartfelt prayer to G-d, and the intense honest search, expressed ultimately in new behaviors that bring forth this transformation, and the experience of G-d’s Presence. As Rav Kook says, ‘Once there is a reaching for Teshuva, there is the reality of Teshuva’. The smallest movement of the heart or mind arouses G-d’s compassion, and the person becomes a new being through G-d’s help, opening a channel of delight and joy for the soul and the body.
So though we may begin with doubt, we may also be blessed to discover that the positive potential that resides within doubt can become a motivator to attain clarity, helping one to define what one truly believes in and aiding one’s commitment to follow this belief in the coming year through dedicated action. It is not enough to end with our doubts, and do nothing about them. It is often through darkness and alienation that the greatest growth appears, that the desire to find the light grows and one finds a breakthrough filled with authenticity and vigor.
This process (of ‘fall and return’) can be seen as well as symbolically expressed in the four blasts of the Shofar: Tekiah, Shevarim, Teruah, Tekiah. The first whole unbroken blast (Tekiah) signifies the state of wholeness and connectedness to the light within and without; then there is the interrupted broken sound of the Shevarim, when we fall and feel some alienation from the Light and then doubt creeps in; then there is the deepening of this alienation, a fragmentation that emerges in the shattering Teruah sound; but then from this place of darkness the yearning for return emerges, the energy develops for an introspective search that probes the honest authentic values that we hold dearly, and from there we connect to Hashem with deep yearning and meet our beloved once more in the process, and then the sound of the Tekiah is blown once more.
May we all reach a complete Teshuva this year; acknowledging our doubts within the process and through our honest acknowledgment give birth to our deep emergent desire to find our Creator by connecting to the soul within, and opening up a space for Hashem who yearns for our return.