What do we do about the lack of resolution we find in our own lives? When I pause to pray from the established liturgy, I come across a prayer on the concept of "returning" and "repentance." It is the second of thirteen petitionary blessings (blessings that we ask God to fulfill on our behalf) in the Amidah (the standing prayer, recited by some Jews three times a day). The prayer reads:
Hashiveinu avinu l'toratecha v'karveinu malkeinu la-avodatecha v'hachazireinu bitshuva sh'leima l'fanecha. Baruch atah A-do-nai ha-rotzeh bitshuva.
Allow us to return, our Father, to your Torah. And draw us near, our Sovereign, to your service. And cause us to return in "perfect repentance" before You. Blessed are You, God, the One who desires return/repentance.
Lately, this prayer makes less and less sense to me. The notion of returning to lessons and values presented by Torah and Jewish tradition and drawing near to God's service seem admirable. But "perfect repentance?" What sense does it make to bless God who asks us to turn in complete repentance? How is this possible for a human being? How is such repentance or return to God possible when so much of life and so many of our relationships contain unresolved elements, and when we look at the world around us and see so much lasting change that still needs to happen?
What is remarkable about Kissleff's novel is that she as an author (represented, I surmise, through Wendy's journey), is telling us that the first step toward any kind of "return" requires asking questions, deep questions of ourselves, and of our world, and finding that many of those questions don't have readily accessible answers. Rather, the answers that we come to are gained through failure, suffering, pain, torment, evaluation, consideration, and reconsideration, and then even more reconsideration! If life were meant to be easy, if religion were meant to be a panacea, Kissileff would have very easily written a novel where Wendy Goldberg goes to Jerusalem to research ba'alei t'shuva and resolve the novel by having Wendy Goldberg become one of the people that she is researching. But she doesn't - and that's the point.
There is no t'shuva sh'leima like the blessing above suggests. Such "perfect repentance" or "complete turning" is not possible for a human being. Such resolution doesn't exist. But turning exists, and beginning to turn exists. Making an effort, trying, wanting to change, wanting to help - all of these are possible. God only asks that we don't stand idly by - neither in our spiritual journeys, nor in our journey of helping the world in which we live and the people with whom we coexist.
When a friend is suffering and in need, we turn toward them, we help them, we feed them, we support them. We can't wave a magic wand and make their pain go away, we cannot fully resolve their suffering, but we can turn, in their direction, to give to them, to care for them. When the media and leading political personalities present heinous, gut-wrenching messages and images, we don't shy away, but rather we turn toward like-minded individuals, we unite, we organize, we protest, we advocate, we insure that our voices may be heard. We want nothing more than to be facing a different reality than the one we are encountering, but the world is asking us now, more than ever, to turn toward opportunities for thoughtful dialogue and constructive action, rather than cowering in fear. When we feel lost, when we feel afraid, when we feel alone, God invites us to turn toward God, to pour out our hearts and souls in prayer, to be heard and listened to, and to be reminded of the comfort and shelter than belief can provide.
There are no easy answers. There is no complete resolution, no t'shuva sh'leima that we will ever achieve. Once we begin a journey - of self, of community, of spirituality, of improving our world - we must recognize that the journey leads us to infinite destinations and possibilities, without ever resolving them for us. A congregation is a place to search, a place to rally, and most especially, rather than being a place for answers, a congregation is ultimately a place for thoughtful questions.