"Do you feel you've been rehabilitated?" a man asks Red.
Red admits that he has no idea what that word means and defines "rehabilitation" in his own words:
To me it's just a made-up word, a politician's word. A word so young fellas like you can wear a suit and tie and have a job. What do you really know? Am I sorry for what I did? Not a day goes by I don't feel regret, and not because I'm in here or because you think I should. I look back on myself the way I was then: a young, stupid kid who did that terrible crime. I want to try and talk some sense to him, tell him the way things are. But I can't. That kid's long gone, this old man is all that's left. I got to live with that."
Red appears prepared to meet the truth of his life honestly and walks out of the penitentiary on parole. As Rosh Hashanah comes around again, are we ready to do the same?
With our celebration of the New Year we look forward to dipping apples in honey, eating round challah, being amazed by the sound of the t'kiah g'dolah, and spending hours in the synagogue. When Yom Kippur is observed next week, we will bang our chests as we recite prayers for forgiveness. But while these rituals are ingrained in our tradition, they are the easy part, dare we call them, "religious rehabilitation," activities so young fellas like me can wear a suit and tie and have a job.
But what about the harder work that is often associated with this season - the personal, reflective work that can't be done through ritual or in the synagogue, the work that prepares us to meet the truth of our lives and our world honestly? Have you had a moment this year that has literally broken you, shredded you emotionally, and left you doubting both your life's purpose and the goodness in the world? Did something happen to you personally or in the world that was troubling or cruel? Did you hurt someone? Did someone else hurt you? These are challenging moments, and they come into focus at this time of the year.
Seeking and offering forgiveness is hard work, part of a process known as t'shuva. Under no circumstances is true t'shuva to be confused with someone posting on Facebook, "If I've wronged you in any way this year, I'm sorry." True t'shuva hurts. True t'shuvainvolves tears and choking on your words, expressing shame and embarrassment at the very insensitive nature of our own humanity, and consciously resolving to do differently. No matter how much a person may be willing to forgive us and allow us to move on, forgiveness is no cure for the regret that fills a guilty conscience.
Insensitive words and actions can be damning to us and to others. We can't go "Quantum Leaping" through history to change the course of our life's events. No Gala apple dipped in honey; no imploring or beseeching God or thirty-second t'kia g'dola will change anything about the past year except for our perspective and our willingness to approach life anew. Like Andy says to Red in the prison yard, "Get busy living or get busy dying."
Butliving, real, honest living is hard. Living with the confusing panoply of human emotions and with our own wounds is hard. Living with regret, discomfort, and grief is hard. Living in a world where we bear witness to mass shootings, where we wonder if our kids will come home safe, where we encounter terrorist threats, where so many people are hungry and homeless, battling with ailments and illnesses is hard. Our lives are not only filled with joy. We cannot just push away and ignore our pain. We must meet the wounds of our lives and our world with grace, dignity, and courage, together.
Running away from this world is like running away from life. Life is more beautiful, the joy more breathtakingly palpable, the sweetness more meaningful, when we recognize our humanity, refracting the beauty of life through the lens of pain, brokenness and suffering; ours and the world's. This very moment, right here, right now is the only "only" that we have. How we choose to meet the "onlyness" of our lives and how we choose to respond to this world are the only choices that we have. We live not by running from our pain, but by meeting it, by feeling sadness, tension, and heartbreak, by owning deep and unspeakable sorrow, and by taking our very brokenness and funneling it back into life.
Many of us are troubled by the medieval piyyut Unetaneh Tokef, which reads "On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed, how many shall come to live, how many shall come to die." How can we believe in a God who records our deeds in a book and passes judgment on us? Yet the reality is that life, death, illness and tragedy are going to happen this year. We cannot control or dictate so much of our happenstance ephemeral existence. Unetaneh Tokeftells us that there are events in our lives that are beyond our control. It's time to get busy living or get busy dying.
We need to meet and embrace our world. Our tradition advises us to build healthy relationships seeking repentance and forgiveness, to find comfort, praise and a space to hear God's voice through the words of prayer, and to help improve the world through acts of charity, goodness, and justice.
We also need to meet our world with resilience. In spite of what others say, what others do, the mistakes we make, the pain we encounter within this world, we need find within ourselves the strength to rise up, ready to meet the challenge of a new year. We are stronger than we know. Yes. All of us. Certified pastoral counselor and author Sherri Mandell writes, "Resilience is not about overcoming grief or trauma but becoming a different person. We are enlarged, rather than diminished."
But journeys toward resilience are never easy. One night in the wilderness, our patriarch Jacob dreamt of a ladder where angels were ascending and descending. He imagined God standing over him and he was amazed beyond words. Torah tells us that Jacob "lifted up his feet," va-yi-sa Ya-a-kov rag-lav,resuming his journey. A life-changing dream, a humbling reminder of God's presence leaves Jacob "carrying his legs with him," "dragging his feet." He moves slowly, almost in a daze or stupor.
Over the next twenty years, Jacob will battle with Laban for fourteen years, seeking to marry Rachel. One night, Something comes along and wrenches his leg right out of his hip socket. He wrestles with this figure and he won't give up until this figure blesses him. The being names him Israel, one who wrestles with God. Jacob learns that it is a blessing to wrestle, that life is a journey of questions not answers, of struggling with ourselves, with others, with our world, and with God. There are no destinations here - only a lifelong journey that must continue, and that sometimes must continue, even when it is borne from pain.
Something magnificent happens as the sun breaks over the horizon. Fearful that after twenty years, his brother Esau is going to attack him, the Torah tells us, Va-yisa ei-nav Ya-a-kov, Jacob lifted up his eyes and saw Esau coming. Jacob isn't dragging his legs. He is meeting Esau face-to-face, ready to encounter whatever comes his way. He has struggled through life, wrestled with beings both human and divine, and he has tried to discover blessings. There is nothing that Esau can do to him. Jacob is resilient. Mandell writes:
All of us are composed of the broken and the whole. We need not avoid or overlook the shattered parts of our psyche. Instead, our intimate experience of the shattering may be the very force that compels us to rebuild. When we create from our pain, when we recreate ourselves out of both the whole and the broken pieces of our lives, perhaps we too can establish a sacred dwelling, a place of faith where the shattered can be given meaning, and where God is present in both our suffering and in our rebuilding.
Ten days from now, when we gather as a community to hear the sound of the Shofar at the end of Yom Kippur, we go free on parole for another year. Looking back on the year that was, what is the personal, emotional, hard-wrought and hard-fought work that we still need to do? And this year, how will we meet the challenges of our lives and world? Where will we choose to get our hands dirty? With what causes will we lose our voices in screaming out against injustice? Where will we lend a helping hand, a compassionate ear? Are you the person that you want to be? Do you like the world as you see it? Or are we going to resolve to do something about it, together?
Think about Red. There isn't one single person who ever finds themselves fully rehabilitated, complete, healed, or who fully gets "there," wherever "there" happens to be. At Rosh Hashanah, each of us in our strength, courage, tears, and our beautifully, broken, deeply human nature are blessed with opportunities to begin again, and to recognize that our own efforts toward creation might actually mean something and make a difference. Amidst regret, sorrow, agony, sadness, pain, hurt and heartbreak, we are blessed with opportunities to find that spark of resilience deep inside of ourselves. Our world and this life, the only "only" that we are given, requires breathtaking courage, every ounce and shred of dignity that we have, and most especially, forgiveness, love and kindness. Once again, it is time for us to demonstrate our deepest resilience, and allow ourselves, made in God's image, to go free, and build a better world. Shana Tova.
Mandell, The Road to Resilience, Kindle Locations 854-858.