Tomorrow is Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Repentance and Return.
It’s over nine years now since we sat Shivah as a family for my father. Among the visitors was my teacher, Principal of Leo Baeck Rabbinical College during the time I studied there, Professor Rabbi Jonathan Magonet. He made his way carefully across the room, leant towards me and said quietly, ‘This is about Teshuvah (repentance)’.
Those were just four words, but they’ve stayed with me. I recall being puzzled at the time: Why was he telling me this? What did it have to do with my father? But his short sentence has grown for me into the most helpful of comments, both about Teshuvah and remembering my father.
What he wasn’t saying is ‘You’re a great sinner’ (at least, I don’t think so.) What he was saying is: ‘This is a time to rethink what matters in life’.
I hear that call in certain sayings of my father. I’m lucky; I can think of words from my mother, father, brother, wife and, more poignantly, children, all of which I would do well to ponder. But the words of the dead have a particular resonance in the heart, perhaps because we no longer have that opportunity, so easily taken for granted, to exchange with them the sometimes affectionate, sometimes irritating banalities of every day.
My father used to quote the Yiddish proverb
Ueberlegt sich der Chochem, ueberlegt sich der Narr.
It’s hard to translate, but goes something like ‘While the person who thinks he’s so clever is busy thinking about the issue, so is the person he thinks is very stupid.’ What this means to me is: ‘Never imagine you’ve got it all right. Always ask yourself how matters look from the other person’s point of view’. It’s simple, but chastening. So much of what we do wrong is because we haven’t considered, felt or imagined how things feel to others. My father’s voice reminds me of this often, calling me to Teshuvah, to think again.
Probably, though, what Rabbi Magonet had in mind was the meaning of death itself, the impact of the brute truth that ‘The dust returns to the earth as it was, but the spirit returns to God who gave it’.
Time is limited. My father no longer walks in front of me, offering at least an imagined protection from the fact that I am next in line for the inevitable fate of every generation.
What, then, do I want to do with the rest of my life, before ‘the dust returns’? How do I want to give my spirit back to God, or life, or the infinite void, from which somehow, mysteriously, incomprehensibly, all spirit comes?
Afforded this privilege of life and the gifts of love, time and opportunity, wouldn’t we want to live our days in a manner which says ‘thank you’, in a way which indicates that we honour and appreciate all this wonder? Would we not want to be pure in heart, honest and truthful in our conduct, and generous, compassionate and kind in all our interactions? Isn’t that the direction in which life, and death, teach us to turn?
‘This is about Teshuvah’: I remember those four words.