For whatever we lose (like a you or a me),
It’s always our self we find in the sea.
These much-loved lines by EE Cummings could also describe Yom Kippur. For the Day of Atonement is a sea, a chance to wash ourselves until we find our most real self again, our truest, deepest self. I don’t know if the sea is the music and the waves the words of prayer, or if the sea is consciousness itself and music the tide which carries it in to the heart.
Shuvah means return. ‘Come home’, says God, ‘Come back to me.’ The voice which calls out to us, so I believe, is not that of some bleak moraliser, a spoiler at life’s dance who halts the music with a long list of don’ts. The voice is the call of life itself: ‘Hear me; see me. Have you noticed those amber leaves? That sky?’ If there are don’ts, they are simply these: don’t ignore me, don’t hurt me, don’t destroy me. (Simply these? Imperatively, categorically these!)
‘Return’ is the call chai ha’chaim, the very life of life, the call of God within life. Since that life is inside you and me, who are at this moment privileged with the wondrous, irreplaceable gift of life, the call to return comes not just from without but from within us. It is my own soul’s longing to belong to life, to be at one with and love life, as a child hugs her dog to her heart, wanting only to be inseparable forever.
‘Return’ is God’s call from inside my heart, as the Psalmist wrote ‘Lecha amar libbi’, loosely translatable as ‘my heart is You speaking’.
Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, one of the great spiritual teachers of the last century, not only because of his unvanquished courage in the Warsaw Ghetto, but because of his encompassing compassion and insight, taught that the Ten Days of Penitence are not, or at least not just, about repenting of specific sins. This we should do promptly, whenever we become aware of our mistakes and transgressions. Rather, these days are the longed-for opportunity to answer the heart’s call, God’s call, to cleanse our very consciousness in the One to which we belong.
What is that One, that sea, where I both lose and find myself? It is the essence of life, the oneness which unites all life and to which all life belongs. Therefore, it calls from everything; we can hear it everywhere and anywhere. It calls in the woodpecker half upside-down at the seed-feeder, and in the goldfinch waiting timidly in the queue. It calls from the sorrow of friends who lost their mother this week. It calls from the long line of men, women and children-in-buggies at the Drop-In, seeking support, solidarity, asylum, hope, future. It calls in the children’s protests: don’t destroy our future.
What difference does it make to bathe our consciousness in life’s sea, in the ocean of the presence of God? Our mind already knows the answer: I belong to life and am at life’s service. I am not here to hurt, uproot, exploit, destroy; I am here to tend, heal, plant, nurture, cherish, love and care. I am not here just for me, but to fulfil myself in life’s service.
Our mind knows. But when we are actually in that sea, our heart knows too. It absorbs the knowledge into its very depths and disburses it into the arteries which feed all our actions.
That, in this eleventh hour, must make all the difference.