The end of this secular month of August 2022 will overlap, at sundown on 27 August 2022, with the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul. Although Judaism urges us to be continuously obsessed with improving, turning and re-turning (“Repent one day before your death” taught by Rebbe Eliezer in The Talmud [Shabbat 153°]), the month of Elul is focused on this struggle most intently as the days of judgment approach.
This is not easy. When Jacob struggled and wrestled, perhaps with an angel, perhaps with G-d, Jacob sustained a life-long orthopedic injury as a reminder, but (there’s always a “but”) Jacob realized that “G-d was in this place and I did not know it.”
Although we are not scheduled to read parsha vayishlach, with Jacob’s wrestling, until 10 December 2022 / 16 Kislev 5783, the lessons of spiritual wrestling are very important as we enter more intensely the time for introspection, for turning, and for re-turning.
Recently, perhaps more than coincidentally, a major secular essay returned in front of us, on this theme, and, perhaps it is not so secular, in that its author, of blessed memory, also won a Catholic Book Award during his lifetime.
The author is Brian Doyle (1956-2017). He was writing about pacing hospital hallways while his son, Liam, was undergoing multiple surgeries to deal with having been born missing a chamber in his heart, ten years before. Although there are no overt religious references in Doyle’s essay, the reliance on lessons from Jacob’s famous night is clearly reflected in the writing, in its universal theme, and in its profound title: “How We Wrestle Is Who We Are.” [You can find it on line in Orion Magazine, January 1, 2005.]
Another venue for spiritual wrestling is institutions of incarceration. Prison chaplaincy is a part of my background. This year, I responded to a call from a colleague of mine for short reflections on turning and teshuvah for him to use weekly during Elul in his Jewish Chaplaincy at a major prison. Here is what I sent to him:
“A Message About Teshuva Approaching 5783 (2022-2023),” by Chaplain Barry.
Teshuva – the act of returning, is approached by many small acts of many small turns. Eventually, we pray that our small steps of turning have become a large step of re-turning. Before we can take those small steps with our feet, we need to take the small steps with our hearts and souls. They, too, add up to one large step of re-turning.
Our sages taught, Rachmana liba bo. This means, “Our merciful G-d seeks the heart.” Think about what this means to you.
The small steps of the body and the small steps of the soul connect to become a large step of re-turn. When Jews pray for health to be restored, we pray refuah ha-nefesh v’refuah ha guf. This means we pray for the healing of the soul and for the healing of the body. The soul comes first.
This is not easy. That is why we pray for G-d’s help and the accompaniment of G-d’s angels on this journey of re-turn. A Chasidic proverb of wisdom teaches, “Sometimes, when you are down on the ground, it is easier to see G-d looking up.”
Teshuva does not take you back to where you were. Thomas Wolfe wrote You Can’t Go Home Again because home ceases to exist once you have left it. Teshuva is turning from a place where you were to a place where you are different and better than where you were. It is a place from where we can look back, and look at our inner selves, and smile.
We say to have Shem Tov, a good name, is an honor and a blessing.
When we can look in the mirror and say to ourselves, Shem Tov, we have truly turned in how we look at ourselves.
Thomas Wolfe also wrote in You Can’t Go Home Again, “Our strong and haunting paradox … is that we are fixed and certain only when we are in movement.” When we are in Teshuvah, we are in movement.
Sometimes, it is our body in movement. Sometimes, it is our soul in movement. Sometimes, it is both.
A classic photograph from the American civil rights movement shows at the front of the line of civil rights marchers, the late Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., hand entwined in hand, with the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Rabbi Heschel’s classic summary of that moment was recalled in this writing by his daughter:
“When he came home from Selma in 1965, my father wrote, ‘For many of us, the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.’”
In your striving for Teshuvah, may your body and your soul work together so that you, too, feel like your legs are praying.
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As you enter this annual period of deeper introspection, may your wrestling be transformative.
Barry Pitegoff is a Staff Chaplain at Bon Secours Community Hospital in Port Jervis, New York. Barry enjoyed thousands of hours of volunteer chaplaincy at hospitals, hospices, and prisons while he was vice president of market research for Visit Florida, the state’s tourism board. After retirement, Barry transformed into professional chaplaincy by taking a second Master’s Degree and two years’ of hospital internships. Barry was awarded the title of BCC, Board Certified Chaplain at the May 2019 conference of the NAJC (Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains). In 2020, Chaplain Barry was elected to the Board of NAJC, serves on Chaplain Review Committees, and facilitates a monthly national video call of Jewish hospital chaplains.