by Bill Page
It’s Labor Day weekend, the middle of the month of Elul, the month of preparation for the High Holy Days, and our oldest daughter is in jail on a drug-use charge. Thinking about this has given me a new perspective on t’shuvah, repentance. The word t’shuvah also means return, answer, and reply, and the verb, lashuv, means to return, turn back, come back. Turning back to our better self, making some usually slight correction to our lives, in response to that “still, small voice” is what High Holiday repentance is for most of us.
Perhaps because I am an avid bicyclist, I begin to imagine the course of my life as a nice, wide, mostly flat road. A little turn left here, a slight course adjustment to the right there. Maybe a short patch of downhill road that we recover from by pedaling uphill for a short while. That basically describes our mostly comfortable lives, and once a year, we slow down, climb off our bicycle, and look around, to see where we have been and where we are going. If we don’t like where we have been or where we are going, it’s time for a course correction.
But what if it is not a still, small voice, but a slap up the side of the head that compels us to re-examine our life as it is? My daughter has been flying down a steep, narrow, dangerous path, and her downward movement has suddenly been arrested – in both senses of that word. For her, repentance means turning around and climbing back up that steep and narrow path, a hard, hard journey. Will she give up and turn back downhill again? Or keep climbing until the road levels out and gets easier?
I don’t know. And she has to turn the pedals of her own life – no one else can do it for her, although I’m sure her mother would, if she could. We must all turn the pedals of our own lives. But there is more than just this.
We could, for example, help someone fix a flat tire, if they were stopped on the road. We could give directions to someone who was lost. We could offer words of encouragement to help someone keep going or a little push to get that someone started again. My wife’s and my parental role is like that now – mostly as cheerleaders and funders of rehabilitation therapy.
And this brings me back to the High Holy Days. Each of us has a need for our own, individual kind of repentance; we all feel in our souls that very Jewish requirement to stop at this time of year, take stock, and perhaps change our course – whether a little bit or a lot. Beyond that, we also feel that communal need for soul-searching and will, I hope, be there to help our fellow travelers fix a flat or offer encouragement. There’s nothing quite so humbling as being a parent, of wondering what we could or should have done better. We could all use a little encouragement, and our daughter will need a lot of help.
Let’s hope that she and all of us will have the wisdom to see our proper direction this coming year and the fortitude to make our individual journey, steep or flat, in that proper direction. And let’s also resolve to offer others good directions when they ask, and encouragement even when they don’t. Let’s give up our spare tube when someone else has flat, and maybe give them a little push up the hill when they’re ready to resume their journey. L’shanah tovah, to a sweet new year, and may we all be written in the Book of Life for good.
Bill Page is a member of Temple Micah in Washington, D.C.