Erev Rosh Hashanah 5779: Teshuvah Begins with Showing Up

By: R’ Lauren Henderson

Many of you know, I got married this summer. Two weeks before our wedding, I got a call from my mom.

Slowly, she said, “I have to tell you something- if Dad is still this sick a week from now, I’m not sure if he’ll be able to make it to your wedding.”

My dad’s cancer had resurfaced about a month earlier. The thought had occurred to me that he might not make it to our wedding, but I hadn’t really let myself consider that reality. Even though my mom said we should stay in Chicago for now and focus on the wedding, I called up a friend of mine who had lost his mother a few years ago, and asked him what I should do. And he said – there’s no way you’ll regret it if you go be with your family now. So we booked a flight home.

But it wasn’t just about the wedding. I had a lot of grievances that I needed to air. There were so many things my dad and I hadn’t talked about directly, or had tried to discuss and the conversation failed. I still hadn’t forgiven him for voting for Trump. Even though we had written letters back and forth to try and better understand one another’s politics, I don’t think he understood how angry and hurt I still was. We had never talked about his drinking, ever – and it loomed large over the last decade of our relationship. And most fundamentally, I hated how distant we had become. I wanted more from our relationship.

I started preparing myself mentally and emotionally to share the truths that had been stewing inside me for a while. I knew I was coming to this with some pent-up anger and frustration, with a lot of fear that this might be my last shot, and also with so much love for my dad. I think that one of the biggest reasons why I had stayed silent for so long about things that mattered to me was because I loved him so much. That love that I felt whenever I saw him made me just want to hug him, and push all the hard stuff away.

I practiced outloud what it would be like to say, “I’m still angry about the election. I’m worried about you and your drinking. And I’m sad we’ve grown apart.”

He picked us up from the airport, legs swollen, with this yellowish tone to his skin – signs of liver failure. We got home and I sat down in front of his chair – and then awkwardly, painfully, I stumbled through my script. I don’t know what I expected exactly – maybe that a flood of truth would pour out from both of us, or he’d reveal some deeper pain that he’d been carrying that would explain everything and make it okay, or put it in context.

But that didn’t happen.

He looked up at me, said that it was silly to let politics get between family, and told me he wasn’t drinking anymore anyway – his liver was already hurting enough as it was. And that was it. I thought to myself – I psyched myself out for two years about this? I started having regrets – I should have done this sooner, but now my time’s run out. That night, I went to my mom and told her that the whole attempt at reconciliation had been a failure. I said everything I needed to say, and I just felt empty.

I had fantasies about teshuvah – this encounter that was supposed to be all about settling scores, apologies and forgiveness.I thought it would be this beautiful, heart-cracking-open moment where truth was revealed, where finally we could have a shared understanding of each other’s broken places. I thought – it’s funny to even say it outloud now – that just because I’m a rabbi, it means that I’m supposed to be good at this kind of stuff.

But it felt like every single moment in that weekend at home before my father passed away, my fantasies got crushed. There was no big dramatic moment. No time when my dad gathered all of his family and friends around him to impart final words of love and blessing, like Jacob does in the Torah when he’s on his deathbed with his kids surrounding him. My dad died in the hospital two days after father’s day, five days before my wedding, just as the sun was coming up. Even over two months later, it still doesn’t feel real.

But I’ve been coaching myself to not view all of this as a personal failure. I had this mantra that I kept repeating to myself as a question and a statement over and over again, every time I wasn’t sure what to do.

Just two words: Show up.

I’d ask myself: How can I show up right now?

What would it look like to show up right now, in this moment?

Then I’d say: Okay, this is getting hard – I need a break. Okay – now let’s show up again.

And when I think about it now, I think this is exactly where teshuvah begins.

Teshuvah, which we typically translate as returning, requires the first step of showing up. It means recognizing where we are in time and space. It requires reining in all of those thoughts about what things were “supposed” to look like, and returning to be fully present in what this moment is asking of me, as it actually is. Not running away from the terrifying thing, not fantasizing about how I wanted this to play out differently, but looking this moment straight in the face and not flinching.

The word itself holds this meaning in two ways: the root of Teshuvah is lashuv – to turn. To pivot. In the desert, when Moses catches sight of the burning bush while he’s supposed to be tending to his flock, he turns aside to catch a glimpse of what’s happening right in front of him. Different Hebrew word, sar instead of shuv, but similar idea. He recognizes that there’s something really important happening right in front of him, and if he just continues with business as usual and doesn’t turn to notice it, he’ll miss it entirely.

And second, shuv is close to shev/lashevet, the Hebrew word meaning “to sit.” Not a dramatic thing. Just simply being present, sitting in the here and now, showing up.

When I was there with my family as my dad was leaving us, I kept noticing that the answer to this question, “what does it mean to show up right now?” didn’t actually take any work to figure out. And this was the powerful and beautiful thing about this time, when I look at it from my vantage point now, months later. In every single moment, it was powerfully obvious what showing up would have me do.

It meant showing up in person first – choosing to leave behind all of the other things that tugged at me and getting on a plane.

It meant sitting beside my Dad, even if I didn’t have the right words to say, and doing the Jumble and the crossword puzzles with him (which he loved) and boxing up his beloved trinkets, where everything was labeled “Keepers” because he couldn’t bear to get rid of anything.

Showing up meant that we decided to get married at the courthouse a week before our actual wedding, so that my dad could be there, and it meant letting go of some of the fantasies of what my wedding would look like.

Showing up meant crying with my brother in the hospital waiting room, then taking a deep breath and walking back inside.

And it also meant allowing other people to show up for us, which was one of the hardest parts. Allowing my parents’ friends and my friends to be there with us in our pain, recognizing that they were in pain too, when all we wanted to do was say “we just want to be alone” or “there’s nothing you can do.”

It was painful and heartbreaking to show up in all of those moments and everything in between, but it wasn’t difficult, meaning that all sense of “choice” was taken out of the equation. And when I look back on that time now, two months later, the part that I miss for is the simplicity of it all. The uncomplicated ease of a crisis moment that makes all priorities clear.

Showing up is the part that we DO have control over. We don’t have control over the outcome, or how another person will respond to our request or apology, but we can still make the choice to show up anyway, as uncomfortable and painful as it is.

In the months since, as I’ve been operating under the illusion of being “back to normal,” the question of showing up has gotten complicated again – maybe unnecessarily so. It’s not as easy as it was then to sift through the competing priorities of showing up at work, showing up in my marriage, showing up in my grief, with my mom and brothers, with my friends, with all of you.

It’s hard now, not just because there are so many different ways of showing up in our lives that pull at us equally, but also because we have the choice to NOT show up. In any given moment, when I feel that feeling of just wanting to go hide under a rock or not get out of bed, I’ve got a bunch of tools for not showing up right at my disposal. I can bury myself in my news feed, or Instagram, or that ridiculous game that I downloaded on my phone.

I keep having to remind myself that this is what life asks of us, in exchange for this gift of being alive and being human: we’ve gotta show up imperfectly, even if at first our hearts aren’t in it, even if we’re just going through the motions.

My teacher, Rabbi Dr. Aryeh Cohen, shares this beautiful teaching about teshuvah:
There is a midrash that says that teshuvah or returning was created before the world was created. Sit with that for a minute. Before there was a universe in which humans could stumble, before there were relationships which could go right but could go wrong; there was the ability to right wrongs, to straighten that which was bent.

Teshuvah is, according to the imagination of this rabbinic understanding, part of the very fabric of the universe. The same midrashic mythmaker also relates that before there was anything there was only G-d. G-d thought of creating a world but every time she thought a world into creation G-d would destroy that world until she created teshuvah. It was teshuvah—the possibility that not being perfect does not inexorably lead to not being—that allowed the world to exist.

All of you made a choice to show up here tonight for some reason. Maybe it’s because you do this every year, and there’s no other place you’d be on the cusp of a new year. Maybe a friend or a family member brought you. Maybe you’re here because you’re grieving too, the loss of your health or of someone you love or a relationship that has become strained or broken.

And the fact that you’re here is huge. Just making it here is incredible. Sometimes we put a ton of pressure on ourselves to make these holidays very intense, to suit up for 10 days of hard-core spiritual work, but what if all the hard work has been taken care of, just in showing up?

Even if we aren’t feeling it emotionally yet, that’s okay, and normal. It takes time for the soul to wake up. Sometimes when you just push yourself to show up physically, then over time, the heart follows.

So now, as we sing, I want to invite you to try that – to show up, to open your lips and sing with us, even if you don’t trust your voice, even if you don’t know the words, even if your heart isn’t there yet, trusting that in time, that little spark of soul inside of us will be woken up.