Shabbat Shuvah: From Whom Have You Strayed?

September 21, 2012Rabbi Edythe Held Mencher, L.C.S.W.

Shabbat Shuvah is the Sabbath between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. The name is derived from the opening word of the haftarah reading that urges us: Shuvah Yisrael ad Adonai Elohecha, “Return, O Israel, to the Eternal your God.”

What does that mean to you? To whom or what might you be returning? Is it to a sense of goodness? Is it to a sense of being loved? Is it to a commanding and guiding Presence? Is it to a God who will punish you for your misdeeds and reward you for your right action? Is it a return to that still and clear place you find within yourself when the exhortations and opinions of others are quieted?

“Know Before Whom You Stand” is inscribed on many lecterns and over the ark in many synagogues. Before Whom do you think you stand?

From whom and what have you strayed?

Religious tradition can offer the questions and answers that those before us encoded. Spiritual community can offer us a place to evolve our own answers among others who are asking similar questions. A spiritual- religious community might be defined as one where we learn from the searches of those who came before us in an atmosphere where we are helped to seek our own revelations and understanding.

The psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott wisely observed that in order to be able to enjoy our own aloneness we must first experience being alone in the presence of non-intrusive but accepting others. Perhaps this is why even those who sometimes meditate alone find their experience deepened after spending time meditating with others. Winnicott also observed that there is no real innovation except on the basis of a tradition. Being with fellow seekers guided by traditions that ground but do not constrain us may be the best way for us to ask and find our own answers.

God in the Box is a documentary film made by Nathan Lang and his colleagues: It offers a moving glimpse into what happens when people are invited to share their thoughts about God in a space that is seemingly very different from our sanctuaries. A filmmaking team set out across America with their small, portable studio called the "Box." This odd and rickety little structure was set up on various street corners throughout the country. One by one, people were invited to step inside to answer the questions, “What does God mean to you?" and "What does God look like to you?” The Box contained only paper and pencils, and a large mirror hiding the camera. As they peered into the mirror and spoke, the people who entered were at once alone but also aware that others would listen to their thoughts and impressions.

Those who entered were believers, doubters, and atheists. They were people of all different levels of education and all different ages. While they knew they were being filmed, for the few minutes they spent in the Box they were able to focus within, looking only into their own eyes and their own memories. They expressed hopes, doubts, gratitude, skepticism, disappointments, and confusion. Worker, priest, addict, or adolescent—each reflected deeply about matters best described as philosophical and personal. On leaving the Box, almost every participant turned to the filmmakers and said, “Thank you.”

Even a temporary community made up of filmmakers and those who would eventually view the film constitutes a presence that allows each of us to journey inward and consider profound questions about what we value and what sustains us.

God in the Box closes with photos of synagogues, churches, and mosques reminding us that these can be “Boxes” where we share our questions and understanding of what God might be. If returning to God leads to a life grounded in ethical behavior, linked to others in ways that enable us to love and to feel loved, we must be able to name and describe whom and what we are traveling toward. Being part of a congregation can let us hear how others have answered those questions while we are supported in our search for the most meaningful and true answers for ourselves.

May we all create communities of companionship, compassion, and freedom in which we journey together toward an understanding of what God might mean to each of us.

Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah, a daily e-mail on a topic of Jewish interest. Sign up now to add 10 minutes of Jewish learning to your life each day!

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