Dear friends,

My Elul practices for the last decade or so have included listening to an album recorded by the poet David Whyte called Solace: The Art of Asking the Beautiful Question (also available here on iTunes). I generally listen to 10 or 15 minutes at a time as I walk the dog in the morning after I drop off my youngest son at the bus. Listening to Whyte’s beautiful and penetrating language, recited in his unique English-Irish brogue, has become one of my favorite parts of Elul.

Over the years I’ve become familiar with the album and the poems and stories Whyte recites and tells. Yet, like a good work of Torah that one revisits year after year, I find that on each listening a different part emerges to speak to me. Without fail, each year there’s a point at which I have to stop because I’m struck by a passage and by the need to note the time on the recording so I can come back to it.

This year, that happened when I listened to this little bit:

One of the great tenets of a beautiful question is that it brings you to ground in your life as it is now. And in some ways, along with the amnesia of what we’ve forgotten, we step into a sense of having forgotten something which needs to be remembered and which is foundational to our future. And one of the remarkable things, I think, about being human, one of the incredible things about being human is, you only have to articulate exactly the measure of your exile, exactly the way you feel far from yourself, exactly the way you feel as if you don’t belong—and as soon as you’ve said it, exactly as it feels, you’re on your way home. You’ve started the journey back, just by describing the way you feel imprisoned, or the way you feel far from yourself, or far from life.

The closing Torah portions of Deuteronomy—which is to say, the closing Torah portions of the Torah—are suffused with the language of exile and homecoming. Here is one characteristic passage from last week’s Torah portion:

When all these things befall you—the blessing and the curse that I have set before you—and you take them to heart amidst the various nations to which YHVH your God has banished you, and you return to YHVH your God, and you and your children heed God’s command with all your heart and soul, just as I enjoin upon you this day, then YHVH your God will return with you and take you back in love. [God] will bring you together again from all the peoples where YHVH your God has scattered you. Even if your outcasts are at the ends of the world, from there YHVH your God will gather you, from there [God] will fetch you. And YHVH your God will bring you to the land that your ancestors possessed, and you shall possess it; and [God] will make you more prosperous and more numerous than your ancestors. Then YHVH your God will open up your heart and the hearts of your offspring—to love YHVH your God with all your heart and soul, in order that you may live. (Deut. 30:1-6)

One of the remarkable things about this passage is the way it fuses teshuva, spiritual returning and renewal, with the end of bodily and political exile. In this passage, to be far from the Divine is to be far from not only our spiritual sense of at-homeness, but also from the more literal sense of at-homeness in the land where our ancestors lived. Yet the vast majority of Jewish history has been lived in a state of political and geographic exile. Thus Rashi, quoting the Rabbis of the Talmud, parses verse 3: “Our Rabbis learned from this that, if one can say so of the Holy One, the Divine presence dwells with Israel in all the misery of their exile, so that when they are redeemed, the Ineffable makes Scripture write ‘Redemption’ of Godself that the Divine will return with them.”

There is a paradox here: The Divine is with us in exile and estrangement, even as our returning to home—in all its senses, physical and spiritual—is also a returning to the Holy One. All, it seems, we have to do is make an internal move—in David Whyte’s language, articulate exactly the measure of our exile—and we’re on our way home. Yet that “all we have to do” is, of course, no simple thing. Again, Rashi: “The day of the gathering of the exiles is so important and is attended with such difficulty that it is as though the Holy One must actually seize hold of each individual’s hands dragging them from their place.”

There is a reason we read these Torah portions in the weeks before Rosh Hashanah. Confronting the reality of our various exiles—whether they take the form of estrangement from our own bodies, our identities, our families, communities, societies, geographies—is the work of this season. Wherever we are this New Year, in any of these dimensions, the sound of the shofar beckons us to wake up and see, courageously and clearly, who we are and where we stand right now, in the totality of our wholeness and our brokenness. It invites us to gaze, with genuine honesty, within ourselves and discover that access to the Creator is not in heaven or across the sea, but on our lips and in our hearts. And in that recognition, we might experience that we are already on the way home.

Shanah tovah, Blessings for a sweet and joyous New Year,
Rabbi Josh Feigelson, PhD
President & CEO