By Rabbi Benay Lappe
Every year around this time, as Elul approaches, I begin to think about the weeks and months ahead, and how I’ll make use of this year’s High Holidays to do my teshuva work. While I try to do teshuva on a daily or weekly as-soon-as-I-need-to basis, there are always some number of (typically) messier mess-ups that slip through without being tended to, and here come the Hi-Ho’s to be that booster rocket for picking up those loose ends of teshuva I’ve let drop during the year.
And even though, as a “professional Jew,” I know a lot about teshuva, and I understand, of course, that it’s a very complex and rich technology for reexamining our lives more globally, somehow, even for me, the single impoverished question I end up asking myself right around now is the simplistic: What have I done wrong?
Now, I’m not suggesting that you completely ignore that question this year, but… What if instead of asking ourselves: What are the bad things we’ve done? We ask: What are the good things that we haven’t done? What if focusing on the good that we haven’t done but now realize we want to do, turns out to be a better motivator for changing our lives and actually living out our values than reflecting on what we did wrong?
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, in his book Jewish Wisdom, tells the story of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the leader of the then-new Jewish movement in 19th century Germany called Orthodoxy, who surprised his students one day when, as he neared the end of his life, he insisted on traveling to Switzerland. Perplexed, his students asked him why such a journey was so important to him. In response, he explained, When I stand shortly before the Almighty, I will be held answerable to many questions. But what will I say when God asks – and he is certain to ask – “Shimshon, did you see my Alps?”
Hirsch, I think, is pointing us to a radical, though not so new, theology – a G!d who doesn’t just want us to follow the rules, but one who wants, maybe needs, us to drink deeply from the wells of possibility, beauty, wonder, and potential good that make up our world.
I think the early Rabbis of the Talmud were on to the very same theology. In the last three lines of Tractate Kiddushin in the Jerusalem Talmud (Yerushalmi Kiddushin 4:12), we read about the World to Come, and that moment when, in the Rabbis’ imagination, we die and come before the final judge. The Yerushalmi teaches:
In the World to Come, each one of us will be taken to task [not for our sins or misdeeds, but] for all [the good] that our eyes saw, but of which we didn’t eat.
And then the Yerushalmi adds the story of Rabbi Elazar, who hears this teaching and is so distressed at learning this new and surprising yardstick for how his life will actually be judged, that he saves up his money so that he can buy each and every type of new food that he’s never tasted, in order to not miss the opportunity to eat it. Taking this teaching quite literally, he doesn’t want there to be anything left that he hasn’t eaten by the time he arrives at the final judgment.
But the text, of course, is not just speaking of the things we haven’t literally eaten. According to the Jastrow dictionary, achal can mean to eat or to taste, but it can also mean to consume, to take up space, or to occupy. Going a bit more “outside” then, what if the Yerushalmi is suggesting: At the end of our lives, we will have to answer for all that we experienced only superficially but did not deeply absorb, for all the human experiences – beautiful and painful, challenging and demanding, inviting and intriguing – that we did not let in fully or pay deep attention to, that did not occupy our inner being.
What if we’re here to hungrily, thirstily, ardently savor the world. Not out of gluttony or hedonism, but out of deep appreciation, gratitude, awe, and love of the world. This is what the Yerushalmi imagines we’ll all be held accountable for in the end, I think. We will be called to account, to give a din v’cheshbon, as the text says, for all the good in the world that we might have enjoyed but did not. The people, the places, the books, the music, the art…the Alps.
Queer culture is especially good at helping us to unlearn guilt and self-deprecation, and honors the fact that, as marginalized people, it can be revolutionary for us to love ourselves and choose pleasure and joy. To choose our own liberation, in a world that so often wants us to disappear, may just be one of the ways we were meant to “eat up” life. I can picture the Almighty (actual or proverbial, depending on my theology at the moment), standing at the gates of Olam Haba, the World to Come, asking me: Benay, did you live your best, most fabulous, glittery, outrageous, Queer life?! Did you love deeply and with abandon? Did you discover your passions and live them out? Did you find your peeps and really nerd out together? Did you live fearlessly, knowing you were going to sometimes make a fool of yourself?
The language that the Yerushalmi uses of giving a cheshbon, literally “an accounting,” might ring familiar at this time of year because it is precisely this language that the Jewish calendar uses to name the work that we are to do not just upon our deaths, but each and every year, beginning on the first day of Elul. It’s work that culminates with Yom Kippur walking us through a simulation of our own final judgment day in order to allow us to “look back at our lives” from the imagined brink of death. The tradition calls this yearly process a cheshbon hanefesh, an “accounting of our life.” But nefesh actually means “breath.” Which makes me wonder: What if the charge is to look inside and ask ourselves: Have I really used every breath that I was given? When is it that I feel myself truly breathing deeply? What do I need, to fully breathe?
This year that word nefesh is especially poignant. After the murder of George Floyd I cannot look at this yearly command to take an accounting of breath without asking myself what I am doing not only to breathe more deeply myself, but to eliminate the barriers that prevent others from breathing freely as well. The list of questions that I think the Holy One will ask me on my day of judgement – which I fully expect the Rabbis meant as a metaphor suggesting what we ask ourselves every day – expands, then, from not just being about savoring, or marveling at, or experiencing the awe of G!d’s Alps, but also about living a life of doing the challenging work to unlearn privilege and oppression, and to make sure that every one of us has the same opportunity to “eat” of all the good in this life.
And so I’m starting to wonder if perhaps doing that work … is the Alps. Perhaps that working for collective liberation and justice is an integral part of a life well-lived, the life my tradition urges me to actively pursue – a fully inhabited, Queer, fabulous, fearless, loving, necesary life. And now I can imagine that the follow-up questions I’ll be asked at those gates are likely to be: Did you push yourself to grow and evolve? Did you listen deeply to the wisdom of people whose lived experiences were different from your own? Did you support movements for change? Did you work to leave the world in better shape than it was when you got here?
So maybe this year, instead of (or at the very least in addition to) focusing on the bad things we did, let’s ask ourselves: What are the good things that we haven’t done? What haven’t we yet done to contribute to the transformative change that needs to happen in the world?
These are deeply personal questions, and they’re going to look different for each of us, depending on the lives we live, the identities we hold, the cards we’ve been dealt. In a racist, ableist, transphobic world, some of us will need to expend more energy on surviving, and fighting to thrive. Some of us ride on our privilege in order to survive and thrive, but what it means to “live our best lives” will always be intimately bound up with redistributing our resources to support those who are targeted by that racism, ableism, and transphobia.
Just days ago was the first day of Elul. This month we begin the process of accounting for our lives, our souls, our breath, and of asking ourselves hard questions about our relationships, our values, and our integrity. Today I want to begin a practice of asking myself: Benay, what beautiful, transformative, creative, fabulous, delicious, courageous, righteous, joyful, truthful, bold, parts of life have you not yet said yes to? Why not? What’s getting in the way? What reflection, what learning, what conversations, do you need to make happen during Elul in order to make it possible to enter the new year living that fuller life? How can you create systems of accountability around yourself, so that you reach for that life in partnership with other people? How can you make a little more space for the good and the just – for yourself and others?
I hope you will all join me in asking ourselves these kinds of questions this year. I am so grateful to teach and learn in a yeshiva where we can support one another to live our biggest, boldest, most truthful, and most fabulous glittering lives. May our teshuva be the kind of return which allows us to live each day knowing exactly what we’re going to say when we’re asked – and we’re certain to be asked – So, did you see my Alps?
Rabbi Benay Lappe is the founder and Rosh Yeshiva of SVARA: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva