We, Jews, just finished celebrating our High Holidays. These started with Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, and closed — 10 days later — with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Associated with these Holidays is a poem from the Torah portion called HaAzinu. Amidst this poem is a particularly salient verse:
He found him in a desert land, in a desolate howling void. He surrounded him, He gave him understanding, He guarded him as the apple of His eye. (Deut. 32:10)
As the quintessential practice of the High Holidays, the first half of this verse aims at tearing down all our attempts at pretending.
Whatever stories, beliefs, justifications or rationalizations about our lives, our relationships, our current state of being we have surrounded our fragile ego with, the High Holidays set up a spiritual container that does away with all these manufactured walls.
Through truthful and searing self-assessment, we bring ourselves to the middle of the desert land of our life. Such practice places us in an existential inquiring stance that helps us touch both the darkest depth of human experience, the “desolate howling void” where we lose ourselves, but also the place where we are finally ready to be “found.” When we acknowledge the flawed nature of our human reality and let the walls of pretense crack open, the light of healing and forgiveness comes shining through. Whole-ing is made possible by acknowledging and taking responsibility for our limitations, and authentically reclaiming the imperfect beings we are.
At a deeper, mystical level, this verse is charting a path toward awakening. It starts with an invitation to move beyond the existentialist questioning that still holds the concept of a separate-self as true, and work to deconstruct our hard-held beliefs. We, then, come to know the “desert,” the emptiness, the illusory nature of the thought-construct in which our separate-self exists. The practice is one of self-inquiry by which one challenges all that one thinks is true, all our notions and theories, until there is nothing left standing in the way of truth, until all is shown to be “a desert land,” a “howling void.” This place of no longer knowing, our mystics tell us, allows for the falling away of what we thought existed as separate entities devoid of Spirit, and the awakening to the oneness that permeates everything. Then, the most mundane of moments, the most benign objects and aspects of the natural world, and every being, are seen for what they are: expressions of the One Spirit.
This High Holidays practice is called Teshuvah (returning). We might not all attain its mystical far-reaches but, as one says: The journey, not the destination, is what matters.
Happy New Year!
Read more in the Sept. 30 - Oct. 6, 2020 issue.