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Community Blog Speaking Torah: Allow the human breath to be a summons and a blast

By Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld
high holiday companion

This reflection is an excerpt from the Hebrew College High Holiday Companion, published in August 2017, for study and reflection during the High Holidays. Learn more and order your copy.

As we enter the month of Av this week, and the period of nine days leading to Tisha b’Av, we begin a sustained period of heshbon nefesh and teshuva— soul-searching and self-reflection on a national, communal, and personal level. 

The great Talmud scholar, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz wrote: “Teshuva is not just a psychological phenomenon, a storm within a human teacup. It is a process that can effect real change in the world, in all the worlds.”

In our contemporary culture, which is so preoccupied with the drama (and illusion) of the sovereign self, it is easy to confuse the call to teshuva with the ubiquitous calls all around us for self-improvement. There is the pabulum found in countless volumes on the shelves of the self-help section in every major bookstore — you can be better, happier, richer, thinner, more beautiful, more popular, more powerful, more successful. You can be more!  Or, alternatively, there is the trope that has more traction in new age circles and is no doubt a reaction to the unforgiving demands of the dominant discourse — you are enough. You are good enough. You are doing the best you can. Everyone is doing the best they can. More than that, you are already perfect the way you are. Everything is already perfect the way it is. Just breathe.

Particularly in the context of a world so deeply torn apart by fear, hatred, and violence, neither of these responses to the call for teshuva feels adequate to me. Neither — to use Steinsaltz’s metaphor — helps me get beyond the storm in my own teacup.

ThicketPoemV2(270x583).jpg.jpegThis week, I am delighted to share with you the next sample from our forthcoming Hebrew College High Holiday Companion — On Being Caught in the Thicket, which is my own reflection on the meaning of shofar. (Learn more about the Companion.)

I offer it in the hope that, this year, the sound of the shofar may open us to the call of teshuva in a new way. May we incline ourselves to the hollow, bent horn and allow the human breath to become for us a summons and a blast — an invitation to extend the horizon of our hearts, to stop what we’re doing, to lift our eyes from the path, to see what possibilities might be there caught in the thicket, waiting for us to notice.  

I also encourage you share this message and to contact me if you or anyone you know would like to talk further about our Rabbinical School.

With blessings for peace in our own lives, in Jerusalem, and around the world,


Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld Dean, Rabbinical School of Hebrew College

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