Teshuvah, From the (Dis)comfort of Your Own Home

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Matthew Nitzanim


Haven’t you also thought, even for a moment, that it’s time to run away from home? Sure―six months into the covid-19 pandemic, the living room sofa is feeling comfortable (by now it bears an indent in the shape of your back), making fresh lunch is better than packing it in the morning, and you’ve really gotten to know your quarantine buddies. But the restlessness is starting to set in, or maybe it’s been gnawing at you since April―no more lockdown, or shutdown, or hunkering down, or all the feeling down that comes with feeling cooped up. Just to get out, to leave everything behind and breathe in some fresh air in a faraway place, to be somewhere that isn’t here―you’re starting to feel a deep, existential need for a vacation.

I have never been to Uman, and any responsible epidemiologist would have told you that going this year would pose a major public health threat. But as the policy conversations between Israel and Ukraine unfurled, I found myself pausing to consider what it would mean, for all of us, to escape our living rooms for just a few days on a penitential escapade, to break free of the monotony to which we’re rapidly growing accustomed and to rediscover ourselves somewhere else. 

This is because teshuvah is an essentially spatial experience, figuratively and literally. Repentance means to change, to bring oneself to a different ‘place,’ and that process, Maimonides teaches, is facilitated by physically journeying away from home, an embodied experience of change that allows our souls to follow suit. Consider how you think more clearly, more reflectively, on a long flight or train ride, or when you’re hiking through the mountains or strolling through the woods. By fleeing ‘elsewhere,’ a practice R. Nachman of Breslov calls hitbodedut (“seclusion”), we can break free from our lives and ourselves in order to gain a fresh perspective and start anew. 

In this respect, Uman―like the airplane seat or hiking trail―is what Michel Foucault would call a ‘heterotopia’: a real place whose very function is to stand, so to speak, ‘outside of the world,’―a place standing in contrast to, and in conflict with, all the real places that fill the rest of our lives. A place designed for escaping, for fleeing, for taking refuge from what real life holds in store back at home. Heterotopias, Foucault claims, are the places away from home where we go in moments of crisis, when we feel that the world cannot handle us―nor can we handle the world―leaving us with no choice but to step outside of the world, regain our footing, and start over again.

But we’re at home this year. There is no traveling for the holidays―maybe not even synagogue services; no contemplative train or plane rides, and no visits to Rebbes or other sacred spaces. As we face the crisis of teshuvah this year, when we are most in need of escape―of heterotopias―we are stuck within the confines of our own homes. How, then, will we repent this year? If we cannot run away, what will our teshuvah be?

To this end, I believe we can find inspiration in the teachings of Sefat Emet (R. Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, 1847-1905), who offers―in contrast to R. Nachman’s hitbodedut―penitential models better suited for at-home repentance. What follows is three torot, each suggesting that teshuvah is not about running away from home or one’s self; rather, it has some alternate relationship with self and with home. Each of these torot stands independently, and Sefat Emet did not clarify if and how they relate to one another. Yet they all seem to draw on the same motif, teshuvah from the vantage point of home, even as each points in an alternative spiritual direction. Perhaps for this year’s at-home Aseret Yemei Teshuvah (the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), the wisdom of Sefat Emet can guide us to new kinds of teshuvah that resonate with our shared homebound experience.

Cleaning Up the House

The laws of the appointment of judges (Deut. 16:18-20) follow the laws of the festivals (Deut. 16:1-17), for the judges represent Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur following the three festivals. [This is because] the locus of the festivals is the Temple, while Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are focused upon ‘all your gates’ [i.e. the localities where judges are appointed]. (Sefat Emet, Shoftim, 5654)

Religious pilgrimage, though hardly practiced among Jews today (save, perhaps, by those who journey annually to Uman), is familiar to the Torah. Three times a year, we are commanded to ascend to Jerusalem and appear before God in the divine abode: the Temple. What’s striking though is that on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, among the holiest days on the calendar and just days before the start of Sukkot, there is no pilgrimage obligation. Were the Temple to be standing today, no one would be expected to show up in Jerusalem in time for Rosh Hashanah. True, this could be practical; it would be taxing to make the trek three times in a month or to stay in Jerusalem for all of Tishrei. But Sefat Emet seems to think that staying home for the penitential season is associated with the geography of the judicial system. The Torah demands that each city and town have its own court to deal with local issues that arise. Justice, which Sefat Emet goes on to identify as both the settling of interpersonal squabbles and personal reflection regarding one’s deeds, needs to happen at home. If what needs to be fixed or resolved arose between you and me, then the work of resolution needs to happen here, right where the problem lies.

Teshuvah is an act of introspection, an honest accounting of our lives, including all of our faults and failures. Penitence isn’t about looking up to the heavens or down into the mahzor, but straight into the mirror. The family that needs my love, the community institutions waiting for my support, the dry cleaner whom I forgot to pay, the mishnayot I never learned―all of that is right here, at home. Maimonides (borrowing from the statement of R. Yehuda in Yoma 86b), in his formulation of what it means to be a penitent, does not allow us to suffice with trying better next time in a similar situation. Teshuvah, or what Maimonides calls “real teshuvah,” means confronting the same person, at the same time, in just the same place you were before. Still echoing in that very place is the memory of the mistake you made last time, and fixing it here means not only engaging in change but also confronting the past in order to move forward. And this year, there’s no better place to look for error than the house where you’ve spent the past six months living through this new normal.

Mishnah Berurah (603:2), citing R. Yonatan Eybeschutz, teaches that on each of the seven intermediate days of the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah (excluding Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), one should reflect upon and repent for the sins committed on that day of the week. This makes sense, because who I am on a lazy Sunday differs from the me of a hectic Monday, a stressful Wednesday, or a dragged out Shabbat afternoon, and each calls for its own introspection. Maybe this year, having spent so much time within the same four walls, the same can be done with each room within our homes. Is the couch the place where I doomscroll through nonsense on my phone, or is it where I spend quality time with the people I live with? Does my kitchen reflect my values, my appetite, my budget, or some healthy combination? Is my bedroom a space to re-energize for a new day or where I arrive too late into the night (and from which I depart too late in the morning)? Have I given my roommates enough personal space, or too much? This penitential season, appoint yourself as the judge of the hyper-local court of your home, and stand as the first defendant. Take a good look at your home and ask whether the life that happens within it is the one you want to live this coming year, or whether it’s time to chart the course of a better one.

Even Home Isn’t Home

Regarding the verse “the boy is gone; where shall I go?”it is stated [in the Midrash] that Reuven was [thereby] the first to repent. For this is the ultimate repentance, in discovering that, due to sin, one has no place or existence in the world. (Sefat Emet, Vayeshev, 5664)

Breaking ranks with his brothers, Reuven attempts to save his brother Joseph, but for one reason or another he arrives at the scene too late. The Midrash, through a wordplay on the word vayashav, claims that Reuven did not merely return to the scene; in doing so, he had actually performed teshuvah, though what exactly he did to repent is unstated in the biblical text. Sefat Emet, however, finds Reuven’s penitence in his peculiar response to discovering his younger brother’s absence: “The boy is gone; where shall I go?” (Genesis 37:30). The text leaves no indication of why he was left confused regarding his next destination. But Sefat Emet sees in the power of these words a deep act of teshuvah in the wake of Joseph’s disappearance. The foundation of teshuvah, he claims, is the honest declaration that you have nowhere to go. It’s the realization that the places we call home and the people we call friends and the way of life we call familiar are all fragile, transient, temporary. In the midst of strife and chaos, we reach out for a foothold or stepping stone, but there is none. Life―mine and yours and everyone’s and everything in it―no matter how stable it may seem, is always up in the air. 

When the pandemic broke out, so many people made their way home, seeking out places of refuge and security to wait out the storm. Cabin sickness notwithstanding, nothing beats the reassuring sense of coming home, feeling the stark contrast between the threatening outside and a welcoming within. But as those who have experienced eviction, homelessness, and house fires all know in their respective ways, even home can let us down. The same goes for those who thought over these months that home would be a place of security, only to find physical and emotional impediments to safety and wellbeing there too. And even for those still enjoying this six-month staycation, the existential meaning of vulnerability, of the real possibility that our homes and lives are here today and gone tomorrow, awaits internalization. Vulnerability inspires us to keep both the gifts and misfortunes of our lives in perspective and also to keep the lives of others―whose differences from our own lives are so drastically outweighed by their similarities in plight and fate―closer to our hearts. 

That is teshuvah: not just technical fixes to local problems but a rude awakening to the world as it really is―a humbling before the God whose awesome glory fills the world in which we hardly deserve a place at all. If we can embrace that our lives are indeed ‘like a puff of dust and a fleeting dream,’ if we can ask God―not R. Nachman’s iconic ‘where are You’ but Sefat Emet’s ‘where shall I go’―then God will be the one to create a special ‘place’ just for us, the itinerant penitents, beyond the world we know. Sefat Emet notes that it is not by chance that the tribe of Reuven was the first to house an ir miklat, a city of refuge for wrongdoers, in its territory. The ir miklat embodies Reuven’s understanding of teshuvah―the realization, in the wake of sin, that we have lost our place in the world. And only once we accept how transient our life on earth really is, how no place can ever really be home, then God reassures us: ‘And I shall make for you a place for you to flee there’ (Exodus 21:13).

Coming Home

The essence of repentance does not [address] any individual sin; rather, one must return to, and reconnect with, one’s [spiritual] root. (Sefat Emet, Nitzavim, 5650)

Returning home, or even just spending a lot more time there, has offered an opportunity to reconnect with family, with ourselves, and with the four walls within which the basic elements of our lives take place. Covid has brought a return to thoughtful cooking and collective eating, a reevaluation of whether we really need the clutter hiding in our closets, and a wardrobe makeover from what we think others expect us to wear to what feels right today. Not everyone has found this extended at-home sleepover comfortable or even manageable, and for others it has produced lethargy, take-out orders, and binge TV-watching. But I think many of us have discovered within it a return to square one, a chance to feel out what it’s like to live by ourselves and as ourselves.

If we listen closely, at the core of this experience of returning home is the challenging yet enriching question: Who am I really? What kind of person am I, especially when there’s no one watching, save for, perhaps, the people I’m closest to? The personality you wear in the comfort of your home, and the gap between it and the one you let others see―that’s what needs a check-in and tuning at this time of year. Ask yourself: When cutting costs during the pandemic, did the budget cuts come out of what makes you comfortable, or from what you spend on supporting others in need? Who are the people who have made an effort to keep in touch with or support you, and how have you reciprocated? Without community life keeping you going, have your prayers, Torah study, and Shabbat observance dwindled to the bare minimum or taken on new layers of personal flavor? How have you filled the long pockets of quiet time that the lack of commuting and ‘kiddushing’ has opened up in your schedule?

Sefat Emet teaches that this return to our home, to our roots and our rootedness, is the very essence of teshuvah: to strip ourselves of the layers and facades we wear in the world, to once again meet our best and truest selves and figure out how to let that person shine through year round. This is the teshuvah of authenticity, the teshuvah of journeying―not from home, but back home―a trek whose destination is clear yet whose starting point and direction await determination. Standing in stark opposition to penitential escapism, Sefat Emet teaches that home is what teshuvah is all about. Were Sefat Emet to join you in quarantine this Yom Kippur, perhaps he would ask: Do you feel at home with your family, your life, yourself, your God? And do you think God feels at home with you? 

Conclusion: Finding Your Way Home

Three pathways of repentance: examine your home, accept the transience of home, or trace your steps back home to your truest self. Three modalities of penitence that share at their core a home-focused approach to teshuvah, allowing us to turn our shared Covid predicament into a spiritual opportunity. Whichever path you take, may the journey homeward strengthen and empower you for the days and months ahead. Let the time you spend at home―this week, over Yom Kippur, and over the long road ahead toward the end of Covid―be an opportunity for reflection, growth, and change. And may it be said of the home where you’re reading these words, as Sefat Emet would repeatedly remind his students, that ‘in the place where true penitents reside, even the most righteous of people have no right to stand’ (Berakhot 34b). 

Matthew Nitzanim, married to Yael and father of one, is studying towards Rabbinical ordination at Yeshivat Machanayim and towards a Masters in Bioethics at Bar-Ilan University. He lives in Jerusalem.