When I was 26, I quit my job, put most of my worldly possessions in a friend’s barn in Indiana, and took the rest of it in a too-heavy backpack to Southeast Asia. My marriage right out of college had just failed, and I was starting grad school in the fall. Meanwhile, I had four months to wander and seek. I don’t know exactly what I thought I was looking for, or even why I picked that part of the world, but there it was. I got on a plane headed for Bangkok via LAX and Taipei, flying China Airlines. I missed my connection in LA—it turns out China Airlines is different from Air China—but 12 hours later I was en route to the great unknown.
I had done what is typical for me when encountering the unknown: over-researched, over-planned, and over-packed. Except I didn’t have a place to sleep. This was still in the early days of the internet, so random hostels in Bangkok weren’t hip to email reservations, nor was a transcontinental phone call something my calling plan supported. And a 12-hour delay now meant arriving roughly at midnight local time. My adventure had begun.
I can’t remember how it happened—I was probably obsessing over it for much of the plane ride—but at some point, I noticed another young cis guy a few rows up. I didn’t know from backpackers then, but I thought he might just be one. I think I approached him on the way to customs and immigration, and by the time we were through, we had a plan to room together at a place we’d found in the guidebook.
Something shifted in me at that moment, although it probably took most of the rest of the trip to realize it: there is a way of being in the world that is more intuitive than over-research, easier than over-planning, and much lighter than over-packing. I call it being in the flow, though I certainly didn’t coin the phrase.
The epitome of being in the flow came to me a month later, when I was crossing the street in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. This city, indeed all of Vietnam, is awash in bicycles and motor scooters. Incredible things happen on these vehicles—improbable loads carried, families of five transported—and they constitute a rushing river that brooks no traffic signal. Waiting for a break in the action to cross the street is not an option; you just need to start walking.
After a day of avoiding crossing these major thoroughfares, I found myself needing to get to the other side! So, I started to cross, and then got freaked out and stopped midway. Bad idea. You see, the flow of the two-wheeled river very much respected and expected Newton’s First Law—an object in motion should stay in motion—and enforced its converse—an object at rest will stay at rest. So long as I was walking at a steady pace, the river flowed around me. And I become part of the flow, in a very real sense. When I stopped, the flow continued, except now without me. I was like a rock in a stream.
In the liturgy of Rosh Hashana, the Unetanah Tokef prayer goes,
Who shall live and who shall die …
Who by fire and who by water,
who by sword and who by wild beast,
who by hunger and who by thirst …
It peddles in the imagery of the Book of Life—on Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed—an image of G-d and the world that may or may not work for us. But the S’fat Emet, a 19th century hasidic rebbe, recasts it this way: the “Book of Life” is in our heart, it is the spark of the divine in each of us, which we call the soul. But the schmutz of our missteps in the material world clogs it up, makes the book hard to read or write on.
But the prayer turns on a phrase: Teshuva, tefila, and tzedakah—I’m leaving these untranslated for now on purpose—soften the harsh decree. Ours is not an inexorable fate, it says. Though the decision is ultimately in G-d’s hands, there is a path forward toward getting in the flow: Teshuva, tefila, and tzedakah. These are the pathways we need to follow to clear the yearly schmutz from our souls, a threefold process that allows us to be and act in the world less from the ego and more from soul consciousness. To be in the flow.
Teshuva is often translated as repentance, but I like to think of it as return. Return to who you are, to being in the flow. It’s a paradoxical return, because perhaps we feel we have only ever been in the flow in short bursts.
The S’fat Emet, in a different teaching, drew on a verse from Proverbs to talk about the process of teshuva, and the ways it works on us if we do the work.
כַּ֭מַּיִם הַפָּנִים לַפָּנִים כֵּ֤ן לֵב־הָאָדָם לָאָדָם׃
As face answers to face in water, so does one human’s heart to another.
He goes on to say that in this auspicious time of teshuva, we can merit Divine compassion through what the mystics call itaruta delatata—arousal from below. In other words, our actions on this earth plane can spark action on the Divine plane. “When a person has compassion on themself,” the S’fat Emet says, “seeing that they contain a holy spark of godliness [i.e., the soul], while yet being fallible flesh and blood, a great compassion for them is aroused in heaven, like the face answering to face in the water.”
The moment of self-reflection is everything in teshuva. Our face turning to face ourselves in reflective water causes the capital-F Face to turn toward us through that water’s translucence. It also bespeaks the fact that we are hardwired for connection. Connection with other beings, and through them—and occasionally despite them—connection with transcendence. We are meant to be in the flow, and teshuva is the first step into the river.
Rabbi Michael Lerner, referring to the prayers during the High Holy Days, calls tefila/prayer “cheerleading for the process of teshuva.” I used to think this meant cheerleading in a football kind of way—a sideshow that sort of supported what was going on in the field. But I realize now that it’s more like the people that would come out to cheer me at high school cross-country meets.
If you’re unfamiliar with this long-distance running sport, you should know cross country is a lonely endeavor; you’re running through the woods, trying to be a bit faster than the person behind you. The good cross-country cheerleader knows this, and is there at the starting line shouting encouragement, then sprinting over to the first big hill to give you moral support as your legs first start to burn. As soon as you pass by, they’re off again to the second mile marker, where the lactic acid is really starting to set in, to urge you to stay strong, then off to just far enough from the finish line to remind you to give it your final kick.
We’re all in this together, and we’re all in this alone. No one can do teshuva for us, but we can all encourage each other in our moments of flagging and fatigue, in our moments of disconnection. There is an interesting dance that can happen in a tefila practice, between a feeling of divine connection and a yearning for that connection. In my mind, there is no preferred state—the important thing is to stay in the practice. So even if tonight is the only time you plan on praying this year, stay in the practice. It works even if you cannot feel it immediately. This dance of divine connection and yearning is actually how you keep moving in the river of flow.
Last month, I was on a silent meditation retreat. During those nine days of silence, however, there were periodic opportunities for retreatants—or yogis, in the local parlance—to ask teachers questions about the practice. About halfway through, something started to happen that these experienced teachers hadn’t encountered in their collective years of leading such retreats: yogis started to ask how meditation practice could help them confront the challenges of this world on fire. I wish I could tell you that these teachers had amazing answers across the board, but these sessions did deepen my understanding of how spiritual practice can support our doing important work in the world.
Doing right—that is, pursuing the flow of tzedakah—doesn’t come on its own. It is part of this threefold process: do the inner work; connect with spirit; and pursue justice. Which isn’t to say you have to complete a step before moving on to the next. Most of us would never leave step one! Rather, they deepen each other.
From the root Tzadi-Dalet-Kuf (tzedek), meaning justice, tzedakah is different from “giving to charity,” or at least more expansive than that. It means taking action to bring about justice in the world. This isn’t something you need to be Jewish to know or do! Ask your average five-year old, “Is such-and-such fair?” They’ll tell you right away, without having studied any Talmud. They know what’s fair.
And we know what’s fair. We know that everybody, regardless of their gender presentation, deserves to pee in peace. We know that no one, simply because they present as a woman, deserves to be touched in unwanted ways or to be paid pennies on the dollar of men with similar experience and resumes. We know that anyone, regardless of the color of their skin, should be able to walk around their neighborhood without being arrested and or killed. We know that everyone, regardless of the condition or location of their birth, has the fundamental right to basic safety, food, and shelter. We know that no child deserves to be taken away from their parent, or a parent from their child, simply because they crossed the wrong river.
But tzedakah is the imperative to not only see injustice, but to seek justice. Asiyah has taken on the “Yes on 3” campaign as our social justice campaign at the moment. Simply put, there are folks that are trying to repeal the inclusion of our transgender and genderqueer siblings in Massachusetts’ equal protection laws this November. But we know what’s fair. Look out for some actions coming this fall to support the campaign, which I urge you to join us on. If you take nothing else away this evening, however, please take some materials for the Yes on 3 campaign from our friends at Keshet. Wear a pin, put up a window sign. We need to incline our families, friends, and neighbors to their best selves, and get them to vote Yes on 3.
I close with a story from the Divrei Chaim—Chaim Halberstam of Sanz, a 19th century chassidic rebbe:
A person had been wandering about in a forest for several days, not knowing which was the right way out. Suddenly, they saw a person approaching them. Their heart was filled with joy. “Now, I shall certainly find out which is the right way,” they thought. When they neared one another, one asked the other, “Holy sibling, tell me which is the right way. I have been wandering about in this forest for several days.”
The other said to them, “Holy sibling, I do not know the way out either. For I too have been wandering around here for many days. But this I can tell you: do not take the way I have been taking, for it will lead you astray. And now, let’s look for a new way together.”
And so it is. We don’t any one of us have the answer, but one thing is certain: the way forward comes together when we do it together. Even though each of us needs to cultivate our own path, in community we can support each other in each of the three folds: teshuva, tefila, and tzedakah, helping us deepen in our work and be in the flow.
So tonight, I want to bless us that we help each other through the flowing birth canal waters of this new year, to release the shortcomings of the past year and stretch into the renewed version of ourselves waiting to be born. Waiting to step out into the flow, which has always been there. Shana tova.