The Talmud says that on the day before we die, we should be sure to do “teshuva”—turning your awareness to God.
“How is that possible, since we don’t know what day we’ll die?” I asked Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of the Jewish Renewal Movement.
He laughed. “That’s why we need to do teshuva every day.” He said this can be as simple as, while talking to a friend, watching T.V. or cooking dinner, turning your thoughts to God. “If I’m talking to my friend, there’s the divine in her, and if I remember that, I’m also paying attention to God.”
When you eat dinner, he said, think about how the food and drink come from God.
If you need a reminder, he suggested hanging a bell in your car, so when you hit a bump and it rings, you can say, “I’m aware of you, God,” or “Thank you, God, for a car that carries me where I need to go.” He’s had a bell in his own car for years. “If, God forbid, I should die in a car crash, my last thought would not be, Oh shit, but a prayer to God.”
You could also hang the bell in a doorway in your home, low enough so it rings when you pass. Or you can try other cues: each time you stop for a red light, let it remind you that God created light.
If you make this a habit, Reb Zalman told me, you’ll be sure to fulfill the commandment to do teshuva the day before you die.
As I stood up to leave, he reached in a box and gave me a small brass bell to hang on the rear view mirror of my car. Then, as was his habit, he broke into song: “The bell is ringing, for me and my God.”
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Thirty years ago I was drawn to a classified ad in the LA Times looking for a Social Worker with an MSW to visit Jewish convicts in county jails, state and federal penitentiaries – the perfect position for a nice Jewish girl addicted to bad boys.
I “fell in love” with the process of transformation and became addicted to redemption. It has become a parallel process – becoming whole within myself as I experienced the extreme dichotomies as the “bad boys and girls” in jail.
I found a teaching in Judaism that defined my mission:
A great Rabbi’s disciples asked him how he could so readily understand the problems of gamblers and thieves and other troubled men and women who came from the darker places of life. The rabbi explained:
“When they come I listen hard to them. I look deep into their eyes and I discover that their weaknesses are reflections of my own. It is not that I have done what they have done but I sense within me their lusts, desires, weaknesses, temptation. I find in them, myself… Once there was a man who came to me with confessions of his transgressions and though I listened attentively I could find nothing whatsoever that I had in common with him. There was nothing of his sins that were in me. Then I knew the truth: I must be hiding something within myself of which I was not fully conscious.”
I, too, alternated between extremes. I victimized myself, imprisoned in a repetitive cycle of saving the world or destroying myself. I started and abandoned projects, ideas, Gurus and relationships. I was fat or thin, grandiose or self-pitying, in love or in bed.
My spiritual awakening was my conscious decision to hear the call to mission as Divinely ordained. My challenge was to sustain the ordained. I have done that for 30 years, one day at a time. In 1985 I wrote to the Federal Emergency Management Act (under the auspices of Gateways Hospital) for a one-time grant to buy an old house in downtown Los Angeles for men and women coming out of prison who were otherwise homeless. I called it Beit T’Shuvah – the House of Return and Redemption. Today it is a thriving faith-based recovery community for people addicted to substances, dangerous behavior and all the rest of us recovering from the human condition of brokenness. From my point of view – you are either in recovery or denial.
My professional training and experience taught me to diagnose and pathologize the necessary existential angst of the search for wholeness and meaning. We medicate essential suffering with pills or the distractions of quick fixes.
My search for wholeness, answering the question, which is the real me and how do I get rid of the other one? was answered by the Jewish wisdom tradition. Judaism teaches that humans are created with opposing inclinations – yetzer tov and yetzer hara. The “AHA!” moment was the belief that both are from God. The Good Inclination is Good, and the Evil Inclination is VERY Good. The key to wholeness is action. Action is the ignition switch – one sacred action at a time, no matter what you feel.
My first sacred action was making my bed as an antidote to existential despair – what’s the point? why bother? Sacred living is choosing life, one action at a time – choosing to bless and not to curse life. What I have learned in the last 30 years is that everything that matters requires maintenance – your health, your appearance, your environment, your relationships, and your thoughts and feelings.
I wrote a book and called it Sacred Housekeeping. It is a spiritual memoir, my search for wholeness. It carries the message that we are all BROKEN by Divine design and need to recover our wholeness. Peak moments and epiphanies evaporate quickly. Holiness is found in tackling the mess, clutter, and imperfections of life. That is Sacred Housekeeping.