My sense of order and meaning shattered when my young husband dropped dead on the beach. Though I never lost clarity about caring for the children, the universe lost coherence. “There is no meaning except what we build painstakingly, one toothpick at a time,” I said to a colleague. As I struggled daily with the challenges of single mothering and working to provide for my family (with enormous help from beloved friends and community), I searched for wisdom that could restore coherence. Although I had long been a student of Judaism, I could not initially find what I needed there. In my search, I discovered a book entitled The Gifts of Suffering by feminist, Jungian, Buddhist psychologist Polly Young-Eisendrath. Seeing it on my night table, my daughters were puzzled by the title. “Gifts of suffering? What kind of crazy book is that?” (In the second edition, the publisher changed its name to The Resilient Spirit.)
The Buddhist idea of the impermanence of the self struck me as compelling and true: trying to hang onto things as they were, resisting the inevitable losses and traumas that life brings, denying the truth of impermanence, increases suffering. I learned that the Buddhist concept of reincarnation could be seen refracted through the lens of depth psychology, as a process we undergo within a single life span. Each of us dies and is reborn many times in the course of one embodied lifetime. As illness, death and loss strip away what is most familiar and precious, we must die to an old identity, to give birth to a new self.
As I struggled to encompass these difficult truths, an experience sealed them into my heart. I was invited to Shabbat dinner at the home of people I barely knew before my husband’s death. Lighting the Shabbat candles, they sang “As We Bless the Source of Life, so we are blessed . . .”, a song recently included as an alternative Barechu in Reconstructionist prayer books. I had been present when that song was written! Many years earlier, as one of the women leading Shacharit services at B’not Esh, a Jewish feminist community, I had sent the group out into a spring morning to ‘receive Torah’. Faith Rogow had composed that song. Suddenly I realized: that was another lifetime! The child whose hand I held, who was now my daughter, had not been born then; I had not met the man who became my husband and whose death I now grieved. My life was not over, a terror that woke me in the middle of the night. Our life together was over. That life died with him. But I had lived other lifetimes. I knew how to give birth to myself. I had done it before. Birth was excruciatingly painful. But I knew how to do it. I would do it again. Mysteriously, Faith’s song returned as torah.
In Judaism, the idea that we die and are reborn many times in the course of a single lifetime shimmers through the concept of teshuvah. Commonly translated as “repentance,” teshuvah means “return” and refers to the process of turning and returning to God over and again. According to rabbinic tradition, teshuvah is among the primordial things that existed before creation; teshuvah is imagined as woven into the warp and woof of creation, into its very structure. Without teshuvah, the world could not cohere; there would be no inherent meaning in the universe nor would it be possible for human beings to create meaning by repairing our lives. In Judaism, repentance and forgiveness are interwoven with any images we have about cycles of death and rebirth.