Coming Home to the Body on the Path of Teshuvah

Just over ten years ago, I experienced an intense mental setback that resulted in me withdrawing from the university I attended in order to care for myself. I remember that September because it struck me that it was the first head of the school year at that point in my life where the future was a completely clean slate for me. There were no classes assigned to me. No new semester. No job prospects or work schedule to follow. It was for both better and worse, the freest time in my life at that point.

And there within me still, a war was taking place. The logical side of me was free-falling into complete oblivion. My crisis had overridden every expectation, hierarchy, and process that side of my mind depended on for ordered perception of the world. Was I succeeding at life (breaking myself so free)? Or had I completely fallen apart beyond repair? The desire-driven side of me countered with its own newfound strength. The emptiness existed for me to fill with something new. Now was the opportunity to set things right, to reset, and to start over on my own terms.

In some ways I think I am still getting the two sides of my head to work together. Neither extreme has proved capable of governing my life for too long. Life is best in balance.

There was so much that I learned about myself though during those early post-crisis years. It was, in the greatest sense, a transformative reorientation of what I am accomplishing with this lifetime.

What’s Teshuvah Got to Do With It?

Unrealized by me at the time, Judaism offers us a lot of great traditions around this same process and, coincidentally, during the same time of year. From the month of Elul (Virgo) through Tishrei (Libra), we’re invited to right our wrongs, re-balance the cosmic scales, and set our life back in the good orderly direction it ought to be following. This process is called teshuvah, which means “return.”

For some people, it might be helpful to think of that process as a return from sin to somewhere more familiar. In Judaism, sin is where we miss the mark. So, another helpful way to think of it might be that we’re centering ourselves behind the bow again, returning to aim again at our target.

Where do we aim? Some students of A Course in Miracles like to find the answer by breaking down the word atonement into its constituent parts: at-one-ment. We’re aiming towards oneness–within ourselves, in relation to one another, in relation to creation, and in relation to G-d.

For Kabbalists, teshuvah is literally the return of the letter Hey. In the sin of our separation from G-d, the very name of G-d has fractured, and our practice of teshuvah returns us to a state of perfect awe where everything is again aligned. That last Hey in G-d’s name represents the sefirah of Malkuth, essentially our perception of G-d’s presence in the physical universe, but also the very physical acts of repentance.

Teshuvah asks of us to stop missing the mark, to feel the emotional longing that occurs when we err, to verbally acknowledge our work, and to enact a plan to make changes, knowing that the real test will be the next opportunity we have to make the same mistake again. In the process of teshuvah we learn the sanctity G-d has embedded in these acts.

The Talmud actually tells us that atonement was one of the first things G-d created (even before creation itself). It’s that central to the mechanics of our universe. Like the seasonal cycles that return us to this process every year, our lifetime is set on this cycle of learning, processing, and growing. That’s the irony to Rabbi Eliezer’s instruction in the Talmud to “Repent one day before your death.”

The nature of this experience we call life is to explore and grow. We are always repenting and evolving. Life is teshuvah. Not even the tzaddikim can do one without the other.

Coming Home to the Body

This season, I am reflecting on G-d’s creation of mankind. The Bible teaches us that life is sacred. The human body is even created in the image of G-d. Our physical self-care and self-actualization is a holy obligation, and a central part of that work is learning to decline the things we ought not accept into ourselves. Likewise, we are intended to be fruitful, and the body is designed with a million ways to realize that intention even when parenting is not part of our individual futures.

For me, a gulf has emerged between this sacredness of creation and the society in which we are living. To some degree, this is something I picked up on intuitively during the years around that mental setback I mentioned before, yet I lacked the clarity and direction to disentangle it all at the time.

Today, many aspects of the gulf are quite clear.

  • We are living through an actual plague whose outcome is connected to the ways we nourish and move our bodies. We respond with stay-at-home orders and free doughnuts.
  • Rather than avoiding drug-dealers, we have become so desensitized to the fatalities and compounding malpractice of modern medicine that to even question what ethics guide them is to set yourself apart from the crowd, and in some areas, society itself.
  • We have created a society where dangerous chemical toxins are in nearly everything and where the hormonal alteration of the natural body is laughed off, ignored, or even celebrated.
  • We have created a society where “truth” is a function of politics, singular relative to power, and closed to debate except for the courageous willing to face down what amounts to social exile.

This is not the way we are meant to live. It’s not the way we ought to respect our bodies. It’s not the way we ought to respect our minds and the different perspectives we each bring to life together. We are meant to be as one, and also to be the many who are as one. We are meant to engage critically with life, society, and each other, yet to also act as one body together. The tefillin which Jewish men wrap around their arms and foreheads each morning mirror the paradox of this simultaneous oneness and plurality.

I see an opportunity for teshuvah here, an opportunity to return behind the bow and to aim again towards something better. When I first started Free to Live Healthy, I intended it primarily as a journal to chart my own way along this path, reclaiming my health and life from a society that does not live up to Biblical values. For me, alignment within the body is alignment with Torah is alignment with G-d….

Today I can see how this blog itself is part of the teshuvah in my journey. I have got to come home again. Come home to the body, to scripture, to oneness, and to G-d. I know there are so many of us out there–my work has already brought so many of us together. My hope in writing here is to make the way a little clearer for those as lost as I have been before, and to show one path that might take others a bit further along the way we are each returning home to this body G-d has created.

Years ago I learned a beautifully simple meditation from the Plum Village teachers, and it seems fitting to close with it here:

“Breathing in, I am aware of the body.

Breathing out, I am arriving at home.”

A Shmita Year (and a new blog)

Something like 0.2% of the world’s population is Jewish, so starting off with a term like shmita is a bit of a risk here. Most people have no idea what shmita means. And truthfully, at the start of this calendar year, I was one of them.

So what is a shmita year?

In the simplest terms, a shmita year is a year-long rest for the land. Shmita literally means “release,” but we could also understand it as a sort of sabbatical for the planet. If you’re familiar with the concept of a weekly sabbath, shmita is very similar. Instead of a weekly sabbath though, we mark shmita once every seven years for a full year starting and ending at Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year).

Now, rest for the land, or, letting the land lie fallow, is the key observation here. But traditional teachings also incorporate other forms of rest. We release old debts during the shmita year, and in ancient times, these years also marked the liberation of enslaved peoples.

While the Biblical promise for observing shmita is great, its actual observance is rare and historically mitigated by numerous other interpretations and traditions that narrow its scope in order to disrupt society as a whole the least. With that said, shmita is voluntarily observed in Israel and throughout the world.

The shmita year invites us to consider what our bodies immediately need, and to take only that which is necessary. It invites us to consider how the indigenous agricultural wisdom of an ancient diaspora in ongoing relationship with many lands can apply to us still today. And it challenges us to identify and free ourselves from the bonds of servitude not as apparent as they are in times and places where enslavement continues.

Our next shmita year begins on September 7th, 2021 and ends on September 25th, 2022.

A year without a tomato patch

For all the shock of the pandemic, this last year has culminated in a lot of significant successes for me. I’ve opened a new practice and gotten back into the work I truly love doing. I’m finding my footing with a now decades-old interest in natural (and Bible-based) living. And I just moved to a historic farmhouse where all of my family’s homesteading dreams are ready to come true. If anything it feels like 2020 was my shmita year, and I ought to be jumping in with both feet right now.

Ah, but that would take the intention out of it, wouldn’t it? Nothing I lost in the pandemic was of my own doing. And while a shmita year is about release, there’s an active element to that. We have to be the ones who release the land, release debt, and release the bonds we have over one another. The shmita year isn’t passive. It isn’t just a description of a time where we are without something we want. It’s about living apart from the life we’re accustomed to in a year-long shabbat, depending on the land to provide just enough, and on G-d’s eternal wisdom to see to it that everything still harmonizes.

That’s the lesson, isn’t it? Six years of hard work building the kind of life we want to live. One year resting and remembering that we’re part of G-d’s creation, and G-d’s plan.

Maybe it seems odd to start a healthy living blog with a post about obscure Jewish agricultural practices. But in these last days before the shmita year begins, I want to plant that seed. Living in alignment with Torah is living in alignment with Earth is living in alignment with my body.

I’m not growing tomatoes in the backyard next spring. I’m not disturbing the land beyond what is necessary to maintain the property. And more than that, I’m freeing myself from the bonds of toxic chemicals and of repressive ideas about myself (and manhood too). I’m putting my faith back in G-d, the wild land, and the sense of intuition that guides me living between them. One year from now, the wisdom I’ll have gained will be enough to sustain me for six more.

This year is about being free to live healthy. And this blog is for those of us sharing that journey.