An Etude for an Ode: ReImagining Teshuvah
As I enter into Teshuvah, into fierce self examination, into the landscapes of guilt and renewed responsibility, I worry about stumbling into the bottomless pit of despair. After all, in systems, every part matters. In systems, every individual action contributes to outcome. How do I feed family fights, community squabbles, ruined habitats and global wars? The list grows and grows and the pull towards despairing unworthiness is strong.
Confronted with the scary ‘book of life or book of death’ mythology, or the grim path of ‘penitence through punishment’, I surely will sink, swimming in punishment after punishment with my long list of imperfections in hand. Will I ever make it above water? This dark vision is not unknown in our tradition. For me, what makes all the difference is that small something extra, the ‘od’/ode of the universe.
Let me explain: Rabbi Everett Gendler, using classical word play, brings together the two small English and Hebrew words ‘ode/od’ for reflection in a brilliant and daring essay found in Jewish Mysticism and the Spiritual Life. In addition, he connects Reb Nachman of Bratslav with Gandhi, King and the Dalai Lama. Curious, eh?
Here’s the one-footed, blog-friendly version. Reb Nachman teaches the secret of human redemption (I love how big and bold our teachers reach!). It’s kind of like classroom management based on PBS, positive behavioral supports. He says that we all can change the path people are on by focusing on the small points of merit that we see in them (based on the Hebrew word od; ayin-vav-dalet). No matter how much misbehaving, everyone has these small points of merit within. It is our job to focus there and magnify. Soon, Reb Nachman teaches, the person will change.
The simple meaning of ‘od’ (ayin-vav-dalet) is ‘more’ and ‘additional’. Here Reb Gendler is excited how Reb Nachman has turned this small adjective of a word into a noun that can be found in the heart of every human. This is how he connects Reb Nachman with the moral leaders of our era, who teach a form of radical hopefulness by focusing on actions and never condemning people.
Reb Gendler, with delightful romantic inspiration, firmly rooted in the evolutionary nature of our tradition, expands the small “od” even more. He suggests that this “more of merit” is everything that is beyond our minimal biological needs, “our creativity, our imagination”. This is our ‘surplus’, our ‘addition’, our ‘more’ that helps us “play, pray, sing dance, draw, design, think and build”. From the smallest of “od’s” to the greatness of our human gifts. He suggests that this small ‘od’ is our Tzelem Elohim, the very image of God that is in us all. Pretty cool, eh?
However, let’s not stop here. Using the creativity that Reb Nachman of Bratslav has opened for us, How about we add one more additional ‘od’. The ‘od’ that is found in the hebrew word m’od, (mem-aleph-dalet). This is a small adverb of a word that means, ‘very’. It seems to me that if we change this small word to a noun that lives inside our hearts, then it also could be a candidate for our Tzelem Elohim, our inspiring zest and zeal, our ‘veryness’ that makes us “more than”.
So now, when Reb Gendler prays Azamer lelohai b’odi – I will sing praises to my God with my od- from the morning liturgy, and now we can also add the Shema’s V’ahavta, -with all your heart, your soul and your might- (might is literally ‘your very’as in m’ODecha), these words of prayer become invitations to remember our inner point that is infusing us with all the gusto and gumption we can humanly muster. I know of a teacher who says, “dance from your kidneys”. Here is our version, “sing from your od”.
But wait, Reb Gendler continues to compose and create. He brings the unlikely ally, poet Robinson Jeffers writing of the “Excesses of God” in an ode that carries this title. In this breath-taking and daring move, Reb Gendler places inside that smallest of “od’s” an excess of surpluses including rainbows, blossoms, birdsong. He quotes Jeffers saying “the great humaneness at the center of things/…extravagant kindness”. All of a sudden, this small mustard seed of “od” is reflected in the abundance of the entire earth and cosmos, not only the human heart. How’s that for magnificent? Now, all of a sudden, the great ALL that is our world, innately inspires and is defined as ‘extravagant kindness’.
I’d like to add one of my favorite verses here. It’s been waiting for this glorious context in which to rest. For me, this truth of the inherent sacredness in every ‘letter and crown’ of the entire earth has long been reflected in this wonderful verse: “And God saw EVERY THING that God had made and behold, it was VERY GOOD- (TOV M’OD!), and there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.” (Genesis 1:31). Yes, the entire world is good and infused with that something ‘extra’, an ‘extravagent kindness’ that is naturally found throughout all of creation. An Ahavah Rabbah, a great love that pervades all, ready for when we can awaken even more.
But how does this support our work of Teshuvah you ask? For me, when I collect my failings, errors and imperfections, and I’m ready to acknowledge it all in the depths of my heart, with whom do I imagine sharing? Who is my personified Thou for the work of Teshuvah? I’ll pass on the mythos of the strict district judge. For me, when I imagine and personify this wondrous field of energy, fed by every rainbow, blossom and birdsong, believe it or not, I imagine my Bubbie, my grandma.
My Bubbie is the ultimate, personified portrait of extravagant kindness I carry in this world. Her understanding, her compassion, her smile, her comfort, her hugs, her wintergreen lifesavers hold me close and I am able to acknowledge to her all of my imperfect truths. Through all my failings and error, her ability to cherish my ‘od-ness’ gives me strength and courage to stay honest. Through her ‘extravagant kindness’ I do not fall into the depths of despair. Instead, I’m provided with renewed hopefulness and vigor to do what I need to do to make things right and to start again. Thanks to our deep inner ‘od’, I’m able to once again sing odes.
Thanks to Rabbi Katy Allen for encouraging this post.
(editor’s note: This is the 2nd edition of this essay, adding clarifying details on the two Hebrew words ‘od’ and ‘m’od’.)
 Fine, Fishbane and Rose, Jewish Mysticism and the Spiritual Life: Classical Texts, Contemporary Reflections. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2011.  For the full Robinson Jeffers poem, see below:
The Excesses Of God Is it not by his high superfluousness we know Our God? For to be equal a need Is natural, animal, mineral: but to fling Rainbows over the rain And beauty above the moon, and secret rainbows On the domes of deep sea-shells, And make the necessary embrace of breeding Beautiful also as fire, Not even the weeds to multiply without blossom Nor the birds without music: There is the great humaneness at the heart of things, The extravagant kindness, the fountain Humanity can understand, and would flow likewise If power and desire were perch-mates. from: http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-excesses-of-god/