Dirt and Teshuvah

by Rabbi Howard A. Cohen

One of my favorite lessons to teach when I take a group on a wilderness trip is the dirt method of cleaning up after a meal. It is very simple and effective but invariably elicits chuckles of surprise. After removing all big chunks of left over food by either disposing it in a fire or trash bag people are then instructed to go to the edge of camp and wipe their  utensils with dirt and other bits of natural debris. What happens is that the small remaining bits of food particles attach to dirt and other natural debris.  They now become an undetectable part of the natural and healthy decomposition cycle of life.  The very little bit residue that remains is then washed away in warm water with a dash of chlorine.

This method of cleaning remains me of the season of teshuvah that is now upon us. It is not enough for us to cleansing ourselves from our sins. As important as this is it we need to transform our dirt, that is sins, into something that nourishes and brings benefit into the world. So along with the question for what do I need to do teshuva, I also ask myself how  do I transform the behaviors for which I am now repenting. Of course committing myself to not repeat the offense is a good start. Asking for forgiveness is another important step.  I also believe it is important to ask myself how do I transform the wrongs I’ve done (and will do in the future) into something of value? One way is to acknowledge in some sort of public venue the lessons learned from my wrong doings. Another action I can take is to embrace my imperfection and realize that to error is part of the learning process. 

One of the Hebrew words, chet, often translated as “sin”  is etymologically instructive.  The word consists of the letter chet tet and aleph. According to Rabbi Ginsburg, “Chet is the letter of life (chaim, from the root chayah, whose most important letter is chet)”.  In addition, if you take the numeric values of the letters that spell chet, (chet / 8 + tet / 9 +  aleph / 1) it totals 18, which represents life in Judaism. Thus, in a very real sense to sin or error (even more accurately it means to miss the mark) means to be alive. Just as we cannot praise God when we are dead, so too, we cannot make mistakes.

Howard A. Cohen is a member of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association and Ohalah, The Association of Rabbis for Jewish Renewal. He owns and operates Burning Bush Adventures (BBA), a guiding and educational service combining wilderness experiences and Judaism. Howard has provided rabbinic leadership to congregations from Alaska to Vermont. He has taught in public and private schools.  In addition to running BBA, Howard is an officer in the Bennington Fire Department. He lives on Barefoot Farm in southwestern Vermont.

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