“I knew I should have made that left turn at Albuquerque!”- Bugs Bunny
Bugs Bunny may be an odd choice to teach us about t’shuvah, but that classic quote does much to teach about repentance. Then again, so does Rodin’s sketches and Debussy’s music. Before artists as diverse as Friz Freleng, Rodin and Debussy teach us a lesson in t’shuvah for the Day of Atonement, Let’s look at the word for t’shuvah.
We read in the Netana Tokef prayer that on Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. Yom Kippur is our last chance before that seal is placed on the decree for the year. The prayer concludes with the statement that repentance, prayer and charity cross out the bad decree. So of the three, what is repentance, t’shuvah? In Hebrew, the root word is Sh-V-B, meaning in Biblical Hebrew to turn particularly to turn back or return. Yet the Hebrew does not really tell us where we are turning. Only by context can we tell and thus it could mean either towards God or away from God. It is in the Rabbinic Hebrew more than the Biblical that Shuv means to repent or return to God.
Our lives are like traveling on a road with many exits, entrances and crossroads. It is up to us to figure what is the way to get to our destination and what isn’t. Bugs Bunny’s comment used in many of his short animations presents a good way of thinking about what we are doing on Yom Kippur and T’shuvah for the rest of the year. Bugs in most of these scenes pops up expecting to be somewhere really good and fun like Las Vegas, yet ends up in a situation that is trouble. Invariably, Bugs pulls out a map and then realizes he should have taken that left at Albuquerque. Bugs Bunny being a cartoon character and one who can outsmart almost any opponent can work his way through the situation. For most of us real humans, that is not so easy. Many try with far less successful or funny results than a cartoon rabbit. Instead of being in the conflict that ensues, however funny, Bugs failure is that he does not do t’shuvah, the simpler answer to the problem. The simpler answer is to turn around, go back to Albuquerque, then make that left turn. That the gag line shows up so often tells us he never does.
Every day in lots of small ways and sometimes in big ways we hit a crossroads. We can turn right or left, we can keep going. Sometimes we follow the right path sometimes the wrong one. Often at the crossroads we already know we’re on the wrong path when we make the turn, only to be confirmed later with a bad outcome. Yet the thought of turning around or even changing direction bothers us. Sometimes there is no turning around. In those times we could stop, look at our maps or ask for directions, then find a new path towards our destination. Often we have this commitment to not turning back, which the Talmud describes
R. Assi stated, The Evil Inclination is at first like the thread of a spider, but ultimately becomes like cart ropes,[Sukkah 52a]
While it may be easy at first to break away, the commitment itself to the sin make it difficult. Notice the thinking here. Like Bugs, we try to pull away hoping to break the thread of spider or the cart rope. The thing with rope of any type is it is only good if you pull with it. Push towards the rope’s end makes it meaningless. We can get caught up, but often the solution is t’shuvah, coming back the way we came.
But how do we know when we are in the wrong place, or what we should turn? How do we often miss the turns in our lives? As Bugs keeps making the same mistake, Bugs is no answer here. Artists and musicians do give us answers. A major problem with a lot of people’s ability to draw is, strangely enough, idolatry. Much of the biblical text is about the sin of idolatry, and often that sin leads to all other sins. Yet what really is Idolatry? It is objectification, turning what we see into an object that we venerate. In art, this is a big problem because we venerate the object so much we draw a symbol for the subject of our artwork, not what is really in front of us. When asked to draw a house we invariably draw a pentagon for example. When we draw an eye we draw two curved lines and one or two round ones inside. These are symbols, not something that looks like the house I live in or and accurate representation of my eye. We learn this very young that things are objects. Teachers reward young children for drawing a pentagon as a symbol of a house, not what the house looks like. Like some abstract painting full of symbol, we can read symbols, but there are no recognizable features we see with our own eyes, which is why the caption of MOM, DAD My DOG SPoT always accompanies such drawings. The result according to most art educators is that when people try for more realistic drawing they can’t because they’re stuck in drawing the symbols, the idols before their eyes
The solution to more realistic drawing is one many artists have used over the years. While the sculptures of Rodin are what most people remember him for, he also did a lot of drawings. A friend of mine recently became enamored with those drawings, and in a bit of inspiration I tried my hand at the style Rodin used. Rodin in these sketches was not getting complicated with details but drew the contour and negative space around the figure. Instead of drawing the model, he drew the space around the model. It is one of the earliest exercises in any drawing class, and the idea is to get the budding artist to stop drawing symbols by not looking at the symbols at all – just the place where the air meets something solid. While the picture is also not realistic, the result is a change in how we look at the world. A table is not a rectangular slab with legs but a series of shapes showing where the space is. Similarly, Claude Debussy famously said that great music comes from the space between the notes, a phrase often repeated by many musicians after him. For the artist, it is space around the objects, not the objects in it that tell us more about our world.
We often look at the object and not the space around the object – We objectify things. While this does have advantages, it also makes us not see the picture clearly, because we deal with the object not what is really in front of us. When we do this with people, we believe that behaviors will be according to what that object should do, not who the living person really is.
Often such drawing is an important exercise in contrast. There is a Hasidic story that tells of the Maggid of Kotznitz not giving a rich man a blessing because he eats so modestly. The Maggid explains to his puzzled students that if a rich man eats like a poor man he will have no sympathy for the poor. As long as the rich man eats only bread he might think that the poor can live on stones [Gates of Repentance p.234]. We have to see that a person is in need of help in order to help. Similarly, we often do not understand personal boundaries. Instead of recognizing personal boundaries, we exploit and hurt people, sometimes not even meaning to. That too brings on sin, and we make the wrong turn. To find those boundaries, look at the places where there is space in our relationship with this other person. Crossing that space without permission might lead to a boundary violation. If one understands that space the relationship strengthens.
Looking through the list of confessions in the liturgy, I notice how many of these sins are about making people into objects, mere symbols of their true selves. Not just boundaries happen in space, but all relationships. We relate to people in space, not in form. By knowing space we have the map, the one we can read not to make that wrong turn in Albuquerque. If we see the space of the relationship change, then we can know we need to do some backtracking or diverting to get back on course with that relationship. Yom Kippur is a point where we can look around and check all of those relationships; we can look at that map and decide where we want to go from here. Then we do t’shuvah, we turn from our present course toward better relationship. Unlike Bugs Bunny, when we get to Albuquerque, we know to turn left.