Teshuvah: Let the Wild Rumpus Start
The night Max wore his wolf suite and made mischief of one kind and another
His mother called him ‘wild thing.’ And Max said, “I’ll eat you up!”
And he was sent to bed without eating anything.
That very night in Max’s room
a forest grew, and grew, and grew
Until his ceiling hung with vines
and the walls became the world all around.
And an ocean tumbled by with a private boat for Max.
And he sailed off through night and day and in and out of weeks
And almost over a year to where the wild things are.
And when he came to the place where the wild things are
they roared their terrible roars, and gnashed their terrible teeth
And rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws.
Til Max said, ‘be still!’ and tamed them with the magic trick
of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once.
And they were frightened and called him ‘the most wild thing of all.’
And made him ‘King of All Wild Things.’
And now, cried Max, ‘let the wild rumpus start!’1
“More Max!”, my son exclaims. At first I was hesitant to share this childhood favorite with him. I still had Maurice Sendak’s iconic words practically memorized from my own youth. But he’s so young, only 2 ½. He wakes up sometimes from nightmares that he can barely articulate, sleepy slurred toddler speak that even I strain to understand. And to my grown up eyes Where the Wild Things Are seems suddenly scary. But he pulled the book off the shelf himself. “More Max!” he begs, and I can’t help but give in. Though now, as a mother, my heart clenches as we read this timeless story of a little boy eager to leave on such an adventure. My son’s eyes gleam. He is captivated.
Whether we have studied it or not, we are all familiar with the Hero’s Journey. Joseph Campbell outlined this narrative pattern in his 1949 book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.2 In a traditional hero’s journey we meet our protagonist in the ordinary world. He answers a call, sometimes reluctantly, to adventure. Over the course of his travels our hero fights demons, learns lessons, and passes tests. Eventually, finally, our hero wearily returns home, ready to re-enter the trials and tribulations of ordinary life. He arrives with renewed understanding and outlook on the ordinary world he left behind, a seeming lifetime ago. When the hero crosses the threshold, his ordinary world shines more brightly, and seems somehow more satisfying than it was when he left.
We see this trope over and over: Where the Wild Things Are tells the hero’s story in its simplest form – but we see it in its complexity throughout our children’s literature and our own. From Homer’s Odyssey to The Wizard of Oz to Frozen, the hero’s story resonates with us as we root for our protagonist to click her heels together, and to realize: there is no place like home, that special place where someone loves us best of all.
Each Yom Kippur we revisit another version of the hero’s journey. This afternoon our teenagers will lead us in a telling of Jonah, our reluctant prophet. We remember this story, in which Jonah receives a call from God to go and warn the people of Ninevah that they will soon be judged.
Instead of heeding the call, Jonah flees. He hides out on a boat where a Divinely-sent storm finds him: the frightened crew flings him to the sea, where he prostrates himself in prayer, deep from within the belly of a big fish. This is where the most important part of Jonah’s journey takes place. This is where Jonah changes, where he leaves ordinary behind and becomes the hero. In the belly of a fish, the unknown Jonah becomes the prophet he is meant to be.
Torah is full of journeys. From Noah’s voyage over 40 days and 40 nights to the Exodus of the Israelite people lasting 40 years, we, as a community, are brought together by the stories that emerge from our travels. Beloved teacher, Rabbi Alan Lew, z.l., points out that all these “Biblical figures . . . have to leave home in order to find a home . . .”3
Our Biblical heroes are flawed, and more often than not, the journey is where they learn the lessons that we, generations later, take to heart and carry with us as we go on our own paths. It is on the journey that Abraham learns to trust in his belief; it is on the journey that Moses learns to guide the Israelite people. For our ancestors, for our heroes, and for ourselves, the journeys that we take allow us the time and space we need to change. Without braving the first step, we cannot experience our sweet return.
It can’t have been pleasant in the belly of a fish. From the wet, smelly depths Jonah’s desperation transforms into a sacred moment of Divine connection. Wedged beneath the fish’s beating heart, Jonah approaches a threshold: somewhere between regular and holy, man and prophet. He is on the verge of change.
Cultural anthropologist Victor Turner calls these moments when we are “neither here nor there . . . betwixt and between” experiences of liminality, or liminal moments.4 These are the moments of our adventure when we feel the tingling potential of change – when we feel who it is that we are about to become.
We encounter these liminal, transitional moments in our stories: quivering at the bottom of Mount Sinai, waiting to receive Torah; as the Emerald Palace emerges in the distance, giving hope to Dorothy and her crew, as Max says “No!” on the brink of understanding that he doesn’t want to be king after all.
We encounter these liminal, transitional moments in our lives: standing under a chuppah, about to be wed, sitting by a hospital bed, about to say goodbye.
These liminal, transitional moments are moments of learning. They are the moments of change that we face in our lives as we take the next step forward on our individual journeys of living.
Throughout these days of awe, these yamim noraim, we are, each one of us, on our own version of the hero’s journey. The days ticking by on the calendar are our call to this sacred adventure. We might feel reluctant, like Jonah – preferring to be cast overboard than to take on the fasting, the praying, the prostrating of the High Holy Days. There is a great vulnerability in accepting the challenge of teshuvah, the journey that Yom Kippur offers to each one of us. It requires us to admit that we can be different than we are right now, and it is unsettling to imagine a different version of ourselves.
Rabbi Leila Gal Berner points out, “. . . Change is often frightening, and sometimes we are not sure that we are indeed ready for it. ‘What will this new heart be like?’ we wonder. ‘How will this purified heart change the person we are?’ . . . So much uncertainty comes with change.”5
Teshuvah is more than saying ‘I’m sorry,’ or ‘I’ve done wrong.’ Teshuvah is a part of every journey, every moment of turning. Teshuvah is a part of every return: when we come back to God, to one another, to ourselves. Teshuvah is, ‘in and of itself a liminal state, between who we are and who we will be.’ Teshuvah is every individual’s process of becoming.
For some of us, our change will come in the form of asking forgiveness from friends and family. For others, our change, our teshuvah, is in the decision to fast, simultaneously filling our brown paper bags with food for those who don’t have enough. Sometimes ours is a journey of contemplation while kneading the dough for a round challah or setting the table for a break-fast meal. Sometimes just crossing the threshold into this Sanctuary is a valorous effort.
For many of us, the hardest part of the journey is enabling those we love to grow and set out on adventures all their own.
Yom Kippur is our liminal space to identify these changes. Last night, as if in the belly of a fish, we heard the haunting melody of Kol Nidre and accepted the adventure.
“More Max,” he pleads, pushing the book into my hands. He is drawn to Sendak’s great and beautiful adventure. He wants to swing from trees, tame the beasts, be the king of his own world where the rules he makes up are the rules we all live by. Picking up the book once more, reading the familiar words on autopilot, my mind wanders.
I imagine someday putting him on a big yellow bus. Letting him ride a plane alone to visit his grandparents. Dropping him off at college. As we have seen it is hard enough to face our own changes, do our own teshuvah, to depart on our own journeys. How much more does it hurt when our loved ones begin to change, when they embark on their own great adventure, make their own mistakes? How much more does it hurt to know that we haven’t been invited to the wild rumpus, that they will change, and we will be left behind?
Writer, editor, and mom, Jenn Horton, writes about the day she had planned to first let her daughter walk herself into school: “This morning was . . . ‘the day.’ [she writes] . . .I’d kiss her goodbye outside and watch her head into school on her own . . .I knew she could handle it.
Apparently, I could not. All it took was one, ‘Mom, are you coming in with me?’ and I grabbed her hand to walk inside together.
I easily could have said, ‘You can do it honey. I love you!’ There wasn’t fear in her eyes or timidity in her voice. She would have been better than fine. But I couldn't let go. I chose to hold onto her for just a little bit longer.”
She continues, ‘in that moment, Mama Bear wanted to hold on to her cub. She just didn’t need to hold on to me . . . And before I knew it, she had her locker situated and was heading to class . . . An almost-forgotten, quick kiss on my cheek and she was gone.” Her daughter accepted the adventure, fearing no wild things. She was ready to learn, ready to enter her own transitional space, ready to change.
It is painful to willingly step forward into the unsettling feeling of in-between. And letting those we love experience the discomfort of liminality is like opening another kind of wound. Not only do we worry for them, and wish that their road will be smooth but we also acknowledge our own loss: as if we are left behind in a black and white world while they experience a Technicolor adventure.
Whether we are sending our babies off to Kindergarten or off to college, supporting a spouse through a shifting career or saying goodbye to a dear friend as he moves on to a new experience, we know that in order to let our loved ones become the heroes of their own stories they will have to navigate the path on their own.
And we have to let them.
To traverse our own liminality, to undergo our own transitions, to return triumphantly home upon completion of our own heroic journey is an honor we all deserve. Teshuvah looks different for each one of us.
Max stepped into his private boat and waved good-bye.
And sailed back over a year, and in and out of weeks and through a day
and into the night of his very own room.
No matter where we came from or how we came to be here, our individual journeys converge as we find ourselves here together in this liminal, transitional space – this sanctuary, our very own room. We tap our chests. We confess our wrongs. Our stomachs growl. Eventually, tonight, the sun will set and this wild rumpus will draw to a close. And then, we will take the first step home together – to the place where someone loves us, and we love someone best of all.
May we all find our supper waiting for us, and may it still be hot.
1 Sendak, Maurice. Where the Wild Things Are. Harper and Row, 1963.
2 The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Campbell, Joseph. New World Library, Novato: 2008
3 Lew, Alan. This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared. Little, Brown and Company. New York: 2003. p 20.
4 Victor Turner, The Ritual Process pg 95.
5 Berner, Leila Gal. "A New Year," from Kol Haneshama: Mahzor Leyamim Nora'im (Prayerbook for Days of Awe), Elkins Park, PA: Reconstructionist Press, 1999.
6 "In Liminal Space and Time," Katy Z. Allen. http://www.ajrsem.org/uploads/docs/kallenarticle.pdf