Erica Brown

Born To Repent: The Boss And Elul

I grew up in Bruce Springsteen country.

My synagogue was in Asbury Park so I was intimately familiar with the “Greetings from Asbury Park” postcard that became an album cover. We passed The Stone Pony on the walk home, and nothing made the sand and surf better for a teenager than a new Bruce release. Imagine my surprise to learn from a recent New Yorker profile that the Boss has been in therapy for over 30 years. Suffering from a difficult relationship with his father, Springsteen suffered periods when he drove past his parents’ home three or four times a week until his therapist warned him that if he keeps driving back believing he can fix an unfixable problem then he better think again.

But Bruce knew what to do with the pain. He translated his struggles into music: “Those wounds stay with you, and you turn them into a language and a purpose.” At one concert, he told his adoring audience: “We’re repairmen — repairmen with a toolbox.” The darkness on the edge of town is sometimes so close that we can reach out and touch it. And at times, the darkness within is so palpable that we understand what it means to be born to run. We run away from the scars of difficulty and the encounter with our past and our inadequacies, even as they stare us boldly in the face.

I wonder what Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of Palestine, would have said to Springsteen, one boss to another, so to speak. In “Lights of Repentance,” Rabbi Kook wrote that “the inner pain of repentance is a great theme for the poets of sorrow to strike upon their harps and for artists of tragedy to thereby reveal their talents.” Use the darkness to shed light. Leverage the inner turmoil for goodness because pain is a universal language. The artists who are able to harness it can bring others to a place of solace and change. The repairman in one helps bring out the repairman in another.

Winston Churchill called his darkness the black dog and believed it was useful in his leadership. It accompanied him and reflected some of his most somber decisions but when it left, he felt great relief: “All the colours come back into the picture.” Much had been written about Lincoln’s battle with depression and how, he, too, dug deep within to use his own pain to redeem the suffering of others.

We are now in the month of Elul, readying ourselves for the Days of Awe. They are days when we tremble, when we face our own inner demons as a people and as individuals. This may not mean depression for most but it does for some. And for all of us, it means looking inside even when inside does not look too good. While we look forward to the newness of the holiday season, there are doors that will be re-opened that we will not easily confront. They are the doors into the soul that we would rather not face but ones that our prayers and penitence force us to encounter.

Many of us hide behind teshuva-lite, the easy-pass form of repentance where we write a check, throw some crumbs into the water and palm off our problems on an innocent fish or chicken. I even have sin towlettes that make wiping off transgressions as simple as opening the packet. (Believe it or not, they were once stolen from my synagogue box, but maybe the thief really needed them.) In our more honest moments we know that the truth is more complex, and the superficial contours of change will never access an authentic response. Repentance is hard work, maybe the hardest we will ever do.

So this year, in recognition of teshuva’s difficulties, I will be taking Bruce with me to shul. He could probably bring down the house with a moving Kol Nidrei. It is not the music that I will think of as I open my machzor, my prayerbook. It is the man who gets up on stage and smiles widely not because he is hiding behind the pain of problems he never fixed, but because he has found a way to work through them to bring relief to himself and joy to others. And I will think of him in conversation with Rabbi Kook, who taught us that teshuva begins at the moment of sin because recognizing the wound and the cost of sin is the first step towards personal redemption.

Dr. Erica Brown is the scholar-in-residence for The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Her new book is “Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe” (OU/Koren).

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks–Herenstein Center. Her latest book is Ecclesiastes and the Search for Meaning (Maggid Books).