What Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band Can Teach Us About Teshuvah
It was the summer of 1967. Wearing some flowers in your hair. Free music in the park. Acid trips. Haight-Ashbury. The Monterey Pop Festival. “Turn on, tune in, drop out.”
And it was also 50 years ago today, “Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play.” A half-century ago, the Beatles released the soundtrack to the summer of 1967. Endless essays and analyses have assessed the importance and the impact of what many regard as the most significant album recorded by the Beatles.
I suspect, however, that this may be among the few attempts at “Learning About Teshuvah — From Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” In order of the songs:
1. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
By the end of 1966, the Beatles had just about lost interest in being “The Beatles.” They were tired of the touring, the screaming, the public expectations, and four years of nonstop Beatlemania. It was Paul McCartney who came up with the idea for the Beatles to put on disguises and pretend to be someone else.
There are multiple meanings of teshuvah: regret, repentance, renewal and return are perhaps most familiar. But there is also a minority voice that argues for teshuvah being translated as rebirth, as seen in this midrash:
Said the Holy One to Israel: “My children, if you turn this day, changing your bad ways, you will become new creatures, not the same people as before. Then will I consider you as if I had created you anew. And then shall you be as a newborn, as the new heavens and the new earth that I shall create.”
But however much we might hope to erase the past, it seems more productive to work with who we have been, in order to become who we want to become. As the lyric goes: “So may I introduce to you / the act you’ve known for all these years.”
2. With a Little Help From My Friends
Is there a better song to sum up the collective power of being in a community on these Days of Awe? When we gather for prayer, song, study and reflection, the whole is so much more than the sum of the parts. There is something safe, comfortable and comforting about being with friends: people we may have known for decades, or only recently met; people with whom we have shared collective seasons and individual moments of joy and of sorrow; people who are, like us, trying to do their best in an imperfect world of unanticipated events, a world where stability can turn into fragility in the space of a single phone call.
Rosh Hashanah is when, to use Mordecai Kaplan’s formulation, we celebrate God as the Power that makes for social regeneration. We experience God when we realize that we get by – with a little help from our friends. We accept the challenge of teshuvah because we can try – with a little help from our friends.
Yom Kippur is different. Kaplan speaks of Yom Kippur as the day when we recognize God as the power that makes for individual regeneration. On Yom Kippur we experience God more personally, as we turn inward, expose ourselves, stop hiding and look honestly.
Or as the lyric goes: “What do you see when you turn out the light? I can’t tell you, but I know it’s mine.”
3. Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds
A lot of time can go by before a rupture in a relationship gets repaired. Sometimes the person who has offended apologizes immediately, but the one offended is not ready for reconciliation, and so defers a response.
Sometimes the person who has been offended is eager to offer forgiveness, but the one who has offended is not ready to accept the obligation to apologize.
Ir is forbidden to be ill-natured and unforgiving. One must rather be easily appeased, and not easily angered. When someone who has hurt or offended you implores you for forgiveness, you should grant it wholeheartedly, and not bear a grudge.
Put differently, you want to avoid the situation the lyric describes: “Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly.”
4. Getting Better
One of my younger friends asked me recently if when I was her age, I thought the world could be much improved, if there would be more peace, more equality, more progress and, coordinately, less hatred, less unfairness, less suspicion, animosity and hatred. As with so many people her age, the political developments of the past few years have left a sense of despair and, perhaps more consequential, a sense of hopelessness. Our son, who is all of 26 years old, told us recently that he feels like he has aged 10 years in the past 12 months following the election.
There is a coming-of-age moment when well-intentioned optimism begins to be tempered by the hard realities of life and of living. We lose faith in the possibility of perfection, but we begin to cultivate a faith in improvement. In Jewish terms, this is the moment when we find ourselves acknowledging things we regret having done, atoning and apologizing –- all the while knowing that we will be back next year, acknowledging regret and apologizing for some of the very same things.
Teshuvah was never intended to be a pathway to the perfect. It is intended to be a pathway to the possible. Sometimes it can seem as if incremental improvements are inconsequential. Perhaps it’s not possible, as the lyric says, “to admit it’s getting better, a little better all the time.” But when we take teshuvah seriously, we can see that “it’s getting better, a little better” at least some of the time. And perhaps the more important thing we can say, to ourselves and to others, is, as the lyric goes, “And I’m doing the best that I can.”
5. Fixing a Hole
You might sum up the meaning of these Days pf Awe in this simple lyric: “I’m taking the time for a number of things, that weren’t important yesterday.”
6. She’s Leaving Home
The path to teshuvah can be long and arduous. It can take a concentrated effort over a long period of time to commit to change, and to cultivate the necessary skills, tools and techniques.
But sometimes teshuvah is almost instantaneous; self-neglect, complacency and despair are overcome in a single, dramatic moment of insight. Rabbi Yehudah haNasi taught: “One person may acquire eternal life after many years of effort, and another acquires it in a single instant.”
Teshuvah sometimes begins with simple questions. The lyric offers: “What did we do that was wrong? We didn’t know it was wrong.” And teshuvah sometimes emerges when we discover, as the lyric says, “something inside that was always denied for so many years.”
7. Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite
A lot of energy, time and preparation go into preparing for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. As the lyric promises, “Having been some days in preparation, a splendid time is guaranteed for all.”
8. Within You and Without You
The opening song of side two of “Sgt. Pepper” could have been a contemporary High Holidays poem:
We were talking — about the space between us all
And the people — who hide themselves behind a wall of illusion
Never glimpse the truth — then it’s far too late -– when they pass away.
Try to realize it’s all within yourself; no one else can make you change.
And to see you’re really only very small, and life flows on within you and without you.
When you’ve seen beyond yourself — then you may find peace of mind is waiting there. That about says it.
9. When I’m Sixty-Four
There is an expectation and an obligation that we will use the Ten Days of Repentance to do acts of personal teshuvah. Someone who has hurt, angered or offended another approaches that person and offers an apology. The other person reciprocates by accepting the apology, and offers forgiveness.
He says that “an apology must be spoken; all that one has intended in his heart to repair shall be formed into words.”
It is not always easy to find the right words for teshuvah. The popular political non-apology apology is an example: “If anyone was offended by what I said, I apologize.”
A rabbinic commentary from the early Common Era indicates that this is not only a contemporary problem:
Rabbi Tarfon said “in this generation, no one knows how to offer a rebuke.” Rabbi Elazar said “in this generation, no one knows how to receive a rebuke.” Rabbi Akiva said “in this generation, no one knows the right words to use for a rebuke.”
Generic apologies of an imprecise nature are inadequate for teshuvah. As the lyric reminds us: “Send me a postcard, drop me a line, stating point of view; indicate precisely what you mean to say; ‘yours sincerely’ wasting away.”
10. Lovely Rita
It is often said that Christianity believes people need an intercessor between human beings and God. But in Judaism each person has a personal and immediate relationship with God, and does not require anyone to intercede on his or her behalf.
But there was a time when Judaism did believe that for certain spiritual transactions, it was necessary to have an intercessor, someone who stood between you and God to mediate the exchange — to do what on your own you could not do.
A reminder of that ancient approach is the Yom Kippur Avodah service of the Kohen Gadol (the high priest). In that ancient version of Yom Kippur, the Kohen Gadol is the only person who can enter the Holy of Holies; offer the incense; prepare the requisite sacrifices; dispatch the scapegoat, and pronounce the three required confessions for the day. And not incidentally, the Kohen Gadol is the only one who can pronounce the four-letter name of God, and only on that one day of the year.
Once the priestly system ended, Yom Kippur became about individual atonement between each person and God: no intercessors. As the well-known teaching goes, on Rosh Hashanah we atone for transgressions between one person and another. And on Yom Kippur we atone for transgressions between each person and God.
As the sun goes down and Kol Nidre begins, it’s each of us and God, one on one. As the lyric suggests, “Nothing can come between us. When it gets dark, I tow your heart away.”
11. Good Morning, Good Morning
Consider the dynamic between the one offering, and the one receiving, an apology. Who is in charge? What happens if a sincere apology is rebuffed or refused?
If one has offended another, one must approach the offended person and implore him to be forgiven. But what if the offended person refuses to forgive? Then a committee of three friends should go to the offended person and implore him to forgive the other. If he still refuses, a second and even a third committee should be sent. And what if, after all that, the offended person still refuses to accept the apology? Then the sin rests upon the offended person, for refusing to forgive.
After three attempts at apology, as the lyric says: “Nothing to do, it’s up to you; I’ve got nothing to say, but it’s okay.”
12. Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)
Just when you think it’s almost over, the Beatles drop in a quick reprise of the opening song. But if you listen carefully, a few of the words have been changed.
Similarly, when you think it’s almost over, familiar High Holidays prayers make a reappearance in the Ne’ilah service. Avinu Malkaynu, for instance. But if you listen carefully, a few of the words have been changed. For example, we no longer pray to be “written” into the Book of Life, but to be “sealed.”
Similar but different: not unlike the way we hope to emerge from 10 days of doing teshuvah.
13. A Day in the Life
The Talmud teaches that “three books are opened on Rosh Hashanah: one for the utterly wicked, one for the wholly righteous, and one for everyone else in-between.”
Consequently, throughout the Ten Days of Repentance, we repeat the petition Besefer Hayim: “In the book of life, blessing, peace, and dignified sustenance, may we be remembered and inscribed.”
The imagery is mythic, but the message remains compelling. We perhaps no longer believe that God is deciding where our names should be placed, and consequently what our fate will be in the coming year… Yet no less than our ancestors, we desire that we and those we love will receive the gift of being here next year, at this time and in this season.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are, in many ways, about the promise of uncertainty: the awareness that Sefer Hayim is not to be translated as “the Book of Life” — a ledger in which our moral accounts are added up. Sefer Hayim can be “the Book of Living,” in which we try as best we can to write our story, day by day, and year by year.
These Days of Awe inspire us to use our time well and wisely. They remind us of the uncertainties of life. Confronting contingency is not always comfortable, but it is always necessary. As the lyric reminds us: “A crowd of people turned away; but I just had to look, having read the book.”