The Path Is Always Present: Tshuvah, Habit and the Idea of Direction

Debra Cash, 6/29/2005
From Direction: A Journal of the Alexander Technique Vol2 No 9 copyright 2000 Debra Cash

At Yom Kippur, Jews are offered a fresh spiritual start: they can stop and choose not to act on false habits which seem second nature.

The holiest day of the Jewish Year is the day ordinary activities: eating, drinking, bathing, making loveare forbidden. Jews fill the emptied-out hours with prayer, meditation, study and memorialisation of loved ones. The liturgy reflects our public responsibilities as a community and on our personal commitments as individuals. During the intense and solemn hours of Yom Kippur, our spiritual efforts make room for the flowering of tshuvah.

Tshuvah (pronounced ti-shoo-vah) is a complex notion. It is common to translate it into English as "repentance", but repentance carries with it ideas about sin and evil that have their roots in a Christian world view and that are only marginal to modern Jewish theology. Tshuvah is less about transgression than it is about return. The Hebrew verb literally means "a turning". One returns to the right path, the path that has always been present in the commandments of the Torah and in the work of seeking justice.

During the Yom Kippur service. Jews are offered a fresh start. If we turn to those we have wronged, we can be forgiven. If we pray and commit ourselves to act justly. God will forgive our mistakes. We are told that we can exchange our thoughtless habits for a life of righteous action and good deeds. That exchange is a choice only we can make; human beings were created with free will. Yet by choosing the path of tshuvah, we are making the choice to act freely, and consciously, in accordance with our ultimate, sacred purpose in the world.

F.M. Alexander was not a Jew. Tshuvah is not a concept in his vocabulary. Yet the congruence between the ideas of direction and tshuvah have been helpful and intriguing to me. The promise of tshuvah can orient my thoughts. Direction can orient my body. Together, they can orient my spirit.

The back injury that led me to an Alexander teacher, it turned out, was part of a systemic problem. Misuse was not a matter of simply strengthening certain muscles, or changing certain postural traits. It was more pervasive and more insidious than that. Misuse felt ordinary. It felt right. And being helped to free my neck and let my back widen felt wrong, awkward, even dangerous. It was only the sight of my own upright posture in the mirror that could assure me that I wasn't about to fall on my face when I got off the table for the first time.

Spiritually, the little transgressions and habits we have as people are also comfortable. From the easy dismissal of someone else's feelings and a bit of malicious gossip to the ability to rob, murder, and ignore injustice, evil habits become easy to repeat, hard to challenge, nearly invisible. They are part of a system much larger than any single action.

Tshuvah, and the concept of direction, challenge the fixity of habit. And in both cases, the solution is to stop. The hard work of change, and of giving direction, is to choose not to act on the false habits that seem second nature.

During the afternoon of the Yom Kippur, Jews read the book of Jonah. Jonah, the rebellious prophet, refuses his orders from God, and after a series of dramatic adventures ends up in the belly of a large fish. Then Jonah stops. He prays. And when he is spat out on the shore, he does what he was meant to do all along. F.M. Alexander could have been describing Jonah's dilemma when he pointed out "everyone wants to be right, but no-one stops to consider if their idea of right is right".

Stopping, or not-doing, of course, is merely the first step. Trusting that what will come through us in the place of those habits will be an expression of physical and spiritual health and balance is another, and to me a more serious spiritual challenge. However, this idea is not alien to Jewish thought either. Rav Kook, the Latvian-born mystic who became chief rabbi of Jaffa in Palestine at the turn of the century (and who was, coincidentally. F.M. Alexander's contemporary) wrote of this blissful "natural state" in his classic Lights of Penitence.

Tshuvah is the healthiest feeling or a person. A healthy soul in a healthy body must necessarily bring about the great happiness afforded by tshuvah and the soul experiences therein the greatest natural delight. The elimination of damaging elements has beneficent and invigorating effects on the body when it is in a state of health. The purging away of every evil deed and its resultant evil effects, of every evil thought, of every obstruction that keeps us away from the divine spiritual reality, is bound to arise when the organism is in a state of spiritual and physical health.

Alexander's theory, then, can be a useful and optimistic embodiment of Rav Kook's Jewish ideal.

Alexander training is only a small aspect of my own spiritual practice and is tangential to my Jewish identity and commitments. But if the body is the locus of all experience and it has to be Alexander training offers a powerful resource in the service of doing tshuvahin orienting myself towards becoming the complete human being I was always meant to be.


1. Abraham Isaac Kook The Lights of Penitence, Lights of Holiness: The Moral Principles, Essays, Letters and Poems (Translator Ben Zion Bokser) Paulist Press: New Jersey (1978) Ch. 5.

Debra Cash is principal of New Century Enterprises, an international consultancy that specializes in customer-centered research and design for the workplace and e-commerce. She was dance critic of the Boston Globe for 17 years and is a co-founder of the Boston Globe Freelancers Association. She is also a member of the Board of Directors of the National Havurah Committee, a network dedicated to Jewish learning and renewal.

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