Bezmozgis book opens a portal to personal change

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Change is hard. But any real progress in the spiritual life requires change. Only when we are open to change is reconciliation possible.

In “The Betrayers,” the new novel by David Bezmozgis, each character must confront a challenge in order to grow. In reflecting on the characters’ attempts at reconciliation with one another, I began returning to my own challenges to effect reconciliation and forgiveness. The challenge of transformation through reconciliation has many applications — personal, familial, national or religious. I found myself examining not only myself, but my own family and its dynamics, as well as my relationship to Israel and the world at large.

Rabbi Aubrey L. Glazer

So how do openings toward change emerge in this novel? I want to suggest a pathway through “The Betrayers” by way of the spiritual practice of returning, or teshuvah. Among the reasons for embarking on paths of return, Maimonides cites the need “… to change one’s name, as if to say, ‘I am a different person and not the same one who sinned’; to change one’s behavior in its entirety to the good and the path of the just; to travel in exile from [one’s] home. Exile atones for sin because it causes a person to be submissive, humble, and meek of spirit” (Laws of Return, Mishneh Torah, chapter 3, halachah 4).

The contemporary American Jewish novel is a wonderful confessional vehicle for celebrating the pain of this kind of inner change — think of almost any novel by Philip Roth — and so, too, many of the characters in “The Betrayers” unknowingly go through pathways of teshuvah and change in the process.

The narrative in “The Betrayers” appears as a page torn from the tormented diary of Baruch Kotler, a former refusenik, reborn as an Israeli politician, currently a fallen hero. The novel is an extended day of missed moments in Kotler’s life that can be traced to recalcitrance on his principled stance regarding the West Bank settlements, leading his political opponents to expose his affair with a young mistress.

In choosing exile to Yalta in Crimea over confronting the scandal back home in Israel, Baruch comes face to face with the “former friend” and informant, Vladimir Tankilevich, who denounced him to the KGB almost 40 years earlier. Vlad has changed his name to Chaim, just as Boris has changed his name to Baruch, but who has really transformed here?

In facing this crossroads of ultimate reckoning — both with those who have betrayed him and with those whom he has betrayed, including his teenage daughter, his soldier son and his loyal wife, Miriam — Baruch is faced with seemingly every challenge of teshuvah. The brilliance of this novel is how deftly it elicits pangs of reconciliation and forgiveness in the process of teshuvah.

Baruch continually falls prey to the old, wily ways that served him well as a politician ascending the ladder of power in Israel. While he is able to change his name upon immigrating to Israel as well as exile himself to Yalta upon exposure of his disgraceful affair, it is unclear to what degree his behavior has really changed. Contrary to the free will that undergirds teshuvah, Baruch’s inner voice seems to take an almost fatalistic approach to decision-making. At the moment he is about to confront Tankilevich, he tells himself: “… he was responsible for it. He still had the power to change it. But he knew he would not. A man could not live two lives. A man was condemned to choose and he had chosen.”

Such fatalism could not be further from the true spiritual nature of the human freedom to choose that undergirds teshuvah (see Laws of Return, Mishneh Torah, 8:1), yet this does not seem to disturb Baruch. Fatalism is the friend of rationalization. But his apparent fatalism begins to be shaken once Tankilevich’s wife, Svetlana, challenges him. Kotler responds to Svetlana:

I would say that one walks hand in hand with fate. Fate pulls you in one direction, you pull in the other. You follow fate; fate follows you. And it is not always possible to say who is leading whom.

— But you say fate led you here.

— Fate led; I followed. I chose to follow. At first innocently, obliviously. But once I recognized where fate was leading me, no longer obliviously. Then I chose with full and deliberate knowledge.

Kotler struggles with teshuvah throughout the novel, but it all comes to a head when he crosses the path that stands before him in Tankilevich’s Yalta home. As readers, we are left with the open question as to whether Baruch Kotler does indeed absolve Chaim Tankilevich. The novel’s closing coda hovers in mystery as to whose name has changed as part of the spiritual practice of teshuvah, and who has really changed mamash, in his entirety.

It is to consider these and other lingering questions that I invite you to join this One Bay One Book communal reading and discussion, so as to enter into the spiritual practice of teshuvah along your own path throughout the coming year.

Rabbi Aubrey L. Glazer is spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco. An expanded version of this essay can be found online at www.onebayonebook.com.