What Oprah’s design guru Nate Berkus can teach us about teshuvah

Nate Berkus, the Chicago-based interior designer who has appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show more than 80 times and will debut his self-titled show on NBC tonight.

I know what you’re thinking: Seriously, what Jew has time to redecorate their home when the high holidays keep us plenty busy with a mandate to redecorate our souls?

As it turns out, though, a little investigation into this surface-oriented designer has revealed something deep and profound about the Jewish concept of teshuvah—or, “return” as we describe the process by which we repent and repair what is tragically broken in us throughout the high holy days.

Berkus, a Southern California native (born in Orange County), was vacationing with his partner, the photographer Fernando Bengoechea in Sri Lanka when the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami devastated the coast of Southeast Asia. Berkus survived the tragedy, but his partner did not.

In a 2008 interview with the Windy City Times, Berkus explained how reflecting on that tragedy transformed him.

“I sort of have reached a stage with that [ tragedy ] where I do still reflect on it quite frequently, but I tend to reflect more on who I’ve become and what I’ve learned since that day,” Berkus told reporter Ross Forman. “I would never wish for anyone to experience what I experienced, the personal loss I experienced with Fernando dying and also witnessing what I witnessed, including the deaths of so many. But the truth is, the lessons that I’ve learned from that changed me so profoundly as a person, thus I wouldn’t recognize myself before the tsunami.”

Sometimes, even the most horrific traumas can be tools for helping us refashion our lives.

“When you go through a life-altering experience, you can come out [ of it ] in one of two ways: You can come out as a stronger version of the person you were before, or you can let it destroy you. Even through my grief, and truly for the first time ever understanding what grief was, I knew on some level that I would make myself a better person as a result of that, that it wouldn’t be the one thing in my life that defined me. For me, a lot of things define [ me ] ; I’m not just defined as being on TV. Nor am I just defined as being Jewish, or being gay or being the eldest son. Rather, I’m all of those things.”

Rabbi Sharon Brous, founder of IKAR, often teaches that the reason Jewish tradition demands we examine our own suffering is so that it awakens us to the suffering of others. Every year, during Passover seder, Jews recall the Exodus from Egypt as if we were there; and every year, between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, again, Jews are instructed to internalize our own brokenness, and our failings, so that we may transform our pain into something that makes us, and the world in which we live, more whole.

Sometimes, even seemingly superficial TV personalities can teach us life-sustaining torah.