High Holy Day Soul Work, Part 4
The cosmic principle of the entire High Holy Day season is teshuvah – to turn. Unfortunately, it is often translated as “repentance” which sounds severe and judgmental. However, teshuvah actually means “to turn, return, restore.” My teacher, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner writes of teshuvah: “All God ever says is return (teshuvah) to me.”
A stunning Midrash declares that teshuvah itself was created before the actual creation of the world. (Talmud (Pesachim 54a) and Pirke DeRabbi Eliezer 3:1)
Continuing this theme, another Midrash imagines that God consults the Torah before creating the world. “Torah” advises God that human beings, by their very nature, will veer off the path, and therefore God created teshuvah as a way for people to turn back and be forgiven. (Zohar Vayikra 3, 69b)
Returning Home Is Built Into The Structure
How extraordinary is it that the ability to make teshuvah is built into the very structure of creation? We all make mistakes, forget our commitments, lose connection with God and our best selves. We lose sight of our purpose, harm those we love, and hurt our selves. As we stand together in the synagogue and collectively recite our misdeeds, too many of them ring true.
But in the light of this reckoning, Jewish tradition proclaims that there is a way to repair what is out of order. We have a generations-old process of making amends and coming back to center. In fact, throughout the High Holy Day liturgy, the loving compassionate Source-of-All beckons us to return to our own souls, to each other, and to God.
We Only Need To Begin To Turn
Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezritch teaches that when a human being starts on the path of teshuvah, God meets and guides us. With one single step, we have begun.
In practical terms, we enter into an examination of our year. We go through our calendar and remember the momentous events like births and deaths and illnesses, our everyday relationships, our doctor’s appointments and trips to the beach.
Or we notice what has been missing such as we didn’t get to the mountains because we were too busy working. We recall friends with whom we have lost touch or those whom we have not made time to call. We bring to mind our involvement in the community, or the lack thereof.
Most of all, we reflect on where things got broken and assess our own responsibility.
When we’ve made our list (and this takes time), we make a plan. We ask ourselves:
“how do we get back to wholeness/home?”
What phone calls, conversations, apologies, and new commitments need to be made?
A Few Important Principles To Keep In Mind
As we do this work, there are a few principles to keep in mind, because this is not easy.
First, some broken relationships might not be possible to repair. If you are in an unhealthy relationship that leaves you feeling constantly hurt or unvalued, and you believe that the other person is not open or incapable of changing, you may have to let it go, for your own well-being.
In the case of deeply painful (often family) ruptures that will require more than one High Holiday season to repair, please know that it might be enough to just begin. It could take therapy, alone or together, for healing to take place.
Second, some of us feel responsible for everything and what teshuvah might look like is turning back to a more solid sense of our own worth.
The comedian Amy Schumer did a funny but true sketch on her show several years ago depicting a group of 5 women, each one apologizing for more than the one before. There’s even an app for Gmail that a few women put together that catches all the times we pepper “I’m sorry” into our emails.
Sometimes the process of teshuvah is about acceptance of what is, which might be the hardest work of all. We can only control our own selves.
Your Elul/Teshuvah Practice For This Week
For your Elul practice this week, get your calendar out and journal to the questions I’ve suggested. Make a list of the apologies you need to make, and set time aside to explore how you can return to your own best self.
When you engage in teshuvah, you enter the stream of souls this year, longing to come Home, and who want to restore unity to our lives.
For your free, one-page High Holy Days Spiritual & Practical Preparation Checklist, click here.
To read last week’s Elul Reflection, click here.
Blessings to you this holiday season
*adapted from my 6 week series on Spiritual Preparation for the High Holy Days originally published in the Jewish Journal