Rabbi's Word: Elul and Teshuvah: Returning to G-d Is Returning to Ourselves

Rabbi's Word: Elul and Teshuvah: Returning to G-d Is Returning to Ourselves

On Septemper 1stbegins the month of Elul, the final month of 5779 (according to the Jewish calendar). This is the time when we are summing up the results of the past year and preparing for the future. Therefore, it is dedicated to repentance and strengthening our ties with the Creator. In Jewish tradition, this process is called teshuva— “return” (to the Creator, and hence to ourselves). This inner work prepares us for the new year — Rosh Hashanah.

The essence of teshuvah

Many books and articles have been written about teshuvah, providing detailed analyses of the various stages in the process of teshuvah, from start to finish. Yet, for all its manifold aspects, a few fundamental principles underlie all forms and levels of teshuvah, whether it's starting point is exalted or lowly, whether it aims at a high level of spiritual perfection or at more modest objectives. Two basic points are found in every kind of teshuvah: leaving the path of past sin and adopting a better path to be followed in the future.

Put concretely, as expressed by the very meaning of the word, teshuvahis simply a turning, be it a complete, total change of direction or a series of many separate turning points, not all of equal significance.

Three times a day, a Jew petitions for teshuvahand forgiveness. The meaning of this repetition is that each petition indicates the possibility of somekind of turnabout. As a rule, the more settled and tranquil a person’s life, the less sharp a turn he is likely to take. Yet, often, when a person reflects on his actions in retrospect, he realizes what the truly important turning points in his life were, even though he did not notice them at the time.

Feeling the need for a change of direction

As we have stated, two factors make this turning possible: the recognition that the past, whatever it may have been, is imperfect and in need of correction; and the decision to change direction, to go a different way in the future.

The recognition, the feeling, of the need to change do not always come in the same way. Sometimes one is overcome by a sense of sinfulness, of defect and blemish, of defilement that burdens the soul, which results in a powerful desire to escape this condition and to purify oneself of the blemish and sin. But the desire for a turnabout can also come in more subtle forms, in feelings of imperfection or unrealized potential, which lead to a search for things of another kind or of a different nature.

As a rule, the more acute the initial feeling of past inadequacy or blemish, the sharper the turnabout is likely to be, sometimes to the point of extremism and complete reversal. The inverse is also true: When the feeling of uneasiness or imperfection about the past or present is more subdued, the resulting turnabout will generally be more moderate, both in the pace of the change and in its sharpness.

Obtuseness of the heart

The greatest obstacle in the way of teshuvah— an obstacle that affects everyone, wicked and righteous alike — is self-satisfaction. A person who is pleased with himself feels that he has done well for himself, that “everything is okay” as far as he himself is concerned, and that if reality is flawed, the flaws are common to the world as a whole, to all human beings, to society, to the family, to God, and so forth.

Spiritual and moral complacency has no necessary relation to one’s objective condition. A person may appear to others as a sinner and a criminal, yet he himself may have no such awareness of his failings. Such a person will never attain teshuvah. Conversely, even if someone appears to others to be blameless and upright, if he himself is aware of a personal failing, the way of teshuvahis open to him.

The great obstacle in the way of teshuvahwas termed by one great sage as “obtuseness of the heart” (Tanya, ch. 29). Obtuseness of the mind is easily recognized as an impairment of cognitive functioning. Obtuseness of the heart, however, is more insidious. It is a condition in which a person’s emotional sense of his own deficiencies and problems is blocked. Even if one is filled with wisdom and understanding and intellectually knows everything, this will have no effect on his actual behavior if he has no emotional sense of deficiency.

In many cases of teshuvah, from a certain point onward the pace of the turnabout intensifies, creating an “opening of the heart”; that is, the initial block to feeling one’s own deficiency is overcome. For the breakthrough of the initial openness leads to a deeper awareness and thus to a stronger response.

These observations apply universally, to those who have remained distant all their lives from everything involving holiness and who feel no lack in that area, as well as to those who lead pious lives with which they are so satisfied that they cannot see how far they are from perfection.

This discerning and spiritual awakening is actually the first, overall point of “confession.” When a vague sense of unease turns into a clearer recognition that something is lacking, and when this recognition is expressed in words spoken either to oneself, to God, or to another person, the first step in the turnaround has been taken: the part that relates to the past, to one’s life and character before the turnaround.

Commitment for the future

The second component in teshuvahis called “commitment for the future” — the resolve to change one’s direction from now on. In a certain respect this component is the natural continuation of the first step in the turnabout, and its force, direction, and staying power largely depend on the clarity and strength of the initial feeling about the past.

One who feels uneasy and characterizes his uneasiness and himself with the words “not good” (or with any other more complex and intellectual formulation which expresses, in effect, the same thing) does not necessarily come to the decision to change, let alone change in practice.

On the other hand, the very fact that a person regrets his actions, is sorry about something that happened to him, and feels his inadequacy does not necessarily lead to the desired outcome either; instead, it can lead to a deepening sense of despair, the loss of hope, and a fatalistic resignation to the status quo without any attempt to change the situation. Such despondency, which is regarded by many as one of the most serious afflictions of the soul, not only does not produce positive results but sometimes is itself the cause of a person sinking further in his defects and deficiencies.

A person may come to feel so sunken and lowly (morally, religiously, or from any other perspective of himself and his lot in life) that he decides to blot out from his consciousness the source of his degradation. Such repression is usually accomplished by taking up a life of instinctual pleasures or other pursuits whose common denominator is their ability to dull the senses, temporarily or permanently. The purpose of this escape is to relieve the person of his feeling of depression. Turning to alcohol, drugs, sex, or other forms of “entertainment” is an attempt to blunt a feeling of unease and dissatisfaction, but it solves nothing. Such indulgence only creates a false sense of relief from pain and the illusion that one can carry on without changing direction.

Thus, remorse in itself, for all its decisive initial importance, must be accompanied by another aspect — the aspect of hope and belief in thepossibility of change. In this sense, teshuvah— the principle that at all times and from any starting point, no matter how low, it is possible to return in teshuvah— is one of the foundations of man’s hope and reawakening. The awareness that the door is always open and that there is a way to teshuvah, that there is no situation from which there is no return — this awareness itself can serve as a stimulus that creates the possibility of teshuvah.

A path both long and short

It is important to remember that resolutions are not always carried out. The obstacles and impediments that lie heaped up on man’s way are very great. Routine and habit, the factors that often bring a person into a certain state, usually continue to operate, regardless of the fine resolutions in his heart. Nevertheless, the will to change and the decision itself are an important step, even when this decision is not immediately carried out. As long as the decision to change is not mere talk or self-deception (one is as liable to speak words of deception to oneself as to others), every such decision, no matter how small, is important.

It is true that in some cases the great turn in a person’s life is made suddenly, at a sharp angle and at high speed. But usually such a turn is preceded by many less dramatic and often concealed stages: small decisions that are not always implemented, wishes never carried out. Yet when the time comes, all the small decisions accumulate and coalesce into a single essence.

In short, teshuvahis a world unto itself, embracing two apparent opposites.

On the one hand, it is an exceedingly lengthy path which, in fact, has no end point. When a person wants to attain teshuvah, then, whatever his starting point, each subsequent moment of change throughout life becomes the fulfilment of that initial inner resolution to make the turn.

On the other hand, teshuvahis a tiny point, a turnabout in miniature. Teshuvahis a moment of reflection, remorse, and thought of change. Teshuvahis a flash of insight that instructs a person to change, to improve.

These two aspects of teshuvahare not contradictory but complementary. In one respect, there is nothing more difficult than doing teshuvah, because teshuvahmeans transforming oneself, fashioning a new nature. In another respect, there is nothing easier than teshuvah; a split second of turning is already considered teshuvah.

The ba’al teshuvah(penitent) is thus like a person following a certain course who in an instant decides to change his direction. From that point onward, he no longer goes the old way, but a different way. Yet the new path, like the old one, is long and unending.

I wish us all a fruitful month of Elul.