The central theme of the High Holiday season is teshuvah (lit. “return,” or “response”) and is a process of turning our lives around in a step-by-step process leading to our reengagement with our highest selves. Teshuvah includes turning away from negative and destructive tendencies (i.e. yetzer ha-ra – the evil inclination), embracing that which is good in our lives (yetzer tov – good inclination), and reemphasizing the virtues of humility, gratitude, generosity, compassion, and loving-kindness.
The teshuvah process often begins with a sense of despair, hopelessness, and sadness, the feeling that we’re forever stuck where we are and unable to change the character and direction of our lives. Teshuvah is a rejection of stagnation, pessimism, and cynicism, and Judaism urges us to transcend those impediments that prevent the transformation of and the creation of a more hopeful future.
In the story of the prophet Jonah that we read on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, Jonah descends into hopelessness and despair because he refuses to do God’s bidding to preach to the Ninevites that they should cease their sins and return to lives based in goodness and common decency. When all seems its most bleak, Jonah turns his life around and becomes a model for us.
Jonah is an unrealized prophet who runs from himself, from civilization, from moral responsibility, and from God. Every verb associated with his journey into the netherworld uses the language of descent (yod-resh-daled). He flees from God’s command to preach to the Ninevites down to the seashore. He boards a ship and goes down into its interior. He lies down and falls into a deep sleep. He’s thrown overboard down into the waters by his terrified ship-mates. He’s swallowed down into the belly of a great fish, and there he remains for three days and nights until in a state of desperation Jonah realizes that he wants to live and not die. At last he cries out to God to save him.
God responds by making the fish vomit Jonah out onto dry land. Jonah agrees this time to do God’s bidding and preach to the Ninevites that they turn away from their evil ways. While the town’s people respond and put on sackcloth and ashes (a sign of their renewed humility and willingness to change the course of their lives), God provides Jonah with shade and protection from the sun’s heat. Jonah, however, is mortified because he doesn’t really believe in change and is convinced that the Ninevites are destined in the end to fail in their penetance. In Jonah’s mind, the Ninevites’ success makes him appear the fool, more evidence that Jonah didn’t understand the first principle of teshuvah, that change is possible if there is acknowledgment of wrong-doing and a willingness to fashion a new way of living.
Teshuvah is never easy. It’s for those who are strong of mind, heart, and soul, who are willing to suffer failure, but also to get up, own what we’ve done, acknowledge wrong-doing, apologize unconditionally to those we’ve hurt, and recommit to greater enlightenment, step-by-step, patiently, one day at a time, one hour at a time, one moment at a time.
When successful, teshuvah is restorative and utopian, for it enables us to return to our best selves and overcome the past for the sake of a better future.