September 23, 2019

Elul Week Four: Taking Teshuvah’s Path Home

This is the fourth of six weekly columns by Rabbi Zimmerman leading up to Yom Kippur.

The cosmic principle of the entire High Holy Days season is teshuvah, which, unfortunately, is often translated as “repentance” and 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 to me.”

A stunning midrash declares that teshuvah itself was created before the creation of the world. Continuing that 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 an avenue for people to turn back and be forgiven.

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 ourselves. As we stand together in 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 the center. In fact, throughout the High Holy Days liturgy, the loving, compassionate Source of All beckons us to return to our own souls, to one another and to God. Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezritch, teaches that when we start 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 such as births, deaths and illnesses, our everyday relationships, our doctor’s appointments and trips to the beach. Or we notice what has been missing, such as the trip to the mountains we didn’t take 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? What phone calls, conversations, apologies and new commitments need to be made?

As we do this work, there are a few principles to keep in mind. 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 Holy Days 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. Comedian Amy Schumer did a funny but true sketch on her show several years ago depicting a group of ve women, each one apologizing more than the one before. There’s even a Gmail app that a few women put together that catches all the times we pepper our emails with “I’m sorry.”

Sometimes the process of teshuvah is about acceptance of what is, which might be the hardest work of all. We can control only our own selves.

For your Elul practice this week, journal to the questions I’ve suggested above. Make a list of the apologies you need to make, and set aside time to explore how you can return to your own best self.

When you engage in teshuvah, you enter this year’s stream of souls longing to come Home and restore unity to our lives. Next week we continue the journey.

Rabbi Jill Berkson Zimmerman is a rabbi-at-large. She has created a Holy Days Spiritual & Practical Preparation Checklist, available on her website.