Overcoming Despair and Beginning Again

September 13, 2015

The central theme of these High Holidays is teshuvah, a process that brings us back to ourselves, to our families and friends, to our community, Torah, and God. Teshuvah is ultimately an expression of hope, that the way we are today need not be who we become tomorrow.

Teshuvah is essentially a step-by-step process of turning and re-engaging with our most basic inclinations, the yetzer hara-the evil urge that is propelled by desire, lust and need and our yetzer tov-the good inclination that is inspired by humility, gratitude, generosity, and kindness.

A key beginning in the process that is teshuvah is, however, a sense of despair, hopelessness and sadness, the feeling that we are stuck and cannot change the nature, character and direction of our lives.

Judaism, however, rejects pessimism, cynicism and everything that impedes personal transformation and a hopeful future.

In the story of Jonah, to be read on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, we read the tale of the prophet’s descent into hopelessness and what is required for him to change direction.

Jonah is the epitome of a unrealized prophet who runs from himself, from civilization and from God. Every verb associated with his journey is the language of descent (yod-resh-daled). He flees down to the sea. He boards a ship and goes down into its dark interior. He lays down and falls into a deep sleep. He is thrown overboard down into the waters by his terrified ship-mates. He is swallowed and descends into the belly of a great fish, and there he stays for three days and nights until from that place of despair and utter darkness Jonah decides that he wishes to live and not die. 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 to repent from their evil ways. While the town’s people are all putting on sack cloth and ashes and promising to change, God provides Jonah with shade and protection from the hot sun. Jonah, however, becomes mortified because he still believes that change is impossible and that the Ninevites are destined to fail. Their success, in his mind, makes him to appear the fool.

Teshuvah is never easy. It is for those of us who are strong of mind, heart and soul, who are willing to work hard and suffer failure, but to get up every time, to own what we do, to acknowledge our wrong-doing, to apologize to ourselves and others, and to recommit to the struggle, step-by-step, patiently, one day at a time, one hour at a time, and even one moment at a time.

When successful, teshuvah is restorative and even utopian, for it enables us to return to our truest selves, to the place of soul, to the garden of oneness.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik taught that in teshuvah we are able even to transcend time itself. He said, “The future has overcome the past.”

L’shanah tovah u-m’tukah.

A good and sweet New Year to you all.

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