This is the time of year to know about the High Holidays. My mother taught me that the flutter in my stomach that followed my saying that I’d eaten my dinner when in fact, I’d dropped it under the table into my cocker spaniel’s mouth, was conscience. By the time I was five years old, I knew everything I needed to know. The holidays were the time to look inside, admit my wrongdoings, and apologize. This process, called teshuvah magically took away the great weight of guilt and shame that my burdened my conscience.
Teshuvah was so easy then! We do our part, and God forgives us. But now, as adults, it’s not so clear. We think, I’m doing fine, I have nothing I need forgiveness for. Who wants to look at what they’re doing and admit it’s wrong? Wrongdoings, sins to use that nasty word, have become slippery and ambiguous. We become defensive, rationalize behavior, justify resentments, and stay warm and energized with righteous anger. Admitting our imperfections infantilizes us and makes us feel powerless in a world that worships power.
Yet teshuvah is essential for survival. The tradition teaches that before the world was created, teshuvah existed. Before we walked the earth, we were given the gift of transformation, our highest expression of choice. This is God’s presence within us. How consoling! How could we live if there were no way to learn from our lives and do better? Mistakes are built in to our process–maybe it’s the only way to learn and to change.
When Moses came down from Sinai the first time carrying the Ten Commandments, he was torn–he loved being with God but he knew from the noise below that his people were in trouble. Sure enough, he saw them surrounding a pretty little golden calf they’d made from the women’s jewelry. What did he do? He lost his temper and threw down the tablets, shattering the message from God. What did God do? He told Moses to go up again to Sinai and make another set. Forty days later he was ready, and this time the order was to put the new tablets in a special ark, the aron ha kodesh. Then God said, “Be sure to put in the broken pieces, too. Set them beside the whole stone.” Moses didn’t want to put in this messy reminder of his rage. “But that’s the whole point,” the Voice thundered. “Only by remembering our mistakes can we behave differently. Mistakes are holy. ” The day that Moses returned with the new tablets was the day that he returned from his rage, humble and masterful in having repaired his mistake. That day was the first Yom Kippur.
That we can be awakened, that we can rouse ourselves to know the reality of our lives and choose to live in a new way, is the bedrock of our faith. Isn’t this a remarkable tradition that celebrates a human being’s ability to change? The Midrash tells us that the gates of prayer are sometimes open and sometimes closed, but the gates of teshuvah are always open. So what is an adult understanding of how to walk through the one door that guarantees us an audience with God?
Teshuvah is usually translated as repentance, which means penitence, broken-in spirit by a sense of sin. Yet teshuvah simply means to return. The season of self-examination comes when we return to the fall, and this is the season when, to become a bria hadashah, a new creature, we return to ourselves. We are to look only at ourselves, no one else. Much of the time we may think about how others should live their lives; yet during the High Holidays we don’t judge anyone but ourselves. If you think this is easy, try it just until tomorrow morning.
To understand where we are returning, we need the other word of the season, chet, which is translated as sin, which means a stain on your soul. But the word really means “missing the mark;” it’s used in archery, we need to return to the mark. The 20th century philosopher Soloveitchik writes, “To sin is to remove oneself from the presence of the master of the universe.” All this comes at the time of year when the cycle of seasons is reaching its place of end and its beginning. We too need to see ourselves as off the mark, bring to an end that path, and turn back to the beginning, here at the beginning of our year.
We too follow a circular route when we look to see where on the path we are. Samuel was a judge who circled all Israel when he worked, but he always returned home to Ramah. However far away he was, he was always on his way home. Every step we take is always, no matter how errant it might seem, however slippery, is a path of return, a moving towards God.
Teshuvah also means turning. We turn within ourselves to know our truth. We have the courage because of teshuvah–we know we can change. By risking our illusions and knowing ourselves better, we become more complete human beings and also glimpse the divine. This is where the third meaning of teshuvah fits. The third meaning of teshuvah is response or answer. Is there really an answer, a knowing we are doing teshuvah? When we cease to do the sin, we have the answer. When we cry out from the heart for help to return and turn from wrongdoing, when we accept our imperfection and the yoke of struggling to do better every day, when we believe we can be better people, we feel the answer.
But this is more than a voyage of self-improvement. Teshuvah not only repairs us, it repairs the world. Teshuvah breaks the pattern of cause and effect, the endless cycle of of one bad deed leading to the next. By breaking our patterns we change life around us as well as within us.
The highest level of teshuvah is when we do more than change the present, but that we alter the future to repair what we have done in the past. “Tikkun happens when we draw from our failings not only the ability to do good, but the power to fall again and again and notwithstanding, to transform more extensive and important parts of life. It is using the knowledge of the sins of the past and transforming it into such an extraordinary thirst for good that it becomes a divine force.” (Steinsaltz)
We cannot get rid of the darkness or imperfection in ourselves, but if we choose to keep our eyes open to who we are and what we do, that formerly hateful, shameful part of ourselves that we denied by our refusal to see it, will transform into something else. It will become a blessing, because the flaw is the first step to redemption. The work is not to eradicate evil but to transform it into holiness.