One of my hobbies is occasionally reading love stories in the New York Times.
Recently, they had an article about media figure Julia Allison and legal academic Noah Feldman, who fell in love in their 40s and 50s. Each comes from a different world and is opening up in different ways as they grow towards each other: Julia is learning to be more academic, and Noah is unleashing his inner hippie.
Reading this story, I was struck by the power of teshuvah, if we think of it not in the traditional translation of “repentance”, but of a return to ourselves, in the constant journey of self-revelation in which we discover the tzelem Elokim -image of God – within us.
Here, people who are set in their ways, with established patterns, behaviors, and cultures, can change to expand their sense of self, allowing it to encompass new kinds of characteristics and experiences that make them more whole, that elevate them to find more meaning in themselves and towards others.
They are inspired to do so by a deep love.
This is exactly what we are called upon to do during the 10 Days of Repentance.
Inspired by the deep love between our individual selves and God, and by the loving relationship between God and the Jewish people, we change to return towards our better selves.
This loving change is reflected in the Yom Kippur liturgy, which is replete with recitations of God’s 10 Attributes of Mercy.
These attributes are emblematic of Divine love: God is very angry at the Jewish people, once for the sin of the golden calf, and once for the sin of the spies. However, inspired by His love of the Jewish people, he returns to His better self – His merciful self, His gracious self, His patient self, His multitude of kindness self -and forgives them.
In other words, God is inspired to “do teshuvah”, so to speak, out of His love for the Jewish people, in order to continue to foster a deep and meaningful relationship with them.
During this time of year, we are asked to pay it forward, to be inspired by our love of God to do teshuvah, in a way that helps us to be in a meaningful relationship with the Divine.
Because God cares deeply about all of Her creatures, this process must also include making amends with our fellow humans.
When we reconceptualize teshuvah as a mutual act, with both us and God moving towards our better selves, our mercful and kind selves, our giving selves, inspired by love of each other, the Days of Awe become days of joy.
This joy is felt by the Talmud, which lists Yom Kippur as one of the two most joyful days in the Jewish calendar. (Taanit 26b). The women of Jerusalem would wear white and go out dancing, in pursuit of suitors. They would recite the verse from Proverbs (31:30): “Grace is a lie and beauty is naught; a woman who fears God, she shall be praised.”
The Talmud links repentance towards God, joy, and romantic love. Why?
Yom Kippur is a moment to return towards ourselves, as we turn towards the God we love, secure in the knowledge the we are loved by Him. The love in this moment turns teshuvah into an act of joy, analogous to the feelings one may experience when being in a healthy romantic relationship.
Yom Kippur presents us with a model of healthy love: Where there is mutuality and give and take, where each side asks for and receives forgiveness from the other, where each approaches the other with kindness, and uses the yearning for connection to inspire them to grow towards their better selves.
This type of love may be found in a romantic context, but it can occur in other contexts as well: Our relationships with parents, sibling, neices and nephews, neighbors and friends. There are many different places in our world where we can both give and receive love, and use that love to inspire us to return to the Godly spark within us.
May we merit a teshuvah process that fills our hearts with joy; a closeness to God that helps us to love and be loved by others; and a year full of health, success, and happiness.