The central theme of these High Holidays is teshuvah (תשובה) – lit. return, turning, response, repentance – a process that brings us back to ourselves, to our families and friends, to our community, Torah, and God. Teshuvah is ultimately a process of restoring hope that the way we are and where we are in our lives today need not be who and what we become tomorrow.
Teshuvah is a step-by-step process of turning and re-engaging with our most basic inclinations, the yetzer hara (יצר הרע) – the evil inclination – that is propelled by desire, ambition, lust, and need for dominance and control, and our yetzer tov (יצר טוב) – the good inclination – that is inspired by humility, gratitude, generosity, kindness, and the need for partnership and a shared identity of oneness with others.
A key beginning in the process that is teshuvah is, however, a sense of despair, hopelessness, resignation, cynicism, pessimism, and sadness, the feeling that we’re stuck and can’t change the nature, character, and direction of our lives.
Judaism rejects despair, 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 (the last of the scriptural readings of the High Holiday season), we read the tale of the prophet’s descent into hopelessness and what is required for him to change his direction and restore himself into life.
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 (ירד yod-resh-daled). He flees down to the sea. He boards a ship and goes down into its dark interior. He lies 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 down 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.
There is a Chassidic notion that in order to rise to our full potential – לעלות (la-alot) – we must first fall to the depths of despair – לרדת (La-redit).
God responds to Jonah by causing the fish to vomit Jonah out (and up) 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 (his cynicism is difficult to transform into hope) and that the Ninevites are destined to fail. Their success, in his mind, makes him to appear the fool – or a sucker (Freier).
Teshuvah is never easy. It is for those of us who are strong of mind, heart, and soul, who are courageous enough and willing enough to work hard and suffer failure, but to get up every time, to own what we do and why we do it, to acknowledge our wrong-doing and imperfections, to apologize to ourselves and to others we have harmed by our words and deeds, 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 utopian, for the process of turning and returning enables us to realize our truest selves, the place of soul, the garden of oneness.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik taught that in teshuvah we are able even to transcend time. He said, “The future has overcome the past.”
It is this process of teshuvah that enables us to affirm at the close of Yom Kippur that, even in small ways, we are as if reborn and renewed into life.
G’mar chatimah tovah.