Teshuva has gotten a bad rap. Real behavior change is hard to do, so we substitute with rituals, long synagogue services, and chest-beating. But, that is not the essence or the true value of Teshuva.
Here’s how Teshuva looks from the viewpoint of brain health …
Growth, personal development, and self-improvement are positive characteristics of life – that is what Teshuva is all about. Alternatively, getting caught in a rut is associated with depression, anxiety, and stress.
Teshuva is not a punishment. The word “Repentance” is often used as the English equivalent, but it is borrowed from other religions. It brings up notions of self-flogging for the sins that you have committed. Repentance, as such practiced, is meant to return you to neutral from a state of sin. But, the Jewish concept of Teshuva is positive.
For Jews, Teshuva – literally meaning “Return” – is meant to lift you above where you were. It is not a return to your prior state, but rather a return to God. When you sin, you essentially disregard what God wants from you. That creates distance between you and God and makes it harder to connect spiritually due to that increased distance. Then, you enter a vicious cycle – you are more likely to sin because you are less connected and less understand what God wants from you (or perhaps care less about it), you are then farther from God, and that makes you even more likely to disregard God’s direction for you. The sin becomes the norm and eventually gets viewed as the preferred way of behaving.
What goes on in the brain? When you enter a way of thinking and acting that is repeated and ‘accepted’ as right, then it results in real physical changes in the brain. Neuroscientists have been studying the phenomenon of neuroplasticity for the past several decades and have found that learning and practice changes the brain’s wiring. With repetition of thoughts or actions, the brain circuits that are more active in those thoughts and actions become stronger and more likely to become engaged in the future. At the same time, the brain circuits that are less active because you have chosen not to engage in those thoughts or actions become weaker and more difficult to engage in the future. This cycle of brain change happens in a number of ways, including the strengthening of synapses between the nerve cells, improving the efficiency of message transfer, and biochemical changes within the cells.
Unfortunately, neuroplasticity is at work all time – even when you go about your daily life. I say ‘unfortunately’ because your bad habits also get reinforced as physical changes in your brain.
The regular practice of Teshuva is intended to break the vicious cycle and has the effect of retraining your brain if it is done properly. Teshuva consists of a series of steps that include an honest accounting of your actions and thoughts, recognition of the bad habits and actions, resolve to change, and then undergoing a process to actually change your thinking and behavior.
Behavior change is certainly not simple, and it is not easy to accomplish. Anyone in the health fields can tell you that behavior change is the Achilles heel of health. It is one thing to provide advice regarding recommended health habits and lifestyle changes, and it is quite another for the patient to follow through. As a physician, I regularly talk to my patients about the importance of physical exercise and healthy diet for the brain. But, that is a far cry from an effective program to coach patients on how to set goals and to accomplish the changes.
The Jewish ideal of Teshuva is an opportunity to not only reverse the process of bad habits, but to institute better habits than you had before. For that, attending the Yom Kippur service is not enough. Teshuva should be practiced regularly. Classic Jewish thinkers, including Rambam, Ramchal, and Rabbeinu Behaya Ibn Paquda advocated a process of introspection and behavior change as part of one’s life routine – not just during this period of the year. The special emphasis placed on Teshuva during Elul and the High Holy Days helps us focus on this process. As far as our brains are concerned, however, it is best to be mindful of bad habits and those that are not in line with what God want from us. Changing the behavior and switching to more positive thoughts creates good changes in your brain that make it easier to continue growing, learning, and improving.