Teshuva – return – but to whom? Where to?

With Yom Kippur soon upon us, the practice of Teshuva — return — usually receives more attention than usual.

I am referring to a spiritual moment when one intentionally directs one’s thoughts, speech, and deeds in a way that allows an encounter with the Divine, one’s spiritual center. This moment is unique to each individual, being that it is a returning to one’s authentic self — to that piece in each of us created in the Image of God, that the Creator uniquely gifted to each human being. In a way it’s reclaiming that which defines us as Godly.

The following story helps us understand. Rebbe Sholom Ber of Lubavitch went to see a doctor in Vienna. The doctor noticed that the Rebbe was very weak and tired. Wanting to know why he was so weak, he asked the Rebbe what he does for a living. The Rebbe replied that he builds bridges. The doctor was very surprised at this answer; the Rebbe was frail and didn’t have the body or look of a construction worker.

He asked the Rebbe, “So please tell me, what kind of bridges do you build”? The Rebbe replied: “I build bridges between the mind and the heart.” The doctor who was intrigued by this answer further asked: “Is it really possible to do that”? The Rebbe replied: “Now you can understand why I am so tired.”

What the Rebbe is teaching us here is that when engaging in this inner work we refer to as teshuva, we need to bridge the abyss between the seat of logic in our minds and the seat of emotion in our hearts. One cannot experience the sense of being created in the Image of the Creator if the mind and heart are not aligned with each other.

I can recall all too vividly the inner conflict I experienced so much of my life when my mind and heart seemed to be in a tug-of-war with each other, each pulling me in opposite directions. We need to both understand and feel – and traverse back and forth between these two centers, with some sense of ease. This is a form of teshuva that brings with it inner quietude and harmony.

Teshuva in this sense is both a turning and returning — turning our focus and intentions to our essence and returning to that part of us that is eternal. By identifying our essence as that of being unique, as being kadosh — sacred – as a part of HaShem, as spiritual, we in effect are engaging in the teshuva process. This profoundly affects what we choose to think about, what we decide to speak about, and how we decide to behave in the world.

And the journey by no means is flat and linear. It possesses all the peaks and valleys that accompany any real voyage.

In my own teshuva journey, I experience moments of both genuine authentic living as well as those of self-delusion, and sometimes what I sense as a mixture of the two. I have tasted the sweet flavor of genuine honest living, and have had more than enough of my share of experiencing the bitterness of the opposite.

There is a deep and profound teaching that illustrates this. When we distance ourselves from our essence — our true selves, in what Rebbe Nachman refers to as the dimyon shav — the state of self delusion — then what appears as is isn’t, and what appears as isn’t is.

However, as we experience our teshuva journey, with its redemptive power of returning to our unique spaces of authentic living, then what is, is and what isn’t isn’t.

When we engage in the teshuvah practice, what many of us seek is a visceral experience with our own soul. So many of us ironically search outside of ourselves to experience an inherent closeness to the Shechina — the Divine Presence within. Along this journey, we may sense distance — a distance that causes pain, sorrow, and perhaps regret. Possibly the Shechina is “hiding” from us momentarily. This concealment signals to us that there are parts of ourselves that require healing as a condition to sense closeness with Her again.

However, may I suggest that at times like this we can always turn to Hashem to ask for help, for guidance and for inspiration, so as not to fall into despair. Consider inviting the Shechinah into our space as well, to be close with each of us, as we seek to be close with Her. We may be called upon to trust the teshuva process more and have faith that the Shechinah is always nearby, even when She seems concealed and distant.

I hope that the spirit of Yom Kippur arouses each one of us to be in the state of returning home — to our genuine and authentic selves, to the place from where each of us was conceived, to that spark within each of us that is pure and loving, to our Godly soul — to the Image of the Creator in Whom we have been created.

As we do, it is important to forgive ourselves for all those times we were distracted and made decisions that distanced us from our authentic being. In my ongoing teshuva journey forgiving myself has been what seems like an insurmountable obstacle at times. But we can forgive ourselves, we must forgive ourselves, and as we do then forgiving others comes natural.

The teshuva journey enables one to experience those special sacred moments of closeness…closeness with HaShem, with oneself, with fellow Jews and with all humankind, and all of creation.

May we welcome each other home, to be at home with oneself, and may we embrace each others’ journeys with compassionate encouragement and open arms.

About the Author
Yiscah Smith is the author of Forty Years in the Wilderness: My Journey to Authentic Living. A documentary on her life, I Was Not Born a Mistake, will be out fall in Israel and North America. She lives in Jerusalem and teaches at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and in her home in Jerusalem.