This essay was originally featured in On Faith, an online conversation about religion hosted by Newsweek and theWashington Post, to which Rabbi Steinsaltz is a regular contributor.
Many of your Jewish colleagues will not be at work on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – the “High Holidays.” They also will not be at the mall or the movies or any of the other places people often go to on a day off.
They will be engaging in a process that is at the core of this season in the Jewish calendar, but is actually a universal idea: the profound need to elevate ourselves from where we are, to look at our failings, and to resolve to do better. As we start a new year, we look at the old one, to see where we have been and to determine where we are going.
In Hebrew, this process is called teshuvah – “return” or “turning.” The process of teshuvah teaches us how to change our direction and change ourselves.
The awareness of the need for change may come upon us suddenly, as if someone shined a bright light into our eyes in the middle of the night and wrenched us out of a deep sleep. Or it may develop over time, like a sunrise that wakes us gradually, so that we cannot pinpoint exactly what time it was when our surroundings became clearly visible. It may emerge as a pervasive feeling of sinfulness, or it may reflect a more nagging sense that we are just not living up to what we expect of ourselves.
How do we deal with this feeling? We can try to ignore it, as we might ignore a splinter that causes us sharp pain, but only now and then. Or we can decide to look at it carefully and remove it, knowing that it will hurt more right now, but it will not cause us pain in the future.
If we want to remove this feeling of disquiet, we must look into our hearts and ask hard questions: What have we done wrong? What have we neglected to do? I am not talking about criminal acts; we do not have to look too hard to find them. I am talking about everyday transgressions: Have we misled our customers? Spread rumors about our neighbors? Showed disrespect to our parents? Spoken too harshly to our children? Whatever we have done, we must be willing to look at it and let ourselves experience a feeling of regret.
Regret is essential to teshuvah, but we cannot allow it to become so overwhelming that we give in to despair – “It’s no use; I can’t possibly change” – or try to drown our distress with alcohol, drugs, or mindless “entertainments.” We cannot bury it under excuses – “I can’t help it; it’s the way I am.” – or dismiss it as just part of being human: “No one is perfect. I’m OK; you’re OK.” We must feel regret and we must verbalize it: to ourselves, to God, and, as hard as it may be, to those we have hurt.
The feeling of regret tells us that we have begun to change, but how do we know the change we have made is real and lasting? We are facing a new direction, but where will we find the energy and the courage to begin our journey down the new path? The energy we need comes from our resolve to move away from who we were and come closer to being who we want to be. Whatever our resolutions, it will not be easy. If we allow ourselves to become complacent, we may fall into old habits or yield to new temptations.
The process of teshuvah is never finished. It is a lifelong journey, an ongoing striving to do better and to be better, to do more to help our fellow Man and to come closer to God.
Our Sages tell us that the creation of teshuvah preceded the creation of the world. It is a process so powerful that it allows us to defy the laws of physics and suspend the linearity of time. Through teshuvah, we can change ourselves so much that the misdeeds of our past are erased – in some mystical way ?-because the person who committed them no longer exists.
Wherever we are, no matter how far we have fallen, the opportunity to repent and change is always there for every one of us. We do not need a fixed time – like the High Holidays – to tell us to examine our lives and resolve to do better. We can find the inspiration to begin this journey through the significant events in our lives – marriage, parenthood, the death of a loved one, even a new job.
In the High Holiday liturgy, we say “Turn us to you, O Lord, and we shall return” God gives us the ability to see what we need to do and helps us along the way, but we must do our part if we are to return to Him and to our best selves.
If we begin today, we can change ourselves and the world.