Teshuvah, ‘return’ or ‘repentance’, isn’t just about remorse for the wrongs we have done and the resolve to try to do differently from now on. It is also about looking forwards and upwards. It’s about ‘returning’ to our hopes and ideals. It is about trying to be the best person it is within our capacity to become; the person we might, and yet still can, be.
Indeed, the whole of life’s journey can be thought of as a return to a place of innocence, kindness and love, from which, either in some transcendental reality or in phantasy, the spirit feels that it has come:
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar…From God who is our home.
(Wordsworth: Intimations of Immortality
It may be a phantasy, but it is a useful one. All our life we aspire to ‘return’ and rediscover the goodness and purity which once were ours. We seek what is beautiful, good and just, and hope to be and do likewise. We are drawn towards it like latecomers down from a mountain walk as darkness threatens and the lights of distant houses beckon.
There’s a mysterious passage about repentance in the Zohar, the central text of Jewish mysticism, which has long gripped my imagination:
Rabbi Abba said: “From the depths I cry to you, O God.” There is a hidden place above; it is the depth of the well. And from it streams and fountains flow on all sides, and this profoundest of depths is called ‘Repentance’. (Zohar III 69b – 70a)
I’m struck by this surreal picture: are we being asked to look up, or down? I’m drawn first of all to the depths of the well. Pools are strangely fascinating; it’s not just children who find themselves staring down with silent intensity at the stillness and the currents. It’s as if those waters were a reflection of one’s inner being, one’s very soul.
Yet this well is on high, in ‘a hidden place above’. We therefore need first to look up. For the depths of our being are not down below, but call to us from high above. We are not to be dragged down by our errors and mistakes, by the inevitable fact that as mere humans we inevitably commit wrongs. We must not be bewildered by guilt.
Instead we should look up and be inspired, as by the stars which draw our gaze upwards at night, or by music which lifts our spirit and makes it too sing. Then we think: How can I raise my life? How can I be the best person I’m capable of becoming? How can I use what life has given me, in order to give back to life with gratitude and love? How can I serve?
This is the call to Teshuvah, return, from above.