Leshanah Tovah and Gmar Chatimah Tovah; I wish everyone a good year and a worthwhile Yom Kippur.
Teshuvah is a beautiful word. It means at once penitence and return. It refers to the inner process of acknowledgement, regret, remorse, apology and reparation for specific wrongs we have committed. But it also describes life’s spiritual journey, the desire to return to, or become, the best person we can, the human being we hope, strive and dream that we can be, – according to our character, gifts, limitations and opportunities.
Life has no ‘replay’ button. We may not ‘crop’ from our conscience the deeds and experiences we would rather not have committed or endured, however great the conscious, and unconscious, temptation. We can, of course, feed our soul a diet of ‘alternative truths,’ but in the end we will only poison our own spirit.
Teshuvah begins with inner integrity; with facing ourselves honestly. It offers us the opportunity to do so not in a negative spirit, not to shoot us down with recriminations or wipe our faces with our guilt. Rather, it invites us to do the most creative thing we can with the hurts committed both by us and against us: – to turn them into opportunities for insight and moral and spiritual growth.
The Talmud stresses that the deepest Teshuvah derives its energy not from the fear of the consequences if we continue to repeat the same transgression, important as such motivation often is. The best impetus to Teshuvah comes from love.
The Talmud doesn’t define what it means by that love. I believe it is linked to faith and hope, a deep trust the great majority of us want to be the best person we can, and that life has the power to draw us not just downwards towards our faults, but upwards towards our ideals. Maimonides concludes his magnificent treatise on Teshuvah with an impassioned description of the love of God, burning like a man’s love for a woman whom he cannot get out of his thoughts. This love draws us back towards what is right and just, pure and beautiful.
At the same time, the love which motivates Teshuvah must also come from us; from the environment we create in our homes, communities, schools, countries and even in the public square. This not the same as, indeed it is the opposite of, condoning wrongdoing and providing morally slippery justifications for evil. Teshuvah is only possible where there is rigorous moral integrity. In every sphere, beginning with our own heart, we should foster a spirit of conciliation and respect for all who genuinely learn from their mistakes and try to make good. For each and every one of us is part of that ‘everyone’.
We all sometimes sin and do harm (though not to the same degree or with equal consequence). We must all face the inner challenge of admitting to the centre of our conscience the hurtful acts we did and the wounding words we spoke, even though it would be easier to push them to the periphery, or beyond. We must all come to know the burning of remorse, the humility of apology, the awareness that however much we make reparation we cannot rewrite the history of our own life, or that of the persons we have wronged.
But Teshuvah allows us to do with our mistakes and transgressions the one best thing we can: to learn from them, deepen our hearts and behave towards each other with greater fairness, respect, compassion and understanding.