Over the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, these Ten Days of Return which begin on Rosh Hashanah and culminate on Yom Kippur, I plan to share reflections on different meanings of key concepts, including confession, forgiveness, reconciliation and prayer.
I’m beginning with Teshuvah itself. It’s usually translated as ‘repentance’, which is accurate. But to me the Latinate term carries too much of a whiff of piety, like the dank basement of an old religious building. I prefer ‘return’, or, less literally, ‘reconnection’, because Teshuvah includes more than regret for our past mistakes. It also expresses the longing to come home to the best self we can be, to rediscover our full humanity and connection with each other, life and God.
Nevertheless, Teshuvah most often begins with acknowledgement of the mistakes we have committed and the determination not to repeat them. Nowhere is this process more clearly set out than in Maimonides’ Laws of Teshuvah (add link).
What constitutes Teshuvah? That sinners abandon their sins and remove them from their thoughts, resolving in their heart never to commit them again, as Isaiah states “May the wicked abandon his ways….” (55:7) Similarly, they must regret the past, as Jeremiah says: “After I returned, I regretted.” (31:18)
Sometimes we feel instant remorse. Years ago, I said something sharp to my father when he instructed me how to use a woodworking tool properly. In response, he just looked at me. I understood instantly. I apologised. The feeling from that incident still returns to me like a kick in the stomach, warning me not to say hurtful things. Admittedly, it sometimes comes too late.
At other times, we are blind to the wrongs we’ve done until someone has the courage to point them out. Some people do so viscerally, which is fair enough. Others do so harshly. But some understand the difficult art of guiding us to important realisations, with the gentle but firm frankness of friendship. It’s painful to be made aware of hurts we’ve caused. Our first reaction may be defensive. Then we probably feel guilty and ask ourselves what we can do to make matters right. But over time, if we’re open to it, our very mistakes and the remorse we feel can become our most important teachers. They can help us understand ourselves and life more deeply. This can’t change what we’ve done, but it can transform its significance for our future.
This leads to the deeper meaning of Teshuvah, return, rediscovery of the person we aspire to be. This is at once a journey in many dimensions. It takes us inwards to our heart and soul, which, as we declare every morning, are the presence of God within us. It leads us upwards in the aspiration that we can be our best selves and help to shape a better world. It brings our consciousness into kinship with all life. In the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel:
The most unnoticed of all miracles is the miracle of repentance… In the dimension of time there is no going back. But the power of repentance causes time to be created backward and allows re-creation of the past to take place. Through the forgiving hand of God, harm and blemish which we have committed against the world and against ourselves will be extinguished, transformed into salvation. (Berlin, Erev Yom Kippur, 16 September 1936)