One of the primary themes throughout the past month of Elul and into this season of renewal, is the idea of teshuvah. Teshuvah is one of those Jewish concepts that we talk about a lot and often assume we all understand. We may have been told that, in order to merit atonement with Yom Kippur, we must “make” or “do” teshuvah. We are encouraged to spend time looking back on the year, acknowledging where we have missed the mark and resolving to do better moving forward, and to make amends with those we have harmed. But while we tend to hear about teshuvah most leading up to and throughout the High Holidays, it is a practice, and indeed a mindset, that we would do well to carry with us throughout the year.
Teshuvah is not simple. It can be difficult to look upon our behaviours and the times that we may not have lived up to our values and ideals and hold ourselves accountable for those failings, possibly harder still to recognize where we might be heading down the wrong path in the moment and correct course. Similarly, the word teshuvah itself is no easy thing to understand.
Many of us understand teshuvah to mean repentance, an understanding reinforced by some of our mahzorim or holiday prayerbooks. There will be those who know that, at its root, the word translates as ‘turning’ or ‘return’; in fact, this Shabbat that falls in the midst of the Days of Awe, the High Holidays, is known in our tradition as Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Return. Teshuvah does mean all of these things, both individually and simultaneously. The layers of meaning in the word can help us to better understand its role in both the holidays and in our lives: in order to make some sort of repentance, we must turn away from certain behaviours and attitudes in order to make a return to our core values, in order to return to our true selves.
These are not the only ways to translate this important and enigmatic word. There are so many shades of meaning in both the word itself and in the act of teshuvah that, each year, they can be found filling new sermons and articles and books, and here I am, offering yet another.
For me, what has become an important and powerful way to understand teshuvah, the way that I am able to carry it with me and to make it a real part of my life, is held in another traditional understanding of the word, that of ‘response’. In Jewish legal matters a teshuvah is a response to a question. Thinking of it in this way, when I look back on my behaviour, when I find myself reacting in a given situation, I can ask myself how I can respond differently and return to my true self.
These holidays are laden with rules and rituals, with expectation and obligation, but at their core, like so much of our tradition, they are calling on us to connect—to connect with ourselves, with our community and our tradition, and, of course, to connect with the divine. How will we respond?
Shabbat Shalom. G’mar hatima tova!
Rabbi Danny A Lutz,
Senior Jewish Educator, Guelph Hillel