It is said in a midrash that the gates of teshuvah (repentance/return) are always open. During this month of Elul, however, we are called to attend to the repair and healing of ourselves and our relationships in a concentrated way. It is easy enough to avoid looking deeply at ourselves and our negative habits or patterns, but the shofar calls us throughout the month of Elul and through the High Holy Days to pay attention—to say “hinneni”—I am here and ready—to do cheshbon hanefesh (accounting of the soul).
This is not meant to be easy. In this particular moment in history and in our particular culture, it is even more difficult than it once was. Think of how frequently you used to have face-to-face or at least voice-to-voice interactions over the telephone before the advent of email and then smartphones. Direct communication is increasingly rare as we depend on the written word (or even just emojis!) to communicate, thinking it is easier and faster and more efficient just to text or email. During this season of self-examination and the spiritual homework of repairing our relationships and pushing ourselves toward changing our negative patterns and habits, we cannot rely on prayer, on feelings of penitence, or even on giving tzedkah or doing other mitzvot in the world to “make up for” the ways we have fallen short. Our tradition tells us that for wrongdoings we have committed against other people, we must directly communicate and ask directly for forgiveness. These days, to have a direct conversation, to look someone in the eye and have a heart-to-heart (and soul-to-soul!) encounter, is a radical and for many of us, uncomfortable, act.
But, as my great-great grandfather, the great Yiddish humorist Sholom Aleichem put it “It is hard to be a Jew!” When it comes to facing the reality of human nature, with all of our inherent capacity for tremendous good and terrible evil, our tradition is both wise and honest. We are all going to make mistakes, but we are all capable of introspection and of self-improvement. However, the self-improvement must go beyond the self. It isn’t enough to feel sorry and to try to change internally—we need to bring that change and growth and transformation out into the world. Jewish tradition understands that words have power—in fact, in the book of Genesis the act of speech is the generative act with which God creates the world! “And God said, let there be light….and there was light…” We, as created in the image of God, must remember that our words too can create as well as destroy—we tend to take them for granted in this time of constant information overflow from all directions. In this season we must use the gift of language to make apologies and to give the gift of forgiveness to those who have asked that of us.
Teshuvah (literally: returning). This essential act of inner and relational transformation is so important that it is built into the very fabric of creation. In a midrash on one of the first verses in Torah we read that teshuvah preceded the creation of the world itself! So, while the work required of us now is intense and challenging, we can remember that we are doing something absolutely essential to the work of being human. Slowing down enough to notice and to make change in ourselves and with others requires a willingness to make ourselves vulnerable and to expose what we are not proud of, in a world in which appearances are often taken at face value and often mask many truths about each of us.
It takes courage to move through this time leading up to the new year, and to journey through the “Aseret Yamei HaTeshuvah,” the ten days of repentance which begin with Rosh Hashanah and conclude with Yom Kippur. To remind you of the importance of this kind of courage I hope you get a chance to watch a wonderful TED talk by psychologist Susan David, called The Gift and Power of Emotional Courage.
I look forward to being together on this difficult but rewarding and essential path. I’m grateful that we have one another, and this sacred community, in which we can be our authentic selves, and grow towards being our best selves.
May the coming weeks be one of growth, healing, and hope, and may the new year be full of blessing.