The Shabbat in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shuvah (The Sabbath of Repentance or Return). Falling in between these two most holy days, this Shabbat, and all the days in between, are our time to focus on the task of repentance, of return and repair before the great shofar sounds at the end of Yom Kippur, indicating that our chance – at least for this year – is over.
Often, when I talk about repentance, I am met with a great deal of skepticism, from Jews and others. We have a popular notion in our society that the religious call to repent is a matter of going through a few prescribed motions to clear a guilty conscience. We think that no real change is required, that it’s a gimmick: “Say three Hail Marys and three Our Fathers” in a Catholic slang; “pray extra hard on Yom Kippur and fast a little longer” might be the Jewish version. Skeptics suggest that if all it takes is a few extra prayers to get rid of your transgressions, how serious can the process really be?
As with most things spiritual, it is never that simple. Although I am most familiar with the teachings of the Jewish tradition, I know that none of the world’s major traditions preach a belief that a few ritual practices will get you off the hook for bad behavior. It is much more nuanced than that – the practices, in all the traditions, are designed to help an individual gain some insight, reflect on his or her shortcomings and make real and lasting changes – that’s the hope of all this praying, reciting, fasting and other stuff.
The process of teshuvah (Turning and Returning) is just that: a process. And it is never fully complete. Maybe that’s why we are given not just one day (Yom Kippur); nor even one week (the days in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur); but really an entire month and a half, starting at the very beginning of Elul way back on Aug. 27.
Teshuvah starts with the basic notion that every human soul is inherently holy and perfect; after all we are created in God’s image. However, life is uncertain, things happen, and humans – though perfect in our souls – are inevitably, inherently and inescapably flawed. We are bound to make mistakes both large and small. The Jewish tradition teaches that teshuvah, the process of repentance and forgiveness, was created before human beings. Why? Because by definition, we will stumble. But God, the tradition teaches, has given us the gift of a way out and a way up from our mistakes.
There is no direct translation of the word “sin” in Hebrew. There are different degrees of transgressions, but the word used to describe the common mistakes and errors most of us make are described as a het. Oddly enough, the word comes from the realm of archery and refers to “missing the mark.” Of course there are people who do very bad things. And of course we have to, as a society, deal with that. But the spiritual process of teshuvah deals with the many ways in which most ordinary human beings miss the mark again and again: We lose patience with our loved ones, we are jealous of others, we are judgmental of ourselves and others, we make ourselves feel better by putting others down, we ignore problems and are complacent – you know the stuff I’m talking about. This is what teshuvah is all about.
And the Jewish tradition, like others, provides a specific plan and specific period of time in which to deal with these errors and imperfections. The holy month of Ramadan in the Muslim tradition and the period of Lent in the Christian tradition are all based on a similar need for a process and time for introspection and repair.
The Jewish process of teshuvah works like this: prayer, repentance and giving of oneself are the the three prescribed methods. However, for transgressions against other people, none of this matters (or “works”) until actual repair is made, directly to the individuals affected, if possible. Furthermore, the efficacy of this process is one only measured in hindsight. Teshuvah works when you are confronted with the same circumstances and choose not to make the same mistake again. Some of us won’t know for a lifetime how well we have worked the process.
For me, this process is a joyful one. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. I have to apologize, make amends and work on myself just as much as anyone else. But knowing that I can, that the world is such that tomorrow is always a day to do better and that life is always a journey toward wholeness makes facing my imperfections bearable. The process of teshuvah in our tradition is done in the context of love: God’s love for us, our love for each other. That’s why it starts in the month of Elul – the month whose name is an acronym for “I am my beloved’s; and my beloved is mine.”
This Shabbat, Shabbat Shuvah, is a culmination of the process, a reminder that we have to begin now to move ahead for the next year. But here is the secret: This opportunity is available to us every moment of every day of the year and not just at a special season. We are called by the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, by the fasting on Yom Kippur, by the Haftarot read in synagogue on this Shabbat to start the process now. But for the true penitent, the one committed to improving him or herself over time and with patience, the gates of teshuvah are always open.
May the coming year (5775) bring joy, blessing and peace to all of us.
RABBI ELYSE WECHTERMAN (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches in a variety of Jewish and secular settings throughout the region. She lives with her husband and two children in Attleboro, Massachusetts.