A Sabbath Message: Teshuvah – The Redemptive Power of Repentance

“Teshuvah, Tefilah, Tzedakah – Ma’avirin et ro’ah ha’gezeyrah.
But Repentance, Prayer and Deeds of Righteousness have the power to transform the harshness of our destiny.” – High Holiday Liturgy

“We are free. Judaism is the religion of the free human being freely responding to the God of freedom. We are not in the grip of sin. The very fact that we can engage in Teshuvah, that we can act differently tomorrow than we did yesterday, tells us that we are free.” – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

The New Year of 5781 is here and a special Sabbath arrives this week to usher in the holiest day of our year: Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which begins this Sunday as the sun sets. This special Shabbat which begins this evening is known as Shabbat Shuvah – The Sabbath of Return, as it falls during the very sacred period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur called Aseret Y’mai Teshuvah – The Ten Days of Repentance. The concept of this period of time dates back to the Talmud to at least the third century BCE and the great Rabbi Yohanan, who conceived of these days as an opportunity for change, especially for those whose misdeeds could still be redeemed. Thus, this period became an unusual trial of sorts, as it was not just for what is past, but also a chance to impact our future deeds.

What is Teshuvah, really? And what is the power behind this all-important concept in our tradition? The process of repentance is a complex and often non-linear one of transformation, with starts and stops along the way, involving atonement, deep introspection, and true forgiveness. But at its core, as the word itself suggests, Teshuvah (from the Hebrew word “la-shuv” meaning “to turn" or "to return”) begins with “turning.” Thus, the first step in the process is a turn inward, away from the external world and toward the inner realm of the heart. As the domain which holds our suffering, the heart is the most vulnerable place of all for many of us. But here is the big secret: there is great freedom in this process and we can choose to let go of the many negative feelings holding us back as we become aware of them through Teshuvah. Rabbi Alan Lew says: “The great drama of this season is the drama of choice…we form our intention and let Heaven and Earth bear witness, opening ourselves up to forgiveness.”

These Ten Days of Repentance include one of my most favorite Jewish traditions: seeking reconciliation from others in our lives. This beautiful custom of asking for true forgiveness from our loved ones is rooted in the Talmudic notion that Yom Kippur only atones for those misdeeds between individuals and the Divine. But in order to right the wrongs between people, you must try and approach those individuals and ask forgiveness. In fact, the hope is to do so during this sacred period, so that we may all be ready to stand before God on Yom Kippur, having tried to seek reconciliation where we could. This is not meant to be an easy thing to do. For guidance, we can use a formula created by the great Hassidic master Rebbe Nachman: “If I have hurt or harmed you in any way, knowingly or unknowingly, I ask your forgiveness.” And, “If anyone has hurt or harmed me, knowingly or unknowingly, I forgive them.” Also difficult. But here is the second big secret: You cannot grant forgiveness to others until you have truly forgiven yourself – sort of a spiritual version of putting on your airplane oxygen mask first!

There is an unfortunate misconception that Yom Kippur is a sad holiday – this is just not the case at all. In fact, it is a great opportunity granted by our tradition to begin again, not offered lightly, but a yearly “do-over” to truly start fresh with ourselves and with each other. There is a beautiful verse in the Book of Isaiah which says: “Seek the Divine when God is to be found, call out to the Divine, when God is near” (Isaiah 55:6). We can find the Divine spirit anytime, but during these days and on Yom Kippur, I have always found God to be the closest to me. I hope that you, too, find meaning for your life on this Yom Kippur day – fasting and prayer are tools offered to help us, but only you can find your way. Our tradition tells us that the Gates of Heaven are swung wide open this week until the last moments of Yom Kippur next Monday evening. The Divine presence is near – now is our chance!

Shabbat Shalom and G’mar Chatimah Tovah – May You Be Inscribed in the Book of Life,  

Ruth Steinberg, LCSW
Director, Jewish Family Service