By Rabbi Dan Lewin
The theme of this month of Elul, often called the “month of accounting,” is teshuvah. Just like a business that requires periodic review and analysis, we look back at the past year to determine where we stand and what areas needs improvement.
Teshuvah, in general, entails a change of heart, a shift in perspective to come closer to God. The uniqueness of this month is a more intense focus that begins with an active initiative to reflect and refine ourselves. Rather than waiting for some big external event to move us, or to hear some stirring melody on Rosh Hashanah that provokes introspection, we prepare now. It is a self-initiated change.
At the same time, we are assured assistance during Elul, an added force which the mystical texts call the 13 attributes of mercy — momentum to make the necessary changes.
The Hebrew word teshuvah is often mistranslated as “repentance.” But the concept entails more than the gloomy connotations that come with that word. More literally, teshuvah is “to return.” These two words convey profoundly different messages about the internal dynamic. The former conception involves a struggle to become a different person — because you are not good enough — while the latter entails a restoration process of uncovering your truest self, a soul layer that was tainted by harsh circumstances and poor choices.
When explaining what teshuvah encompasses, two analogies are employed: an ongoing relationship with God and healing an injury. Taken together, we gain a better understanding of this pervasive term. Plugging in the relationship aspect, teshuvah involves our attempt to repair mistakes, or to fill a void left by missed opportunities. But even when this is sincere and complete, there may still be the need for the soul to heal.
This leads to another Hebrew buzzword that makes an appearance around this time of year: kaparah, often translated as “atonement.” Simply put, teshuvah is what we do — our feelings and effort — while kaparah is the result. In human relationships, for example, our words and attempt to repair a rift or restore harmony may fall short; it all depends whether the other person accepts our sincerity and effort. But in the divine system, teshuvah will always lead to kaparah. Only the process may not always be instant.
In the Talmud’s (Tractate Yoma) introduction to the process of gaining kaparah, there is a notable difference between positive and negative mitzvahs: those requiring active engagement versus those that involve resistance. With trying to make up for a positive mitzvah, our teshuvah is met with instant acceptance. All negative mitzvahs, however, require the day of Yom Kippur to completely cleanse the soul. This is where the analogy of an injury serves to clarify. Unlike positive mitzvahs, whose purpose is to bring light into world, negative mitzvahs are prescriptions to avoid damage, where “sin” becomes like a self-inflicted wound. And there is only one day a year with the spiritual power to heal the soul of all blemishes.
The commentaries explain that the process of teshuvah is not simply crucial for human development, but an actual commandment in the Torah. Furthermore, it is unique in its ability to uplift (and pervade) other mitzvahs and in its dependency on the person’s heart. Unlike deeds which can be overserved and measured by outside observers, teshuvah is an honest and intimate dialogue that takes place internally.
At the same time, a mitzvah cannot be vague — it must have parameters. The basic requirement for teshuvah is two movements of the heart, which can be translated as “regret” about the past and “resolve” for the future. To be sure, you may indeed regret the mistake, but without intending to avoid repeating it. Or you can resolve never to repeat it, yet without feeling bad about the past. Both components — a clear emotion about the past and future — are necessary.
Back to this “month of accounting,” the first step is always getting the data to review. For if you don’t know the mistake (or have forgotten about it), there is no chance to understand it or learn from it. In general, Jewish life prescribes short windows for the purpose of reflection and correction — before saying Shema at the end of each night, before a new month (Rosh Chodesh), and a more comprehensive review in Elul. The process involves a detached look at one’s actions, like watching the film of one’s day or year without judgment, just to learn.
Then comes the assessment and projection. To begin, one may divide this review into the two main categories — a private relationship with God (spiritual life) and human relationships — and pinpoint in each area: What is the main thing that I want to stay away from/change, and main thing that needs to be enhanced.
Now, one may ask: Why so much emphasis on introspection? Furthermore, continually reviewing the past and looking into the future seemingly takes away from the ultimate spiritual goal of mindfulness and being in the present moment — the ability to focus one’s energy and be completely engaged and productive.
Yet, the nature of a person is often the opposite; without the proper review and feeling regret, a person cannot be fully present and happy. The commentaries explain that although certain people find it easy to bury mistakes, move on without feeling bad, and still be productive — the soul keeps track. It knows where things stand and desperately tries to send a message to the mind. But the mind is occupied with other thoughts and — whether due to self-protection or distraction — the person does not want to face the past. This creates a layer of emotional static, an underlying sense or discontent or feeling that things are not as they should be.
To combat this internal disconnect, during organized periods of calm review and reflection, the person opens that mental door and begins to look inside and address unresolved pieces of their life, provoking a purer regret and resolution. Mystically, this effort of teshuvah begins to remove the coarseness and blockage, reminiscent of the verse in this week’s Torah portion: “And the Lord, your God, will circumcise your heart…[so that you may] love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, for the sake of your life.” (Devarim 30:6)
In addition to renewing the relationship with God, this introspective process has the effect of clearing the person’s spiritual system, in turn freeing up mental and emotional space to be fully available during future interactions and, furthermore, to meet each day with joy.
The bottom line is that when teshuvah — review, regret and resolve — is done with focus, at the right time (without the emotions spilling over), the communication between soul, mind, heart, and action is restored and the person feels a greater peace.
So, as we head into the final stretch of Elul, looking toward the New Year with new blessings and opportunities, we seek to put ourselves in the best position to leave behind past shortcomings and shape our future.