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Teshuvah: Exhilarating or Debilitating?

Teshuvah: Exhilarating or Debilitating?

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Judaism is all about growth. When we slip up, we don’t just accept our imperfections and move on, we work to correct them. This process is called teshuvah, which can be translated as “repentance” but really means “return”—returning to our true selves, returning to G‑d. There’s even a special month on the Jewish calendar dedicated to teshuvah—the month of Elul, which precedes the High Holidays.

I remember one Elul, eight years ago, when I had recently returned to New York from a transformative yearJudaism is all about growth in Israel. I was afforded the opportunity to delve into Torah learning, which pushed me to reflect upon my place in this world, my observance of the mitzvahs and my own unique service of G‑d. The classes I attended helped me come to accept that even though I would never solve life’s existential mysteries, I could still live a sincere and devoted religious life. In short, it was a life-changing year that in many senses was one long Elul.

As I sat on my bed in college amidst the hustle and bustle of New York City, I wished so much to have a meaningful Elul, the kind of Elul I experienced in Israel. So, as is my inclination, I began to write a list. A list of all the things I wanted to work on, of all the character traits I needed to improve; this list became longer and longer, and more and more nuanced. I had done an accounting of my deeds, as Maimonides cites in his Laws of Teshuvah, but something was not right.

Why? Just thinking back to this list eight years later, feelings of dread and guilt wash over my entire body. I think of going over the list and asking myself, How will I accomplish this, and where should I start, and . . . ?

My teshuvah on that Elul almost eight years ago was an unhealthy form of teshuvah. Don’t misunderstand me; my intentions were wonderful, and according to our rabbis, we must give an honest accounting of our sins. But there was something missing from my teshuvah—some outlook lacking from this process of return that is supposed to be so full of life and vitality.

Elul can be an overwhelming time. We can feel overcome with feelings of fear and dread when we contemplate the decisions that will be made on Yom Kippur—who will be sick and who will be healthy, who will be rich, and who will be poor, who will live and who will die. It’s pretty heavy.

Elul and the High Holidays remind us of our mortality, our temporary status in this world. We think of all the things we still want to accomplish while we’re in this world. The process of teshuvah highlights the gap that exists between who we are and who we wish to be, and the recognition of this gap can be painful, to say the least. The questions play through our mind on a loop: Why didn’t I use my time better this year? Why didn’t I accomplish x, y and z that I wanted to? Why am I still so nasty and impatient to some of the people in my life I love the most? Why am I still in the same place, working on the same things?

Bridging the gap between who we are and who we want to be can seem like an insurmountable task. We question our self-discipline, our perseverance and stamina. We question whether we will ever bridge that gap, or whether each humdrum year will just fly by, one after the next, and we’ll be left feeling frustrated that nothing has changed.

So how can we have a “healthy” Elul—one in which we’re aware of the enormity of these days, but not paralyzed by fear? What steps can we take and what teachings can we incorporate into our consciousness to give us the inner strength to work towards the vision of who we can be?

Keep the following concepts in mind, and you are on your way to creating, a healthy, productive and inspirational Elul:

Our Beloved, Our Father

As we embark on our mission, we should be comforted by two descriptions of our relationship with G‑d. The letters of Elul, alef, lammed, vav, lammed, stand for Ani l’dodi v’dodi li, “I am for my Beloved, and my Beloved is for me.” 1 G‑d loves us, He has an intimate relationship with us, and He certainly wants us to return to Him.

In the Rosh Hashanah prayers, we refer to G‑d as our Father. In a healthy and normal family relationship, the father only wants the best for His child. Even when we make mistakes, all He wants is for us to return, to become better, to show him we really are the child He had so many aspirations for.

G‑d Believes in You, So Believe in Yourself

I recall in high school one of my friends writing me a birthday note that went something like this: “Happy Birthday, Hani! This is the day that G‑d decided the world couldn’t go on without you.” The point is simple but profound. G‑d brought you into this world and gave you a soul. You have a mission and purpose here.

Your process of teshuvah should begin with a broad andWhat’s blocking you from realizing your potential? optimistic vision of who you want to be. Then begin working out the details of how you will get there. Think about what’s blocking you from realizing your potential. What are your fears? What are your limiting beliefs? What parts of your personality are bogging you down and impacting your ability to reach your goal? You may want to make a flow chart, so you can visualize your process of achieving your goals.

Be Prepared to Fall, and Get Up

You may struggle to achieve your goal. You may fail and have to start again. But what matters is that you are trying. That’s what G‑d cares about. Anticipate the interval training you will experience in the workout called life, rather than dreading it before you have even become involved in the process of tesuhvah.

After the Yom Kippur prayer services are over, many synagogues have the custom of joyously singing and dancing. Why? Because we are overjoyed that we have been given the chance to renew our relationship with G‑d, to start over with a clean slate. We should merit feeling this happiness over the coming weeks of Elul as we take the first steps, even if they are small, back to our Beloved, our Father, our Creator.

Footnotes
Hani Lowenstein is a devoted wife and mother. She works part time in the field of Jewish education.
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many Chabad.org pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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Anonymous September 19, 2016

An excellent lesson and very well written! Thanks for posting! Reply

Randi Freedman US September 19, 2016

Teshuva I can relate. I too used to make such a list on this date but then? I stopped as it occurred to me that it was no solution to what was happening to me. I did nothing. Had no sins to atone for. No Yom Kippur fast was needed for my heart has always been giving and compassionate as my soul has. Thank you for the article. Teshuva is a necessary thing for all of us regardless. The lay person calls it soul searching. Reply

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