Teshuvah and Taking Responsibility
The Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is known as Shabbat Shuva, the Sabbath of Repentance, an important marker in our journey through these first ten days of the new Jewish year. This is a time to engage in self-reflection, to identify those parts of ourselves that we wish to improve upon, rededicating ourselves to the task of sacred living in the year ahead. It is much easier to turn a blind eye to our mistakes, our failings, and our misgivings, to submerge our sins in the river of denial. It is much easier to throw the work of repentance into the “too-hard” basket, to call this work “somebody else’s problem.” But our tradition reminds us that each of us must make amends, each of us must perform works of teshuvah, and work to repair our relationships with one another and with God.
We read Parashat Vayelech this Shabbat. Only thirty verses in length, Vayelech is the shortest of all of the parashiot in the Torah. Knowing that he is about to die, Moses entrusts the leadership of the Israelites to Joshua, who will guide them across the Jordan River and into the Promised Land. Three times in these thirty verses, Moses tells Joshua to “be strong and resolute” (vv. 6, 7, and 23). In order for Joshua to lead the Israelites properly, he will need to demonstrate strength, courage, and resilience. In order for us to perform the work of t’shuvah, we will need much of the same; we will need to be strong and resolute.
Such spiritual work is not easy. It can sometimes seem as difficult and as daunting as engaging in the conquest of the Promised Land. But we cannot absolve ourselves from challenging situations and expect to grow. Dr Louis Newman has written, “Judaism teaches that teshuvah forces us to take responsibility for the past, even as it
promises us freedom from that past. It seems, in fact, that our ability to overcome the mistakes of the past increases in direct proportion to our determination to own them. Paradoxically, we can escape the burdens of our past only by running toward them, rather than away from them (Newman, Repentance: The Meaning and Practice of T’shuvah, p. 202).
Shabbat affords us an opportunity to reflect, to give thanks, and in the peace and quiet of our weekly rest, to take an accounting of our lives. How do we wish to grow? How do we wish to change? How do we wish to improve upon ourselves and our relationships? What are those niggling aspects of our lives that lead us to say, “If only I didn’t…” or “If only I wouldn’t…” or “I regret that I hadn’t…” or “I really need to work on…”? Rabbi Lawrence Kushner teaches that our first inclination is to push these ideas as far away as we can because we resist doing this work of self-improvement, this necessary work of healing. But we would do better to realize that these are “…rejected parts of ourselves that in this time of great closeness to God come out our unconscious yearning for redemption” (Kushner, God was In this Place and I, I Did Not Know, p. 71).
All of us have made mistakes. All of us have caused hurt and pain. All of us can do better. The gift of this season is that we have an opportunity to become aware, to seek and offer forgiveness, to seek healing, to seek love, and ultimately to seek redemption. Engaging in these difficult processes, may all of us be “strong and resolute,” and benefit from the blessings of renewal and redemption that this season in our calendar invites us to experience together.
Shabbat Shalom and G’mar Chatima Tova