Teshuvah is a combination of my work, my practice and my good intentions together with a subliminal, imperceptible, wonderful phenomenon that seems to arrive out of the blue from somewhere else.
How do you do teshuvah (repentance/return) anyway? If you are like me, it’s one thing to express the noble sentiment that you would like to change, but it is quite another to actually change. Somehow, my food addictions linger after the Yom Kippur fast. I forgive those who have hurt me, but the pain (and therefore the anger) remains. I am essentially the same person in October that I was in August, despite the best of intentions!
It’s not that I don’t believe in the transformative power of spiritual practice. I do! Through regular practices of prayer and meditation, I walk through my days with an awareness of the blessed mystery of existence. By cultivating kind, compassionate thoughts about people—and by treating them with kindness—I am a much more generous, forgiving and loving person than I was before.
Practice works, but not on a predictable schedule. You can’t do teshuvah in the one day of Yom Kippur or the three days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur or the 40 days from the New Moon of the month of Elul through the Day of Atonement. Teshuvah is a prescribed activity twelve months a year, but even if you practice, you don’t know whether or when it’s going to have its transformative effects. You work on being less self-centered and better at listening to others, and you just can’t seem to break out of your personality flaws … and then, one day, you notice that you’ve changed! Is that because change is incremental, so that it takes time to notice it? Or because change is a mystery, an event of hen (grace/ an unearned gift)—a term that shows up frequently in our liturgy that we may not have noticed or understood.
The rabbis taught that there is a divine voice (bat kol) that calls out from Mount Sinai, saying over and over again: “Shuvu! Return to Me you wayward children!” The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, interpreted this to mean that the Giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai was not a one-time event. Rather, the divine voice calls forth to us perpetually, at every moment, inviting us to return. It’s a voice that most of us can’t hear most of the time because of the noise, the distractions, the busy nature of our daily lives. But when we truly listen, when we cultivate our “hearing” through practice, sometimes, unexpectedly, the voice becomes audible, and I know exactly what to do, after days or months of feeling confused. The voice was always there, but I couldn’t hear it.
How can you believe in a voice that is not measurably audible? It may not be audible, but it is measurable. Notice it when you, your loved ones or your co-workers change—mature and re-orient perspectives in ways that you could not have imagined a year or two ago. Teshuvah is a mysterious process, indeed! It is a combination of my work, my practice and my good intentions together with a subliminal, imperceptible, wonderful phenomenon that seems to arrive out of the blue from somewhere else.
Rabbi Jacob Staub is professor of Jewish philosophy and spirituality at the RRC, where he directs the Program in Jewish Spiritual Direction. He is co-author of Exploring Judaism: A Reconstructionist Approach (Reconstructionist Press).