The High Holy Days are that special time in the Jewish calendar for us to take a step back and reflect on who we are as people. We are given the opportunity to look back on the previous spin around the sun to ponder where we were in our lives and where we are going in the coming year. One of the most effective means by which to consider our holistic growth as fully-rounded human beings is to engaging in t’shuvah, the act of returning to our core state of authentic righteousness. And as we approach these most auspicious of days, the question that should be on our lips and inscribed in our heart is: what does t’shuvah mean for me?
On a spiritual level, the process of t’shuvah is akin to finding our innermost point, a phrase we call nekuda ha’penimit. Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter—known as the Sefat Emet—taught, “For everything there is a point of essence (nekudah chayut)… and the world is pulled by this single point.” Once we find this constantly evolving place of inner Godliness, we can nurture it and expand it from smallness to its inherent, infinite potential. This is, perhaps, the most important task of our lives. T’shuvah, the literal translation usually rendered as returning, is a process where constantly returning to a deep inner point of being is the objective; allowing these encounters to transform all that we do and all that we are.
On that same thought, Maimonides taught that: “The Jewish People will only be redeemed through teshuvah (Hilchot Teshuvah 7:5). None of us can hold off a moment of growth as no one has reached perfection. “There is no righteous individual on earth who does [only] good and never does wrong” (Ecclesiastes 7:20).
In the trenches of Kabbalistic thought, coming to know one’s inner deepest self—one’s id and one’s angelic self—means coming to know something much deeper. Shem Tov Ibn Falaquera explains it in this way:
They said that whoever knows his soul knows his Creator, and whoever is ignorant of knowing his soul is ignorant of the knowledge of his Creator. How can one believe that a person is wise concerning something else when he is ignorant concerning himself? … Therefore, they said that the knowledge of the soul is prior to the knowledge of God (Sefer ha-Nefesh, translation by R. Jospe).
Similarly, Yosef Ibn Tzadik taught:
By man knowing his own soul, he will know the spiritual world from which he can attain some knowledge of the Creator, as it is written, “From my flesh I shall perceive God” [Job 19:26] (Ha-Olam ha-Katan, translation by S. Horovitz).
While religions across the world maintain their own systems of ritual and symbolism, each with their differing perspectives of human-divine interaction, it is our goal nonetheless that we keep our eyes focused on the main role of organized spirituality: to transform and elevate our core being to actualize our mission in this world. To do so, we must be engaged in a daily process of t’shuvah.
There are no set instructions for performing t’shuvah; it’s not an endeavor that one does carelessly. For example, there is the t’shuvat of refraining from doing the same action we repented for in the past (t’shuvat ha’ba’ah); removing pleasure in one’s life equal to the pleasure gained from the wrong done (T’shuvat Ha’mishkol); realizing the need to correct missed spiritual opportunities; and realizing that we need to t’shuvah for the self and t’shuvah for a collective purpose as that of family, community, or the world.
And these are only the beginning!
As in any major pursuit, too many people focus on the macro effect of their efforts rather than the incremental steps. We need game plans. We need dedication. We need the foresight to wake up every morning and ask: How are we going to make every day count? Each of us has the opportunity develop our plan of reflection and action so that we can actualize our greatest potentials. That is what this time of the year reinforces most strongly.
In this life, we are charged with a seemingly unconquerable moral task: to balance striving (hishtadlut) with trusting (bitachon). These two qualities bifurcate our ethical and empirical selves. How far do we go to cultivate radical empathy for the vulnerable and downtrodden, but at the same time, develop a sense to know that our efforts may not be enough to help everyone? Indeed, these challenges of understanding the limits of our potential require intentional effort; they require us to release a deeply imperfect human need for total control. In that way, t’shuvat reflects our desire for holiness. It’s about ensuring that humanity becomes a force for healing rather than a force for hurting; for building rather than destroying; for contributing rather than diminishing. And when we return (shuv) to our Divine essence (tzelem Elokim), our souls reflect their heavenly origin and reveal the beauty of our human aspirations.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President and Dean of Valley Beit Midrash and the author of Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary (CCAR, 2018).