Transform with Teshuvah

From David Waksberg,  CEO Jewish LearningWorks

An airplane plunges into the ocean, killing all onboard.  The ensuing investigation pits safety experts investigating what went wrong against officials trying to deflect blame.  “One of the world’s important divides,” observed a writer, “lies between nations that react well to accidents and nations that do not…The first requirement…the intention to get the story right, wherever the blame may lie.”

Denial is a powerful impulse – for governments, organizations, and people.  We’ve evolved to protect ourselves from threats and we often perceive information as threatening.     

No one enjoys coming to grips with their flaws; we construct narratives that cast ourselves in a positive light.  We judge others by their actions, because it is their actions we experience.  We judge ourselves by our intentions, which are often more noble than our actions.  However things turned out, we know we meant well.  Cognitively, we are set up to give ourselves a pass.  Getting the story right, wherever the blame may lie is a tall order.

Getting the story right, wherever the blame may lie, is at the heart of the six-week process that began on Rosh Hodesh Ellul in early August and ends with the Neilah (concluding) service on Yom Kippur. That process is often referred to as teshuvah (repentance) and cheshbon hanefesh (accounting of the soul).  In a sense, the tradition sets us up to conduct our own personal investigation.  For sure there has been a mishap or two over the past year, if not a full-blown crash.  Teshuvah is about getting the story right, wherever the blame may lie.

Teshuvah is a brilliant invention.  It’s better to know what caused a crash, than to protect someone’s job or national pride. In the long run, it’s better for our relationships and our souls to understand how we have caused hurt and pain than to protect our egos.  This is difficult and counter-intuitive.  Teshuvah offers a guide for conducting this investigation.

Ethicist Louis Newman, in his book, Teshuvah, outlines seven steps: culpabilityremorseconfessionapologyrestitutionsoul reckoning and transformation

These seven steps contribute to what eminent 20th century Orthodox rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik referred to as the double purpose of Yom Kippur.  The first is kapparah, acquittal or atonement.  This is  transactional between us and the person we’ve harmed, between us and God).  The second purpose istaharah, purification .   Soloveitchik held that sin pollutes our souls, and the process of teshuvah helps us “get the story right” so we might learn from our past errors in order to transform ourselves.  This is why “soul reckoning” and “transformation” are the final steps in the teshuvah process.  Tellingly, Soloveitchik also translated taharah as catharsis – a clue that something substantial is required.

Most of us avoid the catharsis Soloveitchik recommends.  Non-specific and conditional, the common phrase “I’m sorry if I’ve hurt you during the past year” may be well-intended, but it approaches forgiveness as an entitlement.  Newman points out the difference between “I’m sorry you took offense at what I did” (insincere) and “I’m sorry for having acted in a way that offended you” (sincere).  Forgiveness is available, but if it is meaningful, it can’t be obtained on the cheap.

Teshuvah is, firstly, a learning process with common, yet profound learning outcomes:

  • Cognitive (knowing) – we become aware of our transgressions.  The weeks leading up to the Day of Atonement are intended for this purpose, as is the High Holy Day liturgy – all that breast beating is intended to help us reflect on how we ourselves have engaged in these specific behaviors. 
  • Affective (feeling) – we feel responsibility and remorse.
  • Behavioral (doing) – we act – apologize, make restitution, and behave differently going forward.

Soloveitchik and Newman add a fourth outcome – spiritual transformation.  By the process of atonement, our souls are purified and our spirits are transformed through KNOWING, FEELING, AND DOING, as demanded by the teshuvah process. 

Teshuvah, a sophisticated learning system, developed over thousands of years, takes work, study, and practice.  As with any serious subject of study (and the subject here is our lives, our relationships, our souls) – there are no shortcuts.  So often, our attention, our teaching, our learning, involves the trappings of these holidays, at the expense of the essence.  It is the season of soul renewal.

We can’t do accounting of our souls all the time – we’d never get anything done.  The tradition sets aside time for serious reflection, accountability, and atonement.  Now is that time. Holiness may be the end goal, but there are many other benefits, including healing and forgiveness.  Real teshuvah is not trivial, but neither is it impossible.  As Moses says in the Torah portion for the week of August 31, “it is not distant, it is not in heaven…rather it is very near you, in your mouth and your heart.”

We at Jewish LearningWorks wish you a happy, healthy, and sweet new year, a year of learning, growing, and healing.

L’Shanah Tova