Teshuvah 101

For the last month, Jews have been preparing for the High Holy Days. During Elul and the High Holy Days, we work to make teshuvah, to return to the right path.

Teshuvah literally means “turning.” When we “make teshuvah” we notice what we’ve done wrong, we acknowledge that it is wrong, we take responsibility for it, we do what we can to apologize and make amends, and then we make a plan for not doing it again.

1. READ a Beginner’s Guide to the High Holy Days. It’s an entry on this blog, just follow the link.  This will give you an idea of the season as a whole.

2. SIN in Judaism is a slightly different concept than in Christianity. The Hebrew word chet (sounds like “hate” only with a spitty sound on the front) is an archery term. It means that you aimed at something and you missed.  In Judaism, the focus is not on what a terrible person you are for doing something, the focus is to aim more carefully when you next are in that situation

Very Important:  The point of the season is not to beat myelf up, it’s to make myself better.  Taking responsibility and expressing sorrow are important but the act of teshuvah [repentance] is not complete until I do better.  Remember, in Judaism the focus is on doing, not so much on one’s state of mind.

3. PEOPLE are the prime concern during the process of teshuvah. I need to go through my address book and think, is there anyone I have treated badly? Have I apologized? The only time an apology is not required is if it would cause greater pain. Is it possible to make restitution, if that is appropriate?  The tradition is very clear that it is essential we apologize to those we have offended or injured and do our best to make things right.  If they will not accept an apology, or if something cannot be made right, then we have to do the best we can.

4. It is possible to sin against MYSELF, as well. Have I treated my body carelessly, either by neglect or by abusing it? Do I follow my doctor’s orders? For any of these things, I need to take responsibility, and to think about change.

5. Sins against GOD also require teshuvah. As a Reform Jew, I may or may not keep the commandments in a traditional way. Whatever my practice, it needs to be genuine: I should not claim to be more observant than I am. Which mitzvot do I observe? Are there mitzvot I think I should observe, but don’t? Why don’t I? What could I change so that I will be the Jew I want to be?

6. ADJUSTMENTS  Follow-through is important: it is not enough to be sorry for things I have done or failed to do. What is my plan for the future? How exactly am I going to do better in the coming year?  Sometimes this means asking for help, calling a rabbi or a therapist to talk about strategies for change.  A fresh pair of eyes and ears may see options that I don’t.

7. DON’T GO TO PIECES As I said above, the point of all this is not to beat yourself up, it’s to make the world better by making your behavior better. Do not wallow in guilt, just note what needs to change and make a plan for change. If the list is overwhelming, pick one or two things and then take action. 

8. PRAYER. During Elul the shofar is sounded at morning services in the synagogue on weekdays. Some people find that the ancient sound of the ram’s horn “wakes them up.” That may sound silly, but try it and see.  Towards the end of Elul, on a Saturday night, there is a beautiful service called Selichot (Slee-CHOT) in which we gather as a community to read through prayers and lists that will help us identify the things we need to improve. If you can, attend; it can be a big help.

These eight elements can help you have a fruitful High Holy Days. Each year is an opportunity to do better, to rise above the past. As Rabbi Tarfon used to say, “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task. Yet, you are not free to desist from it.” No one does any of this perfectly. The point is to improve.

L’shana tovah:  May the coming year be a good year for you!

The Art of the Good Apology

The Day of Atonement atones for sins against God, not for sins against man, unless the injured party has been appeased.”– Mishnah Yoma 8:9

If we are normal people leading normal lives, there will be times we owe someone an apology. Our offenses may be big, or small, and in some cases we may even feel they have been blown out of proportion, but something must be done about them.

A fascination with Intentions can distract from this process.  Nothing messes up a good apology like “I intended X but you clearly misunderstood, you idiot.”

Imagine for a moment that you are standing in line somewhere. It’s crowded, and you step sideways or backwards because you are trying to keep your balance. Your foot, and all of your weight, lands firmly on the instep of another person. He yelps.

Now: what do you say?  Most people would agree that the thing to say in this situation is “I’m sorry,” “Pardon!” or better yet, “I’m so sorry I stepped on your foot.”  It should sound like the stepper actually regrets stepping on the foot.  Then the other person might, if he is gracious, say, “That’s OK” or “That’s OK, but be careful!” or, if there was a crunch and severe pain, or a stiletto involved, “I think it may be broken, can you help me get to a doctor?”

What would NOT be OK is for the first person to say, “Your foot is in the wrong place!” or “Quit complaining, you big baby!” After all, she just stepped on someone’s foot!  And it would be ridiculous to say, “Well, I didn’t intend to step on it, so it doesn’t count. Get over yourself!”

The same applies when we step on people’s feelings. The first, indispensable thing to say is “I’m sorry,” in a tone that conveys genuine sorrow. It’s good to say it as soon as possible, but it’s never too late to say it. It doesn’t matter what you intended; what has to be attended to is the hurt.  That’s why it’s good to name the hurt: “I’m sorry I didn’t think before I spoke/ ran over your dog / etc.”  No subjunctive mood nonsense, either:  none of this “If your feelings were hurt, I’m sorry” stuff. That makes you sound like a shifty politician, and it just compounds the injury.

Next step: What are you going to do, so that this doesn’t happen again? This needs to be something specific. “I am going to make an appointment with my eye doctor!” or “I am going to talk to a counselor about why I am always late!” or “I am going to do some study about racism, because I have a lot to learn!”

If at any point they want to tell you how they are feeling, LISTEN. Don’t interrupt, don’t tell them how they should feel, don’t tell them you already apologized. Don’t justify, don’t argue. LISTEN. Then repeat back to them what you heard: “I get that you are very angry, and I am so sorry I left you wondering if I was safe.”

I live in California, and people are lawsuit-crazy here. They love to sue each other, and it’s tempting to live in fear of lawsuits, never taking responsibility for anything, lest someone take that to court and make money out of it. But folks, that is no way to live, and it is no way to run relationships with our neighbors or friends.

Here is Rabbi Adar’s recipe for a good apology:

1. “I am sorry that I _____ .”  Say it in a sincere tone of voice, so they can hear that you are sorry.

2. “Here’s what I will do to make sure this never happens again.” (alternatively, “Here is what I will do to make restitution.”)

3. If they have something to say, listen. Do not defend or argue.

That’s it.  That’s all that is required. It’s hard, but if you are going to the trouble of making amends and apologies, they might as well be good ones, right?

Think back over the apologies you have received in your life. When has an apology actually helped? What about that apology worked?

Elul Sweat

I associate the last few days of Elul with sweat.

Sure it’s hot. Pretty much anywhere north of the equator, this is going to be one of the warmer months of the year. Even in the Bay Area, where it’s “always” moderate, we are usually fussing about about the heat towards the end of Elul.

My Elul sweat has more to do with the things left for me to do: the phone calls I have not yet made and the apologies I am yet to give. As long as I’m still dreading them, my teshuvah is incomplete.

The best apology is made out of concern for the other person. When I sweat, I know that the focus of my teshuvah is still on myself: my embarrassment at imperfection, my need to appear flawless, my fear of blame. Excuses keep flashing to mind: I was busy, I was upset, I was depressed, I was anxious, I was distracted, my feelings were hurt… those are all about me. They are not teshuvah.

The best apology is made of concern for the other person. The only way I know to that place is to imagine myself in their shoes, to cultivate compassion. How would I feel on the other side of my behavior?

Then I sweat some more because that isn’t fun, either. I must grab that energy and take it where it will do some good. I must seize it and make teshuvah.

I wish you a fruitful Elul.

Ready, Set, Sukkot!

For years and years, I intended to build a sukkah in which to celebrate Sukkot, but when the holiday came around, I was somehow caught by surprise. It took me an embarrassingly long time to catch on to the fact that I needed to do some Sukkot preparation during Elul, as well as the preparation for the High Holy Days.

The two sets of preparation are not mutually exclusive. Preparation for the High Holy Days is mostly a private matter for anyone who is not on a synagogue staff.  We examine our hearts, we go back through the previous year, we make amends. It can be hard emotional work. Preparation for Sukkot is a matter of mechanics:

  1. Do I have the stuff to build the sukkah?
  2. Do I know where all of it is?
  3. Do I need to repair or replace anything?
  4. Do I want to add anything? New decorations? Lights?

After the first year, it’s really not a big deal, but it has to be done, because sukkah building should begin, ideally, immediately after Yom Kippur. I have learned that most of it dovetails quite easily with preparations for the High Holy Days; while I am checking through supplies, I make my mental lists.

This year I’m still looking for my sukkah walls, but I have found the rug and the furniture. I’ve ordered a new bamboo mat for schach, and I got some new twinkly lights. Prep done, if I can just find those walls…!

So this is my reminder to you, dear readers, that if you are planning to build a sukkah this year, it’s time to figure out where you put the sukkah supplies from last year. If you don’t plan to build a sukkah, I also have a suggestion: as you make your lists of people with whom you need to have important conversations, make a list of people with whom to sit and enjoy during Sukkot. If you can’t sit in a kosher sukkah, sit in an almost-kosher sukkah. If you have no access to any kind of sukkah, think where you might share a cup of tea or coffee (or chocolate!) with those friends, one by one.

Sukkot, too, is part of our renewal at the beginning of the year. Don’t wait to prepare – have your plans ready. Beyond the solemn self-examination of the High Holy Days awaits the joy of Sukkot!

Coming or Going? Exodus and Elul

One of the odd things about being a writer is that often you do have to do things out of season, because of a publishing schedule. I just finished writing a d’var Torah on Parashat Bo, a section of the Book of Exodus. However, the materials I reviewed for it made me think it was very appropriate for Elul.

Torah portions gets their names from the first distinctive word of the portion. In this case, “Bo,” which is usually translated “Come,” isn’t translated that way. Here’s the opening verse of the portion:

And the Eternal said unto Moses: ‘Go in unto Pharaoh; for I have hardened his heart, and the heart of his servants, that I might show these My signs in the midst of them. – Exodus 10:1

So here most translations say “Go” instead of “Come.” It makes more immediate sense, so that’s what they do. However, if you read Hebrew, or you start looking in the commentaries, it stands out as a very interesting situation indeed.

The Kotzker Rebbe took a very simple approach to the Come/Go question. He said that things were getting scary, and God said “Come” to reassure Moses that God would there with him in the throne room of Pharaoh.

The Zohar, a mystical work, takes almost the opposite tack. It says that really God was calling to Moses from the throne room of Pharaoh, and that the throne room was a dark tunnel in which there lived an evil snake. (I don’t recommend the Zohar at bedtime, unless you like nightmares.) Like all mystical works, the Zohar is full of metaphor and clouded language, but the message in this passage is loud and clear: “Danger, Moses!”

We are in a season of the year when our task is to plumb the depths of our own souls. Sometimes that requires confronting ugly aspects of ourselves: our selfishness, our cowardice, or our defensiveness. It can be like following an ugly snake down into a dark hole, and then, when we are down there with it, wrestling the thing.

The good news is the Kotzker Rebbe’s interpretation: we may be down there in the hole with our worst inclinations, but we don’t have to go there alone. God goes with us into those dark places. I find it reassuring to remember that Jews all over the world are with me in this struggle, too, each of us wrestling our own private demons.

Whatever we wrestle this Elul, may we never forget that we are not alone!

Books for Elul & the High Holy Days

Wondering how to prepare for the High Holy Days? One way many Jews prepare is with a good book. Here are some  books I have used for this purpose:

And now, dear readers, what have I left out? Is there a book you’ve used for High Holy Day preparation that you particularly recommend? Please share it with us in the comments!

Love in the Time of Elul

We are now in the month of Elul, the last month of the Jewish year. Elul is spelled thus in Hebrew:


Aleph – Lamed – Vav – Lamed

There is a tradition dating from ancient times that Elul is an acronym for a passage from Song of Songs:

I am my beloved and my beloved is mine. – Song of Songs 6:3

But that raises the question: what on earth can a piece of erotic poetry teach us about this time of year?

Song of Songs is a long love poem, and it is usually associated with springtime. However, at this time of year opposite the springtime, we read it as an analogy: it is also an expression of the longing of Israel and God for one another.

I can hear the screech of brakes through my modem. Some of you, my readers, are thinking, “Oh! I cannot stand it when she does that God-talk!” So let’s talk about that.

There’s a lot of God-talk during this season and the upcoming High Holy Days. If you are the sort of rational person who finds that off-putting, it’s a tough time of year to be Jewish. So here’s an idea: try hearing “God” and all those metaphors for God as “Mystery.”

As chaotic and mean as this world often is, occasionally goodness breaks through the fog of chaos and meanness. That goodness is a Mystery to us: we experience it in the love of a little dog, the kindness of a stranger, the patter of unexpected rain in a drought.

We sometimes also experience Mystery in moments of terror and grief: a natural disaster, a tragic loss, an experience of fathomless pain.

The common element between these two is that human hearts cry out “WHY?” at them, and it seems as if the question has no rational answer. That’s the moment when we can step out of the rational world and into something my old theology professor Langdon Gilkey used to call “the theological circle.” That which we call “God” is the answer to the “WHY?” poured from the human heart.

So try substituting “Mystery” for “God” and see if it helps.

OK – let’s get back to that acronym and the love poem! This is the time of year when we explore the mysteries of existence, the questions and the secrets in our hearts. The sages connected the letters of Elul with the Song of Songs because this is the time of year that we search out our connections to the Mystery that is God, and they believed that the Mystery of God was searching for us, too. Like lovers, we and the Mystery at the heart of the universe are searching for one another, hoping for a reunion that will heal our hearts.

I wish you a good journey through this month of Elul!