It was after Rosh Hashana and a friend of mine from Oorah asked me, “So any suggestions? Regarding teshuvah, I mean.”
Let’s talk about teshuvah (repentance, lit. return) and what it has to do with Succoth. Shall we?
Have you ever seen a child? I bet you have. Any healthy child is curious, happy, trusting, sweet, open, vulnerable, loving, pure, fun-filled… but they’re not like that anymore at 40, are they? Or even at 27. What happened?
Well, they grew up.
I see. So ‘growing up’ means having to lose all that? Imagine for a moment that we didn’t grow up. We were all still open and trusting and constantly curious and fun-filled and vulnerable and pure and sweet and in love with everybody and everything. Like children, we didn’t register color or creed. We felt superior to nobody, and just like children, wanted to bond, to discover more of life together. Would that be a terrible world? An ‘immature’ world? A world where, like when we were children, there were no grand plans of destruction or dominance, no dominion or malice, or being scared to hug?
Hashem creates and delivers each person to the world with fantastic, factory-installed software, physically and emotionally. (Sometimes people are born, G-d forbid, sick. I know. True. But I’m talking about usually, under normal circumstances.) How perfect is the product right from the factory? The way Hashem delivered it- before we messed with it.
Teshuvah, then, is trying to get back, at least a little, to that place. But that is hard.
For me, at least.
It starts with Rosh Hashana: simply accepting an agenda, an internal private agenda, that says, “if Hashem is running the world, if He is my ‘king’ of sorts, then what is my obligation in this world? What was I born for? Of what permanence to me is my house, my car, my family, my accolades? Do any of those follow me after my blip of time here?”
Over Rosh Hashana, I talked to one of the brightest lawyers in the US. He bills out at thousands of dollars an hour. And yet he realized- he expressed that the most haunting thought crawling around his mind as he approaches 60 years old is, “I will soon be irrelevant.” There are few thoughts more scary to the wise person than the realization that he will soon be irrelevant. He has a beautiful family, a fancy car, respect, but what’s coming with him? None of that.
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, on the first page of his life-changing work for millions of Jews, Path of the Just, makes this point. He says that eventually every person has to ask him/herself, “What is my purpose in this world?” He then spends the rest of the book cataloging and expounding on the one word answer: CONNECTIVITY- to the source from which you came and will rejoin, because that is everlasting and forever relevant. So the most real and worthwhile challenge, then, is connectivity to that source.
He speaks of getting back to being loving, and giving people the benefit of the doubt again, of being thirsty and curious to learn more about how the world works through Torah study. He speaks of no longer lusting power and pride. He speaks of charity, giving and sharing. He speaks of connectivity, going back to the pure connection you were born with and lost somehow, and then building from there.
I wrote out for myself a four-part action plan. Mainly, the action plan is about what to remind myself every morning and evening while I pray. What attitudes and mantras should drive me this year. I start with saying to myself, “my agenda is clear for the year.”
What I want to do, yes, but more mainly who I want to BE.
HOW I want to be.
I then see each week as a separate time capsule, and take time on Shabbos to set goals for that particular week toward being ‘that guy.’
Second only to Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashana is far and away the longest prayer service of the year. In about 15 hours of prayer within two days, if one says all the words, you will have said close to 33,000 words– and not one of them talks about teshuvah. (Actually, that’s only almost true, teshuvah does appear once.) Strange, considering that the Ten Days of Repentance start with Rosh Hashana. What Rosh Hashana is about is acknowledging within our own heads that we will relate to Hashem as our ‘king’- i.e., to whom our actions should be directed- not teshuvah. But yet, once again, it’s the first two days of the Ten Days of Repentance. What’s up with that?
The Torah tells us to fast on the ninth of this month, Tishrei. The gemara explains why that really means the tenth (Yom Kippur), but then continues to tell us that not only do we not have to fast on the ninth, we should eat. Not only should we eat on the ninth, but if you eat on the ninth, “it’s like fasting on the tenth.” What’s up with THAT?
Regarding teshuvah it says that if one does a complete teshuvah on a trespass, not only is the trespass forgiven, it even becomes a credit to you! What’s up with THAT!?! What’s the idea with turning black into white and white into black?
There is an insight in the Torah that applies to all of life called hechsher mitzvah, that if A enables B than A, perforce, becomes PART of B. If I eat on the ninth SO THAT I can fast on the tenth, then my eating on the ninth “is like fasting on the tenth,” i.e., my fasting on the tenth is due in large part to my eating on the ninth. If I do a terrible sin and my reflection on that sin then becomes my catalyst, my motivation, that propels me to become a new and better person, to take on higher commitments in my relationship to my Source, then that sin has retroactively become the source of my growth, hence part of my growth, hence a ‘credit’ to me.
If on Rosh Hashana we spend the time in eliciting within ourselves the image, the concept, hence creating a pathway in our subconscious that will flow for us as a source of motivation in the coming year, that Hashem is our ‘king,’ then that becomes retroactively the springboard, the platform, that enables teshuvah– hence part of the teshuvah. Notice that the same concept is reflected everyday in our prayers in the shemoneh esrai prayer. First we ask Hashem to help us return to His Torah and service, then we ask in the next request to be forgiven. There’s no real “returning” in one’s mind and heart unless you’ve first got clear what it is you are returning TO.
Recovery is a process. And there’s no person yet that has walked this earth who doesn’t have an ill way of being to recover from. Let’s use the same imagery that Chazal, our Sages, have been using throughout the ages, that of a bride and groom courting each other. When a person has drifted away from his significant other, rebuilding that relationship doesn’t ever happen because they just “feel bad.” It’s a process. And the first stop of the process is always revisiting the way they related to each other in the first place. Rosh Hashana, then, is about relating to Him as our Source, Force, Father, Coach and most of all, King. That takes effort, so we precede Rosh Hashana with the month-work of Elul.
Next step is revisiting your sins, your trespasses, violations of the relationship which created distance between you and Hashem, and then making reasonable improvement pledges for the future. And then… and then, it’s about starting again from the most positive place, like you were in the beginning of your being . Remember?
Now then, finally, is what Succoth has to do with all of this. Regarding Succoth, the verse says, “and you should be just happy.” Huh? You should always try to be happy. There’s much written about how lack of happiness blocks connection to Hashem. Clearly, there’s something specific to this holiday about making sure you do all that is possible to be in the best of spirits. Well, now you know why. We’re starting again, after clearing the slate. We’re starting from the right place, with all those feelings that Hashem had installed in you when you were a kid, when you had a new, fresh neshama (soul), direct from the factory. It’s the last and the first step in this cycle of the teshuva process. And to stay on that track, it’s good to install the mantra of Rabbi Luzzatto, “What is my responsibility in this world?” The answer to that is connectivity, because all else won’t follow you and will leave you irrelevant.
Imagine what a world it would be if everybody lived this process and held these values. Let’s show by example.
By Yehuda Schwab, volunteer TorahMate