We’ve just completed Rosh HaShana. If we were lucky, it was filled with the introspection, intentions and determination that we generally call תשובה (tshuva), turning/returning/ “repentance” (the actual physical and other repairs to the damage we’ve caused was focused on the entire month of Elul, which immediately preceded Rosh HaShana). Unfortunately, it was probably also filled with now-disappointed expectations.
“Day-After Blues” is likely when we wake up the next morning and see that the world hasn’t changed very much, that the same intractable problems remain just as intractable and that our abilities to change and/or improve things haven’t suddenly expanded. If the Mashiach is any closer at all, it’s only by a few seconds.
The goal of tshuva is not amateur, self-administered therapy and its mark of success is neither comfort nor satisfaction. Rather, tshuva, specifically over these weeks, is a Jewish process (although the techniques are largely adaptable/applicable outside the focused religious process). While it can and likely will have personal emotional and psychological benefits, they are secondary. The actual goal in tshuva is to remove our spiritual blockages/blinders and thus make us more effective in performing our spiritual mandate (tikkun olam defined as restoring the netzutzot ha’kodesh, “holy sparks” embedded in our physical reality to their proper spiritual location, largely accomplished through Torah, Mitzvot v’Ma’asim Tovim (integrating as many levels of meaning within the Torah, performing ritual commandments (including Tefilla, prayer) and our acts of decency and generosity towards others), bringing the world, one step at a time, closer to its ultimate perfection.
The question is less a matter of what are reasonable expectations for this season and more a matter of how we can use the tshuva we are doing to make a difference in the future. But if we didn’t radically transform ourselves, and we probably didn’t, what did we achieve?
Examining the word תשובה (tshuva) itself, we see that the basic root of the word, שב (shin-bet) has two complementary meanings. The one we commonly focus on this season is to return, but we mustn’t ignore the meaning, to sit/settle. Working together, these provide an insight into the tshuva most of us actually can experience.
As one more year of trying has ended, we transition to a new one and, hopefully, we’re closer to gaining a realistic view of who we really are. It’s natural, and often for very good reasons (i.e. the effor to grow and improve can often blur the distinction between who we are and who we want to be), to actually be very self-unaware, but that can be very harmful (i.e. when we have an unrealistic, exaggerated sense of our faults, shortcomings, mistakes and sins). This long period of introspection provides us, each year, a very rare opportunity to try to discover, with little other distraction, the true reality of our hearts and souls. The goal is to return to our true selves, without embellishment at all.
The second aspect of the word, to sit/settle, directs us to accept ourselves for who we are. It doesn’t preclude wanting to grow and improve, but it allows us to work with reality, not fantasy. Healthy growth requires us to be “comfortable in our own skins” so the changes we try to make can be based on what we are and what we want to change. We want to avoid the twin extremes of panic and complacency. We’re neither so perfect that we need not change at all, nor are we so helplessly lost that all ability to grow is absent.
The advantage of achieving this degree of both self-knowledge and acceptance is that we can realistically get to work, knowing our abilities and our limitations. Rather than fighting against ourselves, trying to achieve something we’re just not going to be able to, we can focus on how most effectively to do that which we can. We have a better chance of understanding what and where are the נצוצות הקודש (Netzutzot HaKodesh), Holy Sparks, which are unique to our נשמה (Neshama), soul, so we can engage and elevate them which is our deepest and truly spiritual mission.
On a personal note, I think I can say that just about every achievement I’ve make is a direct result of my previous failures and inabilities. For example, the bone structure in my skull leaves me unable to hear the pitch of my voice and, thus, to sing in tune (I’ve spent tremendous time and expense in the past trying to “train” my ear, so I know that I really do lack this ability). If I were able to sing along with others, I might very well have never felt driven to create music in an alternate way and would never have picked up a guitar, let alone become proficient on it. Additionally, I realized a number of years ago that I don’t have the type of memory that allows me to retain, note-for-note, or even chord-for-chord, a set composition or tune (nor an extended Torah text, directing me into a non-linear Torah style). Therefore I developed the skill I did discover within and have become a fair improvisor on guitar. Had I fought my own limitations, rather than respond to my true self, I’d probably be, at best, “politely tolerated” in group singing situations and many hours of beautiful instrumental music would never have come into the world.
Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur provide a mechanism for each of us to fine tune our efforts for the coming year. There is so much to be done and each of us is the only one capable of those tasks that uniquely resonate with our unique souls.
G’mar Chatima Tova