Rosh Hashana marks the beginning of what Torah calls The Ten Days of Teshuva. The Ten Days of Teshuva are meant to kick the Jewish new year off to an active start. What exactly is teshuva? The Jewish concept of teshuva is usually translated as repentance.
Repentance? Boy, does that sound heavy. But Torah promises that it’s easy:
“For this commandment that I command you today – it is not hidden from you and it is not distant. It is not in heaven, [for you] to say, ‘Who can ascend to the heaven…?’ It is not across the sea, [for you] to say, ‘Who can cross to the other side of the sea…?’ Rather, the matter is very near to you – in your mouth and in your heart – to perform it.” (Devarim-Deuteronomy 30:11-14)
G-d makes a very poetic argument, but brass tacks, do you believe Him? Do you think teshuva is easy?
“Well, let’s see, there was that time I gossiped about that other girl at work, and there was that time that I used somebody else’s coffee mug without asking…yeah, it broke, but I haven’t told her yet…of course I’m going to get her a new one…eventually…and there was that time I got angry at my husband, and the time I really shouldn’t have yelled at my kid but I did anyway…and that was just yesterday!”
When most of us begin to think about it, teshuva doesn’t seem all that easy. In fact, it seems just about as heavy as it sounds: repentance, the 500-pound elephant on the coffee table.
How can we even begin to change with all the petty grievances we hold on to, the snitty little character flaws we carry around like so much purse lint, the million and one human foibles we stumble over on a daily basis? We’re human! Teshuva is divine! Let’s go have a hot chocolate instead…
Yet G-d describes teshuva as a piece of cake. What in heaven’s name is He talking about?
Actually, It Is All Your Mother’s Fault
When hubby came home to tell me what he had learned at yeshiva last Thursday, he was grinning from ear to ear. “You know what Rav Berkowitz told us today?,” he asked me. “He told us the psychologist was right. It is all your mother’s fault.”
Well, sort of. Rav Yitzchak Berkowitz challenged his students to think about what they were really accountable for, by considering how many things they were not.
That bad habit you have of getting irritable right before dinnertime? “Leave me alone, I’m trying to get some food on the table!” It may not be your fault. After all, your mother did the exact same thing every single day of your life. It’s practically genetic!
That sudden anxiety attack you suffer whenever the theme song to The Twilight Zone starts playing at a mall? You didn’t do that to yourself! It was your older brother who forced you to watch reruns with him every time he babysat you. No wonder you’re a nervous wreck!
G-d does not hold us accountable for things that are out of our control. The Jewish philosophy classic Strive For Truth explains that every human being has a “choice-box”. Can a hardened mafioso choose not to mug somebody? Given where he is coming from, that might be impossible, but he can choose whether to kill the victim or just knock them out cold instead. That’s his choice-box.
Similarly, we might not be capable of choosing not to get irritable before dinnertime. (My friend Rebbetzin Malka Zeldman calls it “the Tylenol hour”.) But what we can choose is whether to get organized, get focused, and get through it, or give up and go haywire.
We might not be capable of ditching all of our bad habits and linty little character flaws, but we can target and vanquish the ones within our grasp. And that is all G-d expects.
Where Is Your Choice Box?
The difference between G-d’s version, teshuva, and our 500-pound idea of “repentance” is that to do real teshuva we actually have to activate our brains. It isn’t as easy as an Extreme Makeover-style, take-this-one-back-to-the-pound-and-get-me-a-new-one overhaul. No self-flagellating guilt trips allowed! (Come on, you know where that guilt trip leads anyway, don’t you? Right to the Ben and Jerry’s at the back of the freezer, that’s where.)
Instead, we actually have to think about who we are, where we are coming from, and what we are realistically capable of. It might all be your mother’s fault, but do you really want to be mama’s boy forever? “If you keep twisting your face up like that, the wind is gonna change and it’s gonna stick that way!” Well, when it came to that, maybe mom was right. Who do we want to be when we grow up?
It turns out that real teshuva is easy. All it takes is sitting down and figuring out where our choice-boxes are. Small steps: “Well, let’s see, there was that time I gossiped about that other girl at work, because I just love talking about other people, so you know what? I’m going to start looking for the sweetest little things people do and repeating them at the water cooler. Only the good stuff. And the coffee cup? I got her a new one, I even had them wrap it with one of those little red bows, isn’t it cute? I’m going to tell her I’m sorry, she’s such a doll… And it made me feel so good, I got one for my husband, too, and the kids, well, they’re loud and annoying sometimes, but I think I’m getting on their good side…and there’s always tomorrow!”
Because there is always tomorrow. And “the matter is very near to you – in your mouth and in your heart – to perform it.” The Ten Days of Teshuva are supposed to be a spiritual light-box to search your deeds, figure out your foibles, and get on track for a great new Jewish year.
So let’s go, honey. ‘Tis the season. Seize the day.