Teshuva: Averting the “harshness of the decree”

Nathan MartinErev Rosh Hashanah dvar Torah by Rabbi Nathan Martin

Shana Tova and Gut Yontif,

I first want to say what an honor and privilege it is for me to be celebrating Rosh Hashannah with you this year. When I started out my job in Ann Arbor in 2006 at the University of Michigan Hillel, I remember the feeling of having left a vibrant Reconstructionist Rabbinical College community and assuming that I would just have to settle for “less” community. And I remember the delight and surprise I felt when I started coming to the AARC.

  • There were God-wrestlers–people who thrived on challenging contemporary notions of Jewish theology trying to find their own unconventional theological path into the tradition
  • There were Jewish learners–people who simply wanted to soak up the various parts of Jewish tradition and find meaning in the voices of our ancestors
  • There were God Seekers–people who sought to integrate traditional and innovative Jewish practice to develop a meaningful Jewish path
  • There were Community Builders–I called these the “doers,” the folks who simply stepped up and made programs and community happen
  • And most of all, there was warmth and welcome. Without fanfare people stepped up and helped me and my family feel at home.

This Jewish diversity within the AARC is what makes you the strong and unique community you are. And my first blessing for the new year is that you continue to draw from these many strands to continue to build a caring and Jewishly diverse community for the future.

Rosh Hashannah is a powerful moment in our Jewish calendar cycle. We are stepping back to assess our past behavior and seeking to re-set our intentions for the coming year. We draw from the metaphor of rebirth–hayom harat ha-o’lam, today the world is born–to see if we too can renew ourselves.

Alongside the process of renewal is the time we take to recognize our own fragility. This is the essence of the “unetane tokef” prayer which we will be reciting tomorrow, a meditation on the fragility of life. The prayer confronts us with images of judgment and the uncertainty of what lies ahead. And then it takes an interesting turn with the words, “uteshuva, utefillah, utzedakah ma’avirin et roa’ hagzerah” –“teshuva, tefillah, and tzedakah avert the harshness of the decree.”

What does it mean to have the harshness of a decree averted?

teshuvah

Let’s focus tonight on the first word of this phrase: teshuva. While translated as “repentance,” the root of the word for teshvua has the meaning of “shuv” to return. I often translate “teshuva” as “returning to our best selves.” Rosh Hashannah and these ten days of repentance are a time when we try to reach for our best selves and imprint this behavior as a guide for the coming year. Often this work is done in the negative–at least liturgically. We recite litanies of mis-steps that we have done personally and as a community. But, the personal reflection moves beyond the liturgy. We each have our own personal spiritual curriculum for improvement. Here’s a personal example for you.

I have a habit of leaving my books on the dining room table–thinking that in the few free minutes I might have between dinner and bedtime I might do some reading. (Usually an overly-optimistic scenario.) When my partner Abby the other day said in a somewhat sarcastic tone “are you planning on leaving your books on the table again,” I could notice a variety of feelings come up that included: defensiveness, “Well I may read something;” guilt, “oy, she caught me;” shame, “I know I should have moved the books and I feel bad and embarrassed that I didn’t.” And, sometimes perhaps even humor, “Oy, there’s Nathan forcing his foibles onto the family.”

The smallest details of our lives can be challenging and worthy of introspection. The more we stop and look, the more we realize that we are constantly falling short of the ideal human being that we would like to be. This may be in the ways in which we take care (or don’t take care) of our bodies, in our lack of attention for those we care about, and the list goes on. But one thing I realized: when I dwell in my guilt, shame, and embarrassment on the ways I come up short of my ideals, I become both the judge and implementer of the “harsh decree” mentioned in the unetane tokef prayer. An important part of the teshuva process is also figuring out to how let go of the strong internal critique we carry that distracts us from refocusing our minds on healthier behavior and choices for the future.

The moment we are able to name and face that we are falling short–that is a moment of lessening the severity of the decree. The moment we are able to name for ourselves and others the person we would like to become–that too is a lessening of the decree. And of course, the moment we are able to translate these personal insights into repairing our important relationships with our friends and loved ones–that too is a lessening of the decree.

As I conclude my remarks tonight and we prepare to move towards the close of the service I want to invite you to think about the notion of bringing someone in close with you as you do your teshuva work this year. What would it look like to invite a teshuva hevruta, a close friend who can help you hold the best picture of yourself, into this important spiritual work? This hevruta could be someone who you could share your “teshuva list” of those who you want to reach out to and apologize to. You could even debrief how it went. This hevruta could be someone you could share your personal spiritual growth curriculum for the coming year–and you could even set up times to check in periodically how the work is going.

As my comments indicate, rather than seeing the world and ourselves being reborn anew in an instant in Rosh Hashannah, we can rather hold onto the metaphor that we are at the beginning of the year’s journey of growth and transformation and an ongoing teshuva practice. Thus, each day when we say the blessing in the daily Amida, “selach lanu avinu ki chattanu” “forgive us our Sovereign for we have strayed” we could actually have our teshuva curriculum in mind as a focusing point for our work.

May we use this time of the next day and during this week to wake ourselves up to new possibilities, define our personal curriculum, and deepen our relationships to support each other in this important work.

Wishing you blessings and sweetness–and growth–in the coming year.