How to personalize our teshuvah experiences


This is the time of year when our friends ask, “How are you? Are you ready for another Rosh Hashana? Can you believe its Rosh Hashana again?” These, and similar kinds of questions are “on the mark,” and exactly where our thoughts should be.

In truth, “How are you?” can be taken either as another blasé social pleasantry or something far more. In my estimation, we can view it as a modern-day restatement of Hashem’s question to Adam after he violated the one mitzvah that Hashem gave him, namely, the prohibition of eating from the pri eitz hada’at: “Where are you?”

I believe Hashem was asking an existential question, or perhaps, the existential question: “Now that you have sinned against Me, what is your place within the great scheme of Creation? What is your value to the world now that you have torn our covenant asunder?” In short, Hashem was asking some of the very same things we should be asking ourselves in preparation for Rosh Hashana.

These types of questions should motivate us to pause and reflect upon our past actions and spur us on to depth-level change. Moreover, they should lead to the logical conclusion that it is time to do teshuvah.

The Rambam defines teshuvah in this manner: “What exactly is teshuvah? [It is the act that demands] the sinner to reject his sin, remove it from his thoughts, and determine in his mind that he will never do it again. … So, too, he must feel badly for what he has done in the past … and he must bear testimony to He who knows all secret matters that he will never repeat this sin again. … In addition, he must verbally confess [his sin] and speak aloud of those things he has determined in his mind.”

In sum, the teshuvah process is comprised of:

Rejection of the sin: takes place in the present.

Feeling badly about what has been done: refers to past actions.

Resolving to change: refers to the future.

Confessing (verbally) to Hashem to never be involved in this sin again.

Authentic teshuvah, therefore, is a holistic process that involves the individual’s entire being. It incorporates a radical shift in the mindset of one who has gone astray so that they will be able to return to the proper path of Torah observance. It requires unflinching honesty and the will to reject rationalizations for our sins. In addition, the ba’al teshuvah (master of teshuvah) needs to feel badly about what he or she has done, reject their prior action, and resolve never to repeat this deed in the future. Lastly, all of this must be accompanied by a heart-felt oral confession before Hashem of what they have done.

It stands to reason that the more pronounced a particular sin has become within a person’s repertoire of behaviors, the greater degree of difficulty they will encounter in trying to free themselves from its powerful grip. This is why tefilat tachanun that we recite on Mondays and Thursdays contains the hopeful phrase: “You Who opens a hand for repentance, to welcome rebels and sinners.”

Perhaps, most of all, we are not alone in this endeavor, as Yirmiyahu the prophet declared so long ago: “Enable us Hashem to return in teshuvah unto You, and we will return, renew our days [with You] as they were in earlier times.”

May this time come soon, and in our days. V’chane yihi ratzon.