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Sep 03 2014

Elul and Teshuvah

Elul is a hard month. With each day, the clock is ticking and the year is drawing to a close. The shofar blast each morning calls us to do teshuvah, urgently and insistently reminding us that the time is now. Yet, we would much rather not have to think about where we may have gone astray this past year. We prefer to move relentlessly forward.
The thought of confronting our misdeeds is frightening. It is so much easier and more comfortable to look only at our accomplishments. Perhaps this is why our confession is done communally? Denying the existence of our darker side will not help us in our spiritual search. Only by acknowledging its reality can we hope to re-direct any negative energy toward the good and the holy. This is a difficult task, and our tradition has designated this month, the month of Elul, as the time to commit ourselves to this challenge. Kind of like pouring a bucket of ice water on our soul?
When we look deeply within, we find that there are three categories of wrongdoing: sins against God, against others and against ourselves. For our sins against God, or God’s plan, we must seek divine forgiveness. For sins against others, we must acknowledge our wrongdoings and offer restitution, as well as asking forgiveness of those whom we have wronged. And for sins against ourselves, we must accept that we have damaged our own essential being and resolve to change, to do teshuvah, to repent and return to our highest vision of ourselves.
Maimonides taught that “there are sins that can be atoned for immediately, and other sins which can only be atoned for over the course of time.” Thus the process of teshuvah may occasionally be accomplished in a moment, but more often it is gradual. Yet, the fact that we can’t change all of our behavior should never deter us from continuing to reach for the next level.
We blow the shofar many times during this season. The shofar has aptly been described as the alarm clock of the soul. If so, then we too often reach for the snooze alarm- we don’t want to wake up. “One warning blast is not enough. The shofar must be blown many times to rouse us from our waking slumber and demand our full attention.”
Perhaps this is why the Rabbis taught that while the gates of prayer may be open only at certain times, the gates of repentance are always open to us? Recognizing the immense difficulty in altering engrained habits, the Rabbis also say that the sinner who has done teshuvah stands in a place beyond that of the righteous.
Consider a psychology experiment with 200 high school students. Fifty percent played “Mortal Combat,” a video game where a score is achieved by disemboweling or ripping off the head of the enemy. The other 50 percent played “Helicopter Rescue,” where points are made by rescuing victims of floods and fires. One group was awarded points for violence and the other for saving lives. Their scores were transferred into cash amounts and the students were offered the opportunity to donate to charity. Fourteen percent of the “Mortal Combat” students gave, compared to 73 percent of the students who played “Helicopter Rescue.” Apparently, even the smallest acts can affect us, changing us for the better. That is precisely what this season is all about. For while we all may be fine people, there is none of us so bold as to suggest that we cannot do better and become better by focusing on the smallest movements in the direction of holiness.
“If we have done many misdeeds,” the Rabbis teach, “then (we should) do many mitzvot to match them.” This process of growth is ongoing. Like a ship that has gone off course, we re-chart the direction of our lives. We do so not with a spirit of guilt and depression, but with the knowledge that God will grant us the strength to make the changes necessary to redirect our lives towards the path of kedushah, of holiness.
I conclude with the inspiring words of Reb Nachman of Bratslav, “Growing spiritually can be like a roller coaster ride. Take comfort in the knowledge that the way down is only preparation for the way up.”

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