A Thought on Tshuva

20 Sep

We currently find ourselves in the middle of the season of repentance, introspection, self-examination, and tshuva (return). Ideally, we are turning inward to inspect who and what we are, what we do, and how we do it. Our quest is for the betterment of self as a means to achieve a closer relationship with God. We delve into the ways we erred, strayed, or deliberately turned away from God and each other. Although tradition teaches that striving for repentance may be undertaken at any point during the year, it also teaches that this a time of special closeness, דרשו ה’ בהמצאו קראהו בהיותו קרוב (Seek God while He can be found, call out to Him when he is near, Isaiah 55:6). Within this עת רצון (time of grace) the opportunities to turn toward God are magnified.

The Song of Songs is traditionally understood as love poetry between God and Israel. The people of Israel and God are likened to a bride and groom as they enter into the marriage canopy at the start of a long and fulfilling relationship.  “I am my beloved and my beloved is mine,” (Song of Songs 6:3) is often invoked as a couple marries. In Hebrew, the first letters of each of those words spell out the word Elul, the Hebrew month that immediately precedes Rosh Hashanah. It appears as if the stage is set for a perfect marriage between God and Israel, what could possibly go wrong? In order for the relationship to work, the love must travel in both directions; each side is required be open to and receptive of the other. The sin of the golden calf is the paradigmatic example of a broken relationship. Entrenched in their desert encampment, the Israelites’ lost faith in both leadership and God results in a significant and serious error, an error that diametrically opposes the love found in Song of Songs, an error that only real tshuva can repair. How are we to undertake such a daunting task?

Our Rabbincal Sages, in their infinite wisdom, provided a comment on the Song of Songs which I have found both explanatory and instructive during these sacred weeks. Responding to the word דפקו (knocked) they write, “My son, open for me one door of tshuva, as small as the head of a needle, and I will open an opening wide enough for wagons and caravans to pass.” In other words, God is knocking upon the doors of our hearts and beseeching us to locate or create at least a small breech through which God may enter. God wants our tshvua, even longs for it, as relayed by the prophet Jeremiah, ‘שובו בנים שובבים נאם-ה (Return! Rebellious children-declares God…Jeremiah 3:14), in a verse that appears frequently in penitential prayers as well as the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy. Certainly we would be fools to squander the opportunity to fulfill the rabbinic and prophetic visions.

Yom Kippur is rapidly approaching; the time for immediate and absolute tshuva is drawing to a close as our fates for the year hang in the balance. I have hope. I have hope for the year and for the Jewish People. The realization of that hope is contingent upon the genuine and humble opening of the door, even slightly, to God’s knock. The hope is contingent upon establishment of relationship as loving and open as the imagery of Song of Songs suggests. The hope is contingent upon seizing the opportunity in the season of God’s closeness. The hope is contingent upon serious personal introspection, heeding the words of our prophets, and ultimately arriving at a more complete tshuva.

heeding the words of our prophets, and ultimately arriving at a more complete tshuva.

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