This is a guide to repentance, in the form of a commentary on Psalm 27, intended to be used during the month of Elul, which preceeds Rosh Hashanah in the Jewish calendar. To start at the beginning, click here.
copyright Rabbi Amy R. Scheinerman
(For full text of psalm, click here.)
The image of light evokes the notion of being visible: both we and God see who we are and what we have done. There is no hiding "in the dark," either from God or from ourselves. God's light is more penetrating than the light of the sun, since nothing remains hidden in God's light. When we see ourselves in God's light, our true selves emerge, complete with blemishes and imperfections. In some respects, it the harsh light of truth, but it is simultaneously the healing light of God's divine presence. Hence, there is a healing quality to taking an honest look at ourselves, appraising ourselves in the light of God's standards and God's concerns, for in that light is forgiveness and healing for those who follow the process of teshuvah (repentance) through to completion.
We associate light with the ultimate redemption, as well. The Zohar teaches: And God said: Let there be light! This first light God made before making the sun and the stars. God showed it to David, who burst into song. This was the light Moses saw on Sinai! At the creation, the universe from end to end, radiated light, but it was withdrawn and now it is stored away for the righteous, until all the worlds will be in harmony again and all will be united and whole. Until this future world is established, this light, coming out of darkness and formed by the Most Secret One, is hidden. Light is sown for the righteous [Psalm 97:11]. Teshuvah is a redemptive process, and the light of the righteous is ours, illuminating our steps, when we engage in teshuvah.
The answer is obvious. Or is it? We tend to fear other people, whom we believe can truly affect our lives detrimentally. The Sages taught that the one who commits a crime in secret is more heinous than one who commits it openly. Why? Because while the former flagrantly disobeys the laws of society and the opinions of people, the latter treats God as a non-entity. As Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai lay ill, his disciples went to visit him. They said: Master, give us your blessing. He replied: May you fear God as much as you fear human beings. They said: No more than this? He replied: That is more than enough, believe me! Do you not know that when we are about to commit a transgression we dismiss God from our minds and hope that no human eye will see us!
In many respects, we live our lives as if God is a passive being who created the world and now sits back watching, as one watches a soap opera. Scholars call this an "otiose deity" but it does not reflect the depth of Jewish experience. For the Jew, God is an ever-present reality informing and affecting life. Yet do we need to actually "fear" God? The term in Hebrew is better rendered "be in awe of" or perhaps "revere." When we consider the path our lives have taken, it is the path laid out for us by God that should provide correction along the way. It is not the opinions of our peers which ultimately matter, but those of God, whose voice we hear in our souls, and whose teachings we encounter in Torah.
For many of us, the real fear is beginning the process of teshuvah. It is frightening, painful, and difficult at times. We fear confronting our true selves and not liking what we see. Confronting our true selves is not easy. We live in a society which is adverse to introspection. Rather, we tend to judge others. Judging others is simple, painless, and actually quite entertaining. It requires no great knowledge, no analytical skill, and no follow-through. What is more, it makes us feel self-righteous. Have you ever noticed how many people know what you should do in your life and what you're doing wrong? Judging others, however, is not the work of teshuvah. Judging ourselves is the task at hand. Perhaps it helps to remind ourselves that God does not expect us to be perfect. We were not created perfect. The primordial humans, Adam and Eve, were not perfect. Kohelet put it this way, "There is no one on earth so righteous that does only good and never sins" [Ecclesiastes 7:20]. What distinguishes us is the capacity for self-reflection and change. That is given to no other creatures. And Rosh Hashanah is a gift given to us to provide an opportunity to exercise these abilities toward the end that we might move along the road of self-improvement. This is not the Olympics. No one is going to rate our teshuvah on a 10-point scale. Please don't fear the process. Rather, see it as a door opening into a realm of spiritual possibilities for growth and renewal, for that it what it truly is.
Rambam [Moses Maimonides, 12th century] saw free will and the ability to choose between good and evil as the distinguishing characteristic of the human species. He wrote: "Free will is given to every human being. If we wish to incline ourselves toward goodness and righteousness, we are free to do so. If we wish to incline ourselves toward evil, we are free to do that, as well. From Scripture we learn that the human species, with its knowledge of good and evil, is unique among all earth's creatures. Of our own accord, by our own faculty of intelligence and understanding, we can distinguish between good and evil, doing as we choose. Nothing holds us back from making this choice between good and evil. The power is in our hands." The Rambam also reminds us that we are free to be as righteous as Moses or as wicked as Jereboam. Hence we can make new decisions to follow a new path, as well.
Rabbi Bunam, a Hasidic leader who lived a century ago, taught his followers: "Our great transgression is not that we commit sins: Temptation is strong and our strength is weak. No, our transgression is that at every instant we can turn to God -- and yet we do not turn!" Now is the season to turn. Teshuvah, which we translate "repentance" actually means "turning."
What is the foundation of your life? What is the one rock-solid, immutable truth in your life? On what can you depend without question, upon which you would stake your life? There is great confusion about what we mean when we speak of "God" these days. Many of us grew up with concepts of God that do not ring true once we leave the realm of childhood and confront the world as adults. Many of us, having grown up in the secular and scientific modern world, have been told that "God" is an antiquated and superstitious notion that educated people eschew. Others of us don't feel so strongly negative, but don't know what to believe. Having sloughed off the beliefs of our childhood, nothing has emerged to take their place.
The truth is that Judaism does not proffer a catechism of God. We hold God to be incorporeal and affirm God's unity, but through the ages, Jews of great renown have espoused widely divergent ideas and beliefs concerning God. Each insight and perspective is precious; each is a piece of the puzzle. Yet it would be hubris for anyone to claim they know all there is to know about God. Rather, the ideal is to be a searcher, one who seeks God and studies our sacred texts and participates in our traditions in order to find God.
The hasidim tell the story of Rabbi Baruch, whose grandson Yechiel was playing hide-and-seek with a friend. Yechiel hid himself cleverly and waited for his friend, who never came to find him. Realizing that he had been abandoned, he ran crying to his grandfather and complained about his faithless friend. Rabbi Baruch's eyes, too, filled with tears, as he told the young boy: God says the same thing: I hide, but no one wants to seek Me! Seeking God is, in actuality, a lifelong process. Engaging in teshuvah is an important part of the process of searching for God. For when we search for our true selves, we also find a path to God. Menachem Mendl of Kotzk was asked: Where is God? He replied: Wherever we let God in. The midrash phrases it conditionally: "You are My witnesses -- declares the Lord -- And I am God. That I, if you are My witnesses, I am God, and if you are not My witnesses, I am, as it were, not God." [Sifre Deutereonomy 346]
To help you explore your own ideas about God, I recommend the following books, which I have listed in alphabetical order by author:
To begin finding God in your life, try answering this question: What do you believe in that is ultimate and immutable? Once you answer this question, you are on the path to finding God in your life.
Are we to dread God? We are accustomed to thinking of the High Holy Days as joyous in our homes (good food, family reunions) but solemn in synagogue. We hear terms of judgment, punishment, and retribution intoned. We hear the image of the Book of Life -- which may or may not be inscribed with our names. Yet for generations of our people, the High Holy Days was a joyous, albeit serious time. Our liturgy reflects this. Why is this? Rosh Hashanah was a time of joy and confidence that those who genuinely repented and amended their ways would be forgiven and renewed for life. Hence it is not so much God's judgment, but our teshuvah that determines the quality of the coming year, and that is in our hands.
The midrash, in expounding upon the verse Open to Me [Song of Songs 5:2] explains: "Make for Me an opening of repentance, an opening as narrow as the point of a needle, and I will make the opening so wide for pardon that camps full of soldiers and siege engines could enter it." The confidence expressed in the surety of forgiveness for those courageous enough to enter into teshuvah is reflected throughout our tradition. We are taught that while the Gates of Prayer are sometimes open and sometimes closed, the Gates of Repentance are always open.
It is not God we need dread, nor judgment, but rather our own failure to take advantage of the spiritual opportunities of this season. Teshuvah is difficult. It takes time. It is not always pleasant. Yet when the entire community is engaged in the very same process -- not through open and embarrassing confessions -- but privately, we are strengthened and supported in our own personal process.
What is more, teshuvah takes time. And how many of us have extra time? Hence our tradition provided a means for us. The month of Elul, prior to Rosh Hashanah, traditionally serves as a preparatory period. Psalm 27 is added to the evening and morning liturgy and the shofar is blown each morning. These acts take but a few minutes, yet the benefit which accrues from starting the process a month ahead of time -- even for a few minute a day -- is inestimable. I encourage you to spend a few minutes each day with Psalm 27 and with this or other commentaries, and use it as a springboard for your teshuvah. Carry a copy of the psalm in your pocket and take it out when you have a few free moments.
Who are the "evil-doers" spoken of here who seek to devour us? Who are our "adversaries?" If we examine our lives, it will not take long to identify those who have hurt us, those who have sought our demise in some fashion or another. Life is filled with these hurts. No one is immune. Some of us brush them aside and move on. Others catalogue them carefully and carry them forever. I know of no one who has passed through life unscathed, but I am continually amazed by the range of reactions I witness to trials, tribulations, and suffering. It is this which I believe the psalmist acknowledges and also dismisses: Yes, I have pain, but my pain need not be what rules my life and determines its course. The psalmist does not call upon God to avenge the evil-doers or punish them. Rather, the psalmist acknowledges their existence and says that EVEN IF enemies encamp around him/her, s/he will not fear. His/her life will not be determined by others, or by the fear of others, even an army of enemies. Instead, confidence fills his/her heart.
Many of us have a tendency to blame our failures and short-comings on the evil machinations of others, who wish us to fail, cause us to stumble, and prevent us from achieving our goals. No doubt, these are partial truths, in the sense that we are all vulnerable and all influenced by others. The world is a competitive place. Too often, however, we relay on convenient and comforting excuses: "He made me say that." "It's her fault I haven't succeeded." "They're to blame for the way I am because they did this... or failed to do that..." What is more, the corollary to blaming others for our failures and shortcomings is that we focus on changing them, instead of ourselves. Elul has arrived; it is time to stop blaming others and accept responsibility for who we are.
It is also possible that the evil-doers and enemies are inside us: our proclivities to do the wrong thing. The Sages taught that each of us has a Yetzer Tov (inclination to do good) but also a Yetzer Rah ( inclination to do evil). At each juncture in life, each time we open our mouths to speak, each time we make a decision to act, we have choices. Often we feel the conflict within us: the drive to do what is wrong and the concomitant knowledge of what is right. Who hasn't felt this? This is another way of saying that blaming others is useless and ill-advised for it distracts us from moving forward with our lives. Beruriah, who lived in the second century, taught her husband, Rabbi Meir, an invaluable lesson about sin and repentance. It seems that their neighborhood was beset with hoodlums who caused trouble for Rabbi Meir, and so one day he prayed that these sinner might die. "Do not prayer for the death of sinners," Beruriah said, "but rather for the death of sin. Then, sin having ceased, there will be no more sinners." And so, the Talmud tells us, Rabbi Meir prayed on behalf of the sinners. This midrash is far more than a quaint tale about sin and retribution with an uplifting humanitarian subtext. Beruriah makes several important points: The impetus to do wrong is contained in all of us. The story of Noah and the Flood drives that point home amply. God's efforts to wipe out sin were doomed to failure because the capacity for sin is part of human nature. Even should a few hoodlums disappear from the neighbor, others will arrive in time, given no change in the way people approach life. What is more, Rabbi Meir failed to consider his role. The Talmud tells us little of his relationship with the people for whose death he prayed, but neither do we have any sense that he reached out in kindness or attempted to influence them positively. He was quick to blame others and ask God to act as enforcer and avenger. It's more difficult to take responsibility.
One last point. Some ask: Does it matter what decisions we make? Physicists have expounded the many-universes interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. While not widely accepted among physicists, the notion that every possibility is manifest in a universe of its own so that all possibilities exist on some plane, whether or not we make that particular decision, has found its way into the world of science fiction. And it is here that it properly belongs, on episodes of Star Trek and other pieces of entertaining fiction. To propose that what I say and do makes no difference, because if it doesn't happen in this universe, it will happen in some other universe, is to deny the one reality we do know.
And thus the first step in the process of teshuvah is taking responsibility. What are you prepared to take responsibility for at this time? Perhaps it is something that you have previously blamed on others (rest assured, we've all done that). This is the most difficult step of teshuvah and until we succeed we cannot move forward. If you're a write-it-down person, go ahead and keep a journal of your thoughts. If you're a poetry person, put your thoughts down in poetry. If you prefer to share your ideas with others, find someone who's a good listener. If you prefer privacy, that's fine.
On Jacob, who wrestled with the angel: "Do we not also wrestle with life and sustain wounds because of which we limp painfully ever after, and yet, having won out, bear with us names signifying increased honor and benediction?" [Rabbi Milton Steinberg, Basic Judaism, p. 90.