The central theme of the High Holiday season is t’shuvah (return, turn, response), a process that brings us back to our truest ourselves, our families, friends, community, the Jewish people, Torah, and God. T’shuvah is ultimately an expression of hope that the way we are today need not be who we remain tomorrow.
T’shuvah is a step-by-step process of re-engaging with our highest selves, of turning away from negative and destructive tendencies (i.e. yetzer hara – the evil inclination) and embracing that which is good in our nature (yetzer hatov – the good inclination), such as living according to the virtues of humility, gratitude, generosity, compassion, and loving-kindness.
The t’shuvah process often begins with a sense of despair, hopelessness, and sadness, the feeling that we’re forever stuck where we are and are unable to change the nature, character, or direction of our lives. Judaism, however, rejects stagnation, pessimism, and cynicism, and urges us to transcend those impediments that prevent our personal transformation and the creation of a more hopeful future.
In the story of the prophet Jonah that’s read on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, the prophet descends into hopelessness and despair and then when all seems its most bleak, he turns his life around. Jonah is an unrealized prophet who runs from himself, from civilization, from moral responsibility, and from God. Every verb associated with his bleak journey into the netherworld uses the language of descent (Hebrew words with a root that includes these three letters: yod-resh-daled). He flees from God’s command to preach to the Ninevites down to the seashore. He boards a ship and goes down into its interior. He lies down and falls into a deep sleep. He’s thrown overboard down into the waters by his terrified ship-mates. He’s swallowed into the belly of a great fish, and there he remains for three days and nights until out of darkness and from desperation Jonah realizes that he wants to live and not die. At last he cries out to God to save him.
God responds by making the fish vomit Jonah out onto dry land and into the light of day. Jonah agrees this time to do God’s bidding and preach to the Ninevites to turn away from their evil ways. While the town’s people don sackcloth and ashes (a sign of their humility and willingness to change), God provides Jonah with shade and protection from the sun’s intolerable heat. Jonah, however, is mortified because he doesn’t believe in change and is convinced that the Ninevites are destined to fail in their penetance. In Jonah’s mind, the Ninevites’ success makes him appear the fool, more evidence that Jonah didn’t understand the first principle of t’shuvah, that change is possible if there is acknowledgment of wrong-doing and a will to fashion a new way of being in one’s life.
T’shuvah is never easy. It’s for those who are strong of mind, heart, and soul, who are willing to suffer failure, but also to get up, own what we’ve done, acknowledge our wrong-doing, apologize unconditionally to those we’ve hurt, and recommit to our struggle for greater enlightenment, step-by-step, patiently, one day at a time, one hour at a time, and even one moment at a time.
When successful, t’shuvah is restorative and utopian, for it enables us to return to our truest selves and overcome the past for the sake of a better future.