SEPTEMBER 21, 2017 – Chest-beating. Guilt. Shame.
These were the words that a friend of mine – usually a cheerful, energetic soul – used when I asked him to describe what the High Holidays have meant to him. He added that it was for this reason that he struggled for years even to attend synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Indeed, for many of us, the custom of pounding our chests with our fists as we recite a litany of sins and denying ourselves all food and drink can feel like a pretty harsh form of punishment. But it doesn’t have to feel that way. Because the essence of the High Holidays is not punishment but teshuvah – a deeply spiritual experience, that can be both uplifting and hopeful.
Teshuvah is often translated as repentance, but a more accurate meaning might be turning and returning. In making teshuvah, we first turn inward in reflection and then we turn outward to each other, seeking forgiveness and recommitting to our determination to be our best selves. Teshuvah requires us to muster all our love, compassion, and powers of healing to deepen connections and create meaning in our lives.
The Talmud teaches that teshuvah was one of the seven things God created even before the universe came into being. It is teshuvah that makes life possible because its potential for change – both physical and spiritual – is imbedded in the very structure of the universe, and in our humanity. And because we have this profound power to turn and return, we are never simply creatures of habit. We choose our actions, however unconsciously, moment by moment, as we go through life.
Now, we may well ask: If the potential for change is always present, why do we need High Holidays year after year?
Because we are human. And human beings need love and support to help us find the motivation and courage we need. The High Holidays remind us that we are not alone. We stand together in community, supported by our extended family, the Jewish people, and the Divine presence that dwells within each of us.
So this year, as we tap our hands against our hearts during the penitential prayers, let us try thinking of it not as a form of guilt-inducing chest-thumping, but as a gentle knocking on our hearts as we seek to open them a little bit more, to reconnect to the Divine spark within us and to the possibility of teshuvah.
On behalf of my family and the Temple B’nai Abraham community, I wish to offer you blessings of health and well-being in the New Year.
May we all open our hearts and hands and join together to bring more love, healing, and compassion to our world.
Rabbi Alison Adler is the spiritual leader of Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly.