As Rosh Hashanah approaches, our tradition encourages us to look back over the past year to engage in a process of cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the soul. We reflect on what we did well, and we acknowledge where we have missed the mark. When our missteps involve other people – perhaps not keeping our word or even causing them harm – we are told to try to make teshuvah.
Teshuvah usually is translated as repentance. The word teshuvah comes from the Hebrew word “to return,” adding a deeper layer of meaning to this idea of repentance. This idea of teshuvah, although it is available to us year-round, first is introduced in the summer at Tisha B’Av. We read the Book of Lamentations on Tisha B’Av to commemorate the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem as well as many other calamities and loss throughout Jewish history. The final verse of the Book of Lamentations is, “Return us (Hashiveinu) to You, God, and let us return (v’nashuva). Renew our days as of old.” It is when we despair the most that we recognize the need to return to our Creator and to one another.
As the new year draws close, the desire to return, first expressed at Tisha B’Av, is now enhanced by the liturgy of our prayer services. Returning becomes a dominant theme throughout the Days of Awe. For us to embrace this theme, we need to know what return we are seeking, and in order to know where we want to go, we need to ask ourselves the first true question ever asked in the Torah.
After Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and they hid from God, God called and asked them, “Where are you?”
God knew where Adam and Eve were physically, but God was asking them something else. I believe God was asking them where they were spiritually and in relationship with each other and with God.
Before we can return to ourselves, to each other, and to God, we also have to ask ourselves “Where am I?”
I would like to offer you a hasidic story from “Tales of the Hasidim” by Martin Buber that lends a timeless sense of relevance to this question:
“Rabbi Hanokh told this story: There was once a man who was very stupid. When he got up in the morning it was so hard for him to find his clothes that at night he almost hesitated to go to bed for thinking of the trouble he would have on waking. One evening he finally made a great effort, took paper and pencil and as he undressed noted down exactly where he put everything he had on. The next morning, very well pleased with himself, he took the slip of paper in hand and read: ‘cap’ – there it was, he set it on his head; ‘pants’– there they lay, he got into them; and so it went until he was fully dressed. “That’s all very well, but now where am I myself?” he asked in great consternation. “Where in the world am I?” He looked and looked, but it was a vain search; he could not find himself. ‘And that is how it is with us,’ said the rabbi.”
For most of the year, we make a great effort at keeping track of the many details of our daily lives, often at the expense of losing ourselves and our sense of groundedness. When we begin to look back over the past year, we also might find ourselves wondering where we are, and we feel unsure of how to return to ourselves so that we also can return to each other and to God. Combining this story with the first question of Torah, I invite you each morning, as we draw ever closer to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, to ask yourself where you are in relationship to yourself, with others, and with God. May the answers to that question – along with our liturgy, our sacred melodies, and holy communities – guide you into the new year with trust in the possibility of renewal and a sense of holy purpose.
May the new year be sweet for you and your loved ones as you find yourselves anew! Θ
Rabbi Ashira Stevens leads Temple Emanu-El in Haverhill.