People all over the world recognize the need to visit our doctors for an annual checkup. And if you’re reading this, you most likely recognize the need for an annual spiritual checkup, which we call the High Holidays.
Since long before Freud’s invention of psychology, these holidays have presented an opportunity to look inward, to heal our past wounds, and to chart a concrete plan toward a better future. One aspect of these holidays – which many are less aware of – is the opportunity for a full-body cleanse: A complete rejuvenation and renewal to kick-start our year on the right foot.
Rosh Hashanah is the only Jewish holiday celebrated on the first day of a Hebrew month. We began this holiday season metaphorically small and empty like the new moon of Tishrei, and as we went through the Days of Awe we had opportunities for continual growth, alongside this Yareach Eitanim – Moon of the Mighty Ones – to use the language of the rabbinic sages. They call Tishrei the Moon of the Mighty Ones because going through this slew of holidays and the cleansing of mind and body requires a lot of effort. But as with any other kind of practice or exercise, the more we put into something, the more we get out of it.
Rosh Hashanah, literally the Head of the Year, also can be translated as “the Head of the Change.” The shofar call reverberates through our ears, rousing us to wake up and to prepare for battle against whatever is holding us back. During the New Year, we’re supposed to fix and repair our minds so that they are in closer alignment with the vision of our highest potential. Yom Kippur can be seen as a fixing of the heart. Every time we make apologies and beat our chests, we get closer to being forgiven and cleansed. At the end of our day of self-affliction, Jewish tradition teaches, we are supposed to feel fully renewed, clean of the stains of our past. For many Jewish people, this is where their High Holiday experience will end, but for those with enough fervor and stamina, there are still more holidays.
Sukkot is understood by the mystics as a cleansing of our middos, our emotional traits. And on the 23rd of Tishrei, singing and dancing with the Torah on Simchas Torah affixes love and joy to our feet and legs. After all these holidays, heartfelt prayers, and time with community, our minds and bodies are cleansed and renewed, ready to tackle whatever challenges the coming year will bring.
The vehicle driving all this change within ourselves is called teshuvah. While it’s often translated as “repentance,” I think it’s much more accurate to understand teshuvah as a process of personal growth. During the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah – the “10 Days of Personal Growth” between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – we were called to atone for our mistakes and to ensure that we don’t go through the coming year repeating those same mistakes. This teshuvah process has four steps: Stop, Regret, Say, Commit. Those four words are the shorthand for: one, stopping whatever bad habit you want to rid yourself of; two, regretting the results of that bad habit; three, saying to yourself, to others you’ve hurt, and/or to G-d that you’re sincerely sorry for that mistake and it won’t happen again; and four, committing to behaving differently when that same situation inevitably arrives in the future. This easy-to-remember four-step teshuvah process can be utilized to improve our lives and relationships dramatically.
While everyone celebrates the Jan. 1 New Year with drunken revelry, I appreciate that our New Year traditions, while sometimes serious and somber in tone, promote introspection and self-growth. May we all experience a
Shana tova u’metukah – a good and sweet New Year – and may we all continue to learn and grow from the treasuries of timeless Jewish wisdom. Θ
Rabbi Greg Hersh leads Temple Emmanuel of Wakefield.