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Home » High Holidays

Shabbat Shuvah: The Uplifting Return

Submitted by on October 3, 2019 – 10:41 amNo Comment | 21,146 views

The uplifting return that marks the first ten days of the Hebrew calendar year is expressed in the name that tradition has assigned to this Shabbat: Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of return. In English, when we speak of regret and of turning over a new leaf, we call it repentance. In Hebrew we call it returning.

This is not just a difference of semantics, it is a difference of perspective on an existential question. One of the definitions in Merriam Webster’s entry for repentance is, “to change.” But return doesn’t mean to change who we are. It means to go back to who we really are. The question is, who am I? Am I a good person who has done bad or am I a bad person because I have done bad? If the former, I need to return to my original state—return to the core me. If the latter, I need to repent—to change.

Judaism teaches that at our core we are sparks of G-d and that during the ten days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, G-d is present and near. “Seek out G-d, when he is present, call to Him when He is near.” When is G-d present and near? During the first ten days of the year, the days of return.[1] If G-d is present and available, it means that our core—a spark of G-d, is also present and available. It follows that these ten days are particularly propitious for returning to our core, to our original state of rectitude and holiness.

The Minyan
To get a sense of precisely how powerful and present our core is during this time, consider the following. Jewish tradition teaches that when we gather with a quorum of ten Jews, our souls assert themselves collectively, bringing holiness to the room and making G-d more present. Prayers chanted in the presence of a Minyan, garner more Divine attention than prayers chanted by an individual.

We are taught that the Divine attention that a Minyan—ten cores—can garner during the rest of the year, can be garnered by an individual during the ten days of Teshuvah. This means that when we pray during this period, G-d pays very close attention. He is present and He is available. Imagine how much this is magnified, when we gather with a Minyan to pray during this time. The sanctity and Divine aura generated by our combined souls is exponentially greater during this time.

It is our responsibility to utilize this time properly. We must identify our shortcomings and failures of characters and make specific plans to rectify them. We must take detailed notes of our strengths and weaknesses and resolve to turn over a new leaf. The added dimension of spiritual energy available to us during this time is not mere hyperbole. It is concrete and realistic. It remains to us to tap into it and use it.

The Uplifting Return
Our personal choices don’t only affect us. They impact the people around us too. When our friends and associates see that we have turned over a new leaf and have given up some of our previous vices or addictions, they will be inspired to do the same. If we can do it, they will feel empowered to do it too. In fact, they will feel challenged by our success to emulate it; to prove that they are just as capable.

Beyond the people in our midst, our life choices impact the world in which we live and our interaction with the objects that G-d created in it. Every day we interact with countless objects that G-d placed in our path. We drive a car, walk the streets, sit on chairs, drink a coffee, eat a bagel; no matter what we do, we are interacting with something that G-d created.

If we use these items for proper purpose, we lift them up. If our choices are proper, our actions correct, and our incentives holy, the item through which all this is manifested is uplifted. If our choices are improper, our actions incorrect, and our incentives unholy, the object through which we channel these improprieties to the world is dragged down. We determine whether the items in our midst are used for G-dly or unG-dly purpose.

Four Elements
The ancients identified four primary elements in the universe. They spoke of the inanimate such as rock or earth, the vegetative including all plant life, the animal which includes all the species, and finally, the human. During an average day, we interact with members of all four species. We stand on the ground, live in a house, drive in a car, those are all inanimate. We eat vegetables, sit under a tree, smell flowers, those are all vegetative. We play with our pets, drink milk, eat eggs or dishes that contain meat, or use items that contain forms of animal extract. And, of course, we interact with humans.

When you consider the Mitzvot that mark the High Holiday season, you will notice that they involve all four universal elements. During Sukkot, we sit in a Sukkah, the walls of which are made of inanimate material.[2] The Sechach (foliage) that comprises the Sukkah’s roof derives from the vegetative element. The same applies to the four species (palm frond, citron, willow, and myrtle) that we waive throughout the holiday of Sukkot. The Shofar that we sound on Rosh Hashanah is made of an animal’s horn (specifically a ram’s horn if possible), which is part of the animal element. Finally, the person who performs these Mitzvot, is the human element of the universe.

The person has two forms of Mitzvot. The positive commandments that require us to do certain things and the negative commandments that require us to refrain from doing certain things. These are both represented in High Holiday season. All the Mitzvot that we mentioned till this point are positive commandments. Yom Kippur is marked by the negative commandments—don’t eat, don’t drink, etc.

The message to us is that we are not only responsible for our own behavior and for the impact that our choices have on other humans, but for the entire spectrum of the universe with which we interact. When we contemplate our spiritual state and decide that the choices we made in the past are not in keeping with our core selves, and choose to return to our essential core, we uplift not only ourselves, but every object with which we interact.

As we become holy, and as we use these objects for holy purpose, some of our holiness rubs off on them. Sadly, if we don’t, the opposite is true. After a hundred and twenty years, we will be asked to account not only for our personal choices, but for the impact we had on the people and the animals around us, even on the vegetables and inanimate objects in our vicinity. They each have a purpose. They each have a spark of G-d in them. And there is a right and wrong way for each of them to be used.[3]

We need to ask ourselves whether we are using our climate and our environment in the right way. The question is not only whether we are affecting change in our climate. The question is also whether we are affecting change in the right way. Are we uplifting our climate and our environment by living in it and by stewarding it in a moral G-dly manner?


[1] Rosh Hashanah 18a on Isaiah 55:6.

[2] One can be creative, and make walls out of many kinds of materials, but most Sukkah walls are comprised of inanimate material.

[3] This essay is based on Likutei Sichos:14, pp 465-466; 474-475.