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Home » Rosh Hashanah

Rosh Hashanah: The Meaning of Repetance

Submitted by on September 4, 2013 – 3:30 pmNo Comment | 11,301 views


The High Holidays are a time for Teshuva, repentance. We are meant to reflect on the things we did wrong and correct them and on the things we did well and strengthen them.

I looked up the word repentance at www.dictionary.com and found the following definition. “To feel sorry, self-reproachful, or contrite for past conduct; regret or be conscience-stricken about a past action, attitude, etc.”

This is indeed the definition for the word repent, but frankly it is a poor translation of the word Teshuva. While the actual process of Teshuva is similar to that of repentance, the meaning of the word Teshuva is, return. In fact the objective of repentance is implied in Teshuva. We don’t repent for the sake of regretting past behavior; Judaism does not see value in adopting a guilty conscience. We repent to turn back to G-d, as Isaiah wrote, “And he shall return unto G-d.”[1]

The conventional meaning of return is to come back after having moved away from one’s original position. In the case of Teshuva we obviously refer to returning to our former mode of conduct wherein we strayed from the path of observance and want to return to it. This might indeed be the meaning of the word Teshuva as it is used colloquially, but Isaiah seemed to use it differently. To Isaiah, Teshuva meant to return to G-d. Not merely to the path of observance, but to actually return to G-d.

This raises a question. If G-d fills all space, how can one stray from Him? Furthermore, if you were to return to G-d, where would you go? If He fills all space, He is already where you are, how can He urge us to return to Him? Does He have a fixed position?

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi explained it this way. Return does not mean to traverse a distance and walk back in the opposite direction until you return to your former position. Return can also be accomplished without moving an inch. If two people are standing back to back they are very close to one another, but their attention is focused in the other direction. They are not even aware of the other’s presence. Repentance - innerstreamTo return to one another, they need to turn around. There is no need to cover any distance, they are already in close proximity. All they need to do is turn.

Return, simply means to turn our attention back to G-d. We can run from G-d, but we cannot escape Him. Wherever we wander, He is present. What we can do is ignore or forget His presence. We might behave as if G-d were not there and because He reflects our behavior back to us, He would behave as if we were not there. If we cry He won’t listen, if we are in need, He won’t provide.

To perform Teshuva or return, we simply turn our attention back to G-d and acknowledge His closeness. When we return our attention to G-d, He responds and turns His attention back to us. He takes note of our needs and provides for them. As we sit in the Synagogue on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur we focus on improving our behavior for the better. In response, G-d blesses us with a healthy and happy year.

Back to Back

To turn our backs on G-d does not necessarily mean to adopt a lifestyle of sin. It can simply mean that we ignore His presence in our lives and invest our energies in the procurement of things that pleasure us.

Everything in life was created by G-d and is constantly vivified and animated by the creative power that flows from G-d. When we venture on to the golf course, we are enjoying G-d’s largess. The trees, grass, sun, clouds, hills, streams, putters, balls and clubs are all provided by G-d and kept in existence by Him. In fact, we, our friends, the golf carts and the clubhouse are also constantly recreated by G-d.

We are very much enjoying the relaxed atmosphere on the course, but were it not for G-d, there would be no course. If there is anyone to thank for the perfection of our day, it is G-d. Yet G-d is often furthest from our mind. G-d is whom we think about at the Synagogue, but during golf we concentrate on our game. There is little time to think of G-d.

I don’t mean to single out golf players for disparagement; golf is just an example, but we are all guilty. It is true on the ski slopes, at the restaurant, in the bar and on the baseball field. It is true at work, at home, in the movie theater and at the beach. Whenever we are not particularly engaged in religion or Torah study, we tend to let the subject of G-d fall to the back burner.

If we were to put imagery to this, it would be precisely what Rabbi Shneur Zalman described. G-d stands right beside us providing a steady stream of the things that pleasure us and our focus is entirely on our pleasure and not at all on G-d. We stand just beside G-d, but look in the opposite direction.

How does G-d respond? The Zohar speaks of G-d sometimes providing for us with reluctance, as if He were tossing our provisions over His shoulders. There is little joy in providing pleasure to us when we ignore the hand that feeds us. Imagine a scenario by which you shadow your grown child all day to prepare his meals during meal time, lay out his clothes before going to bed and repair the shoes and garments that he tears. Suppose your son ignores you completely and only remembers you when you are slow in providing something that he wants or needs at a given time. He then remembers your existence and turns to demand or complain vociferously about your tardiness.

You would probably continue to provide for him because he is your son, but the joy would go out of it for you. You would do it out of duty; because you must rather than because you want. If you were to put imagery to it, it would be precisely what Rabbi Shneur Zalman described. You stand beside your son and provide for his needs, but your heart is not in it. Your desires and thoughts are elsewhere though you stand just beside him.

Face to Face

Comes Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and we do an about-face. We realize our error and even audacity and return our focus to G-d. We express our gratitude for all that He does and request with respect for the future. We acknowledge His hand in all of our successes and His constant presence in our lives. We grow contrite over our past neglect and are stricken by conscience. We resolve never to make the same mistake and G-d accepts our apology.

As we turn to face G-d so does He turn to face us. Henceforth He gives us blessing with a smiling countenance and a loving heart. He has turned to us because we have turned to Him. His face is toward us because our face is toward Him. We are now face to face. The challenge is to keep it up.[2]

[1] Isaiah, 55:7

[2] This essay is based on Likutei Torah, Vayikra, 26b.