Teshuvah means more than “repentance.” “Repentance” asks me to say that I am sorry, once again. Teshuvah turns on the Hebrew verb that means “turn” or “return.” The act of Teshuvah holds the possibility of creative, reflective, purposeful turning—both turning from and turning towards.
During the Ten Days of Teshuvah, from the New Year to the Day of Atonement, we celebrate Teshuvah as a community value, a common cause for the betterment of each and of all at the turn of the year.
Here is a story from Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim—a story about the possibility of Teshuvah, turning and returning, in the most literal sense and in the most common of places. When Teshuvah is in the air, it is everywhere:
The Rabbi of Beritchev saw a man hurrying along the street, looking neither right nor left. “Why are you rushing so?” he asked him.
“I am after my livelihood,” the man replied.
“And how do you know,” continued the rabbi, “that your livelihood is running on before you, so that you have to rush after it? Perhaps it is behind you, and all you need do to encounter it is to turn around—but you are running away from it!”
The American poet, W.S. Merwin, would not name this consciousness as Teshuvah, but he does celebrate purposeful turning:
Going too fast for myself I missed
more than I think I can remember
almost everything it seems sometimes
and yet there are chances that come back
that I did not notice where they stood
where I could have reached out and touched them
this morning the black shepherd dog
still young looking up and saying
are you ready this time
(For information about Merwin’s “Turning,” and for an exploration of the poet’s wide ranging use of the word “turn,” go to http://wp.me/poKPR-eF)
Teshuvah is possible all year, any day – but it is in our DNA as Jews that Teshuvah is most in season during the Ten Days of Awe. It is when we are especially attuned to Teshuvah… it is when we can most readily return to our true path, the path of our soul. The gift of Teshuvah is the ability to turn on a dime – to do an about face in the space of an instant. To be going in one direction fully -and then, to make a choice and in that instant turn around and face an entirely new direction. The Rabbi of Berdichev says, that all you need to do is to turn around – but of course, sometimes we turn around and see nothing new. But the special attunement of knowing – feeling – at which moment to turn around is also the gift of this season. Of all seasons of the year, even more than spring, for me these ten days are the season of greatest possibility, greatest potential.