September 25, 2020
The Shabbat between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur is so special, it has its own name – Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Return. This is the Shabbat that falls during the Aseret Y’may Teshuvah – the 10 days of repentance, 10 days to conduct a fierce moral inventory, a cheshbon ha-nefesh, a spiritual accounting. In Hebrew when you ask for the check at the end of a meal, you might say, “Cheshbon b’vakasha – Check, please?” You pay your bill and you count the change.
This is the Shabbat when we count our change – how have we changed in the year that is drawing to a close? How do we want to change in the year 5781? Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Return, when we return to our essential selves.
I have the pleasure of watching the children who are in attendance here at the YMCA in our building. Sometimes, when the children get frustrated, they tend to throw a fit. There are tears, yelling, and stomping of feet. When they are able to regain control of themselves, often it is suggested that they have now turned their day around. The notion of turning is embedded in teshuvah, repentance, return. “The sins we commit,” says Reb Simcha Bunim, “these are not the worst thing. After all, temptation is powerful and human beings are weak. Our great crime is that we could turn any time and we don’t.”
On this Shabbat, more than any other, we look within at the hurt we’ve caused to ourselves and others by not living up to our highest vision of who we are. We take responsibility and we renew our commitment to change. Teshuvah is so fundamental to the human enterprise, that the midrash suggests that it was created before God even created the world. The ability to change, to grow, to learn – these are essential aspects of what it is to be human. Teshuvah is necessarily built into the foundation of the universe.
Teshuvah begins with awareness, with reflection, with admitting to ourselves the many places in which we’ve gone astray. But our teshuvah is incomplete, in fact, it’s meaningless, if it doesn’t lead to action. It is not enough for us to stand together on Yom Kippur and beat our chests, “Al cheyt sh’chatanu, for the sin we have sinned.”
If it is a friend or loved one we have hurt, then we must apologize and ask for forgiveness. If it is a sin against God, we must confess and resolve to do better. And how do we forgive ourselves? The essence of teshuvah is to say that we want to restore a broken relationship. Let’s make sure that we resolve our relationship with ourselves, too, as we face the new year.
There is no expectation of perfection, only of honest self-reflection and commitment to do better. Just like the children in the building can turn their day around, we can turn our lives around. We may not be perfect, but we are good enough. We are good enough for God to forgive us, we are good enough to forgive ourselves.
But not yet. First – we have to do the hard work of teshuvah, and this is the week, this is the Shabbat, Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Repentance.