It is incumbent upon every individual to believe that, with the next breath, in the next instant, one can be a new person.
—Jewish sage and mystic, Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740–1809)
It’s not a coincidence that the word shana (Hebrew for “year”) is derived from the Hebrew root meaning “change.” Change is the constant of the universe. The flow of time and the impermanence of experience both point to an ever-changing existence and an ever-changing world. The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus taught that, “no man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” What he meant was that everything is always in flux. Nothing is constant.
All cultures welcome the New Year as an opportunity for change–Judaism focuses on a specific kind of change: Teshuvah invites us to look deep within and examine ways we can improve ourselves. There are two related kinds of teshuvah: The first is the practice of asking for forgiveness for hurts we have caused, and the second is a process of returning to wholeness.
This process invites us to look deeply into ourselves and change our behavior. It asks of us to understand that we do not need to be stuck in habitual, conditioned behaviors and repeatedly to engage in the same hurtful behaviors to ourselves and to others. The change we are after is not only acknowledging wrongdoing, but also taking the next, critical step to consciously improving ourselves.
We begin by engaging in a fearless moral inventory. We tell ourselves the truth. We stop making excuses for ourselves. We take responsibility for our behavior, and decide with the utmost conviction and commitment that we will not live this way anymore. We ask those we have hurt for forgiveness. We make amends where possible. Then, we begin the equally intense work of forgiving ourselves. To engage in this process requires courage, wisdom, and faith that the possibility of change is real.
Forgiving ourselves does not mean condoning our actions. Forgiveness is a gift we give ourselves as we realize that our self-flagellation and the shame we feel at our behavior are of no benefit to us. They will not help us to change. They merely cause us additional suffering, which helps neither the person who has been hurt nor ourselves. As we begin to see ourselves with greater clarity, as human beings who are by nature imperfect, our hearts break open with compassion for those we have hurt and for ourselves, for our struggles and our failures. Awakened with wisdom and compassion, we can begin to let go of our shame and forgive ourselves.
The second form of teshuvah is a process of returning to wholeness. Teshuvah works the same way a gardener removes excess wood from a tree to strengthen the flow of nourishment to the central branches and to give the tree balance and beauty. Teshuvah is about peeling off the layers that block out the light of our true Self, letting go of the thoughts and behaviors that distract and confuse us. “Teshuvah is about creating harmony, wholeness and peace within the whole of our being.”
The eighteenth century Hasidic spiritual teacher Reb Nachman of Bratzlav teaches that this form of repentance arises out of a deep longing for wholeness. When we acknowledge to ourselves that we have wronged and hurt someone, the spiritual darkness we experience arouses within us an intense longing to change our behaviors and to return to wholeness. It is only when we acknowledge the truth of our human imperfections, even our brokenness, that we realize how much we want to be whole. Recognizing our brokenness leads us to change our lives and return to our truest selves. This dynamic is the reason that so many people come to spiritual practice out of an urgency to heal from pain and be whole once again.
Religious leader Reb Nachman of Bratzlav taught, “If you believe it can be broken, believe it can be fixed.” Without change, life would be impossible; without forgiveness, life would be unbearable.
May this Jewish New Year bring you change of the best kind; a renewal of body, heart, mind, and spirit. A year of good health, happiness, and all of life’s blessings throughout the coming year.