How do we grow? Improve? Transform into more realized versions of our visions of who we could be and what kind of impact we can have in the world? Is growth about becoming a picture of someone else, or is it about more fully embracing who we already are?
There is a midrash – a rabbinic story that teaches that when the fetus is in the womb, we can see from one end of the universe to another. Some versions tell of an angel that holds a candle to our inner eye so that we can see and understand the depth of the human journey and our place in it. And when we are born…the angel touches the spot between our nose and upper lip, leaving an indentation, and we forget everything we saw and knew. The process of growing as a human being is the process of remembering or returning to that original knowledge (Talmud Niddah 30b).
This process of returning, of remembering who we are at our core and our purpose on this earth is described by the concept of Teshuvah. Teshuvah is commonly translated as “repentance” and describes the process around the High Holy Days in which we look honestly at the ways we’ve missed the mark throughout the year and our resolve to do better.
However, the literal meaning of Teshuvah means “return” – to not only turn away from unhealthy habits and behavior, but specifically to turn towards our more authentic selves. In Jewish thought, memory – zachor is not just about remembering the events of the Jewish people – our ancestors and what they’ve been through. Zachor is about remembering who we are, the innate knowledge that lies beneath all of what our family and society tries to tell us about ourselves. This kind of remembering is an essential part of our own process of “return” to our more essential selves.
The great rabbi and mystic of Palestine in the 20th century before the founding of the state of Israel, Abraham Isaac Kook, or Rav Kook as he’s commonly called, describes his vision of Teshuvah, illustrating that it is not just a process around the High Holy Days, but the core movement that each one of us is engaged in as we grow as human beings. He writes:
“Teshuvah is the healthiest feeling of a person. A healthy soul in a healthy body must necessarily bring about the great happiness afforded by Teshuvah, and the soul experiences therein the greatest natural delight. The elimination of damaging elements has beneficent and invigorating effects on the body when it is in a state of health. The purging away of every evil deed and its resultant evil effects, of every evil thought, of every obstruction that keeps us away from divine spiritual reality, is bound to arise when the organism is in a state of spiritual and physical health.
Over and against every measure of ugliness that is withdrawn from a person through her inner conformity to the light of Teshuvah, worlds resplendent with higher sensibilities come to expression in his soul. Every removal of sin resembles the removal of an obstruction from the seeing eye, and a whole new horizon of vision is revealed, the light of vast expanses of heaven and earth and all that is in them.
The world must inevitably come to full Teshuvah. The world is not static, but it continues to develop, and a truly full development must bring about the complete state of health, material and spiritual…The spirit of Teshuvah hovers over the world, and it is that which endows it with its basic character and the impetus to development. With the scent of its fragrance it refines it and endows it with the propensity to beauty and splendor.” (Orot HaTeshuvah)
Rav Kook’s vision of Teshuvah sees every individual and even the entire world as ultimately evolving and returning towards a state of greater health and wholeness. The key to aligning our lives with this greater process of healing toward wholeness is not to excessively focus on the sin or the unhealthy patterns. Yes, being honest about ways that we miss the mark is an essential part of the process. But the real engine for our growth and change is to focus on what brings us to spiritual and physical health.
Who and what are we returning to when we engage the process of Teshuvah. We are returning to our souls. Soul is a way to describe our most essential being – our most authentic expression. We see this authenticity most clearly in children before they’ve been socialized into how to act and behave to not make people feel uncomfortable or to fulfill other people’s visions of who they should be. Children engage fully with life, with the moment, with what they like and don’t like. They are not complicated – their words are connected with what is in their hearts. And, they are open to love. Our tradition teaches that core to that original vision of the universe in the womb was a vision of profound interconnection – that all of life is an expression of the one Infinite Divine Presence. It’s the vision that we open to remembering twice a day when we say the prayer – Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheynu, Adonai Echad – Listen Israel, The Holy One is In Everything, The Holy One is One (Deuteronomy 6:4).
Love is the reality of the awareness of connection. Love is the experience of awakening, of realizing the connection with another. And this reality is ultimately what we are returning to. Our sages teach that the Hebrew letters that spell out Elul – this month before the new year is an acronym for Ani L’dodi V’dodi li – I am for my Beloved, my beloved is for me. (Song of Songs 6:3). Teshuvah, the process that describes how we grow, and what we focus on during this month, is really about returning to love. It’s about returning to the reality that our deepest essence, our souls, are about prioritizing love – with others and ourselves, and recognizing God as that process.
It is true that as we return to the primacy of love, we also must be ready to open to grief and loss. All of us have covered over our hearts, our essential natures, to some extent, to shield ourselves from the pain of having our hearts broken. That pain is part of our truth, our authenticity. When we don’t let it define our essence, and when we embrace it as part of the human experience, we can realize that we don’t need to protect ourselves from love – that it is the essence of our very souls.