Teshuva and Hope

by Beth Frank-Backman

Each Elul, the last month of the Jewish year, we prepare for the next. Traditionally, we prepare by a process known as teshuva, or in English repentance. But what exactly are we repenting of?

Most of us haven’t murdered anyone nor embezzled our employers nor slandered someone so badly that they wrongly lost both job and community. For most, our sins are very human everyday things: being too tired to care, losing our temper in a place where patience was needed, procrastinating or avoiding where action was needed. We repeatedly fall short of our most perfect ideals, but the reasons are usually understandable and forgivable, even by those we hurt. These are the kinds of things even the best people do from time to time. If our relationships are stable and strong, most likely we apologized months ago, talked it through and moved on.

When we view our lives in this light, it is hard to connect to the idea of spending a whole month contemplating repentance. Nor is it healthy. Self-forgiveness and letting go is necessary for our sanity and also for our ability to love others and be patient with their faults.

Yet everyone is supposed to be thinking about repentance during Rosh HaShanna, not just those with sins worthy of newspaper headlines.

So how do we connect? A hint might be in the symbols and words Judaism uses to jump start this process of “repentance”. On Rosh Hashanna, also known as Yom HaDin or “The day of Judgement”, we bring in the holiday with honey and apple. We drizzle honey on our bread. We listen to the triumphant sound of the Shofar. On the day of judgement, we are reminded of the sweetest things in life, of courage and hope and boldness. Some also celebrate a Rosh HaShanna seder. The seder is dominated by symbols of fertility and growth. Finally there are the prayers during Elul. If we pray daily in the traditional way, then each day we will say Psalm 27, which begins with these words “The LORD is my light and salvation. Whom shall I fear? … Though a host should camp against me, my heart shall not fear.”.

Strangely, the dominant theme of Elul and Rosh HaShanna is hope, not blame or guilt. Hope plays such an important role because hope helps us rethink teshuva. Teshuva isn’t about how we failed, but rather about what we could be. Hope is the foundation of teshuva. Teshuva means return and return is not possible without a destination.

We can only understand the true meaning of our shortcomings if we allow ourselves to hope for more than we are now. We can only plan a path to change if we believe that more is possible. We will walk the path to our highest hopes with unparalleled daring when we believe that something more than our own best efforts is possible – that God in God’s own self will be our light and will meet us along the road to wholeness and salvation.