From the desk of Rabbi Howald

A Message from
Rabbi Michael D. Howald
One of the most repeated words during High Holy day services is “repentance.” Representing one possible English translation of the Hebrew word “teshuva,” calls for “repentance” fill our High Holy Day prayer books for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Indeed, repentance is a central theme of the entire month of Elul that precedes the New Year as well as the 10 day period of the “Days of Awe” that begins with Rosh Hashana and ends with sunset on Yom Kippur. What, however, does “repentance” really mean? How does one “repent” and to whom do we direct it? When can we say that we have truly repented and when should we admit we still have work to do? These are important questions as the High Holy days come to an end during the month of October.
In Hebrew, teshuva, frequently translated as “repentance,” comes from a linguistic root that means “to go back,” both as a literal return to where we were before we sinned and as a symbolic restoration of that earlier, more desirable state. The Book of Deuteronomy uses this root in both senses in the Torah portion just before Rosh Hashana:
When you and your children return to Adonai your God and obey God with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today, then Adonai your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you. (Deuteronomy 30:2-3).
Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (also known as the Rambam or Maimonides) concluded that this “return” or “restoration” has four elements: (1) Recognizing your mistake, (2) expressing regret for what you have done, (3) apologizing and making restitution for what you have taken, and (4) resolving not to make the same mistake again under the same circumstances. In the absence of a Temple and the sacrificial rites of forgiveness, Ramban concludes, these acts of teshuva constitute the repentance necessary to atone for all our failings and missteps on Yom Kippur.
For sins between human beings and the Divine, the prayers of Yom Kippur, in which we collectively confess our sins, express regret and commit to do better in the year to come, atone for our failures. For wrongdoing between ourselves and other human beings, however, achieving true repentance requires us to seek out those we have injured and take each of the 4 steps set forth above. This is an intentionally difficult process, requiring us to speak in the active voice as we confess our precise role in the hurt and the harm we have done to others. Phrases like “mistakes were made” or “I regret what happened,” accordingly, do not accomplish repentance, nor do words spoken without genuine remorse and an intent to do better next time. If, on the other hand, we diligently follow the Ramban’s path, we can achieve true repentance.
The path to repentance is clear but not easy. Since repentance is so difficult, we begin preparing for the Days of Awe a full month before Rosh Hashana and devote ourselves for 10 full days after that to the themes of return and renewal central to teshuva. As we conclude the Days of Awe during the month of October, may we all walk the path of the penitent and strive to restore those relationships we have harmed through our misconduct over the past year! May our fast be easy and our path to repentance meaningful!
Rabbi Michael Howald
In his book, This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation, Rabbi Alan Lew refers to the High Holy Days as a journey of transformation that begins with the crumbling of the walls that separate us from the world and end with us sitting in a sukkah, once again beginning to build walls that provide only the smallest outline of a house. In this symbolic journey of transformation, we tear down the house of denial and self-deception we have built around us, the walls of boredom and dullness we have put up on a foundation of the routine, and seek a new address dedicated to reconciliation and renewal. This journey begins with Tisha B’Av, which observes the tearing down of the walls of Jerusalem Temple long ago, and ends with Sukkot and Simchat Torah where we celebrate the possibilities of rebuilding and renewal. As you read this message, we are almost halfway through this journey of discovery, soon to leave the year 5779 behind and welcome 5780 in all its yet-to-be-revealed joys and sorrows.
Why do we have to metaphorically leave old our home to find a new dwelling place every year during the High Holy Days? Rabbi Lew resolves this seeming paradox with the symbol of a circle. Our holidays are part of a cycle of leaving and returning that takes place every year. Just as we never return home the same person who left, so do the walls we mentally surround ourselves with change width and height every time we leave and return. This is particularly true during the High Holy Days, when we spend time, even against our will, contemplating what and who we have left behind and where we hope to arrive by the time our collective self-reflection reaches its conclusion. This journey, however, is not straight line, but a circle. The moment we leave, just like the prophet Samuel who served all Israel by walking a circuit from one town to another, we are always bound toward home.
Judaism makes the claim that certain times in the calendar of the year have special properties. Shabbat provides a weekly opportunity for renewal. Rosh Hashana encourages rebirth and recommitment to pursuits and ideas that sustain us throughout the year. Yom Kippur offers a day of atonement and healing, reminding us of what we hold most precious in the glaring light of our inevitable mortality. In our awareness of this inescapable truth, we return home again, yet not the same person who left. As the Rambam says: “The repentant should change names, as if to say, I am another. I am not the same person who did these deeds (quoted in Rabbi Lew’s book).”
In the same way, Judaism encourages us to think of the symbolic walls we erect around us as ripe with the potential for change. After the High Holy Days end, the walls become higher and harder to surmount but they crumble again each year as the liturgy and the concepts of the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur encourage us to break from the confinements of our own making. We may be estranged and isolated from ourselves and the ones we love, but the Days of Awe give us an opportunity to build a new home for ourselves, filled with light and open to the sky. In doing so, we may think we are bound away from the dwelling place we have built, but we are only circling in order to return to the home we have remade. In this place of teshuvah, of repentance, we can find, in Rabbi Lew’s words, “a place that will return us to ourselves, where we can feel our lives flowing, healing, toward home.”
As we continue the journey together, may we hear the great shofar sound again, calling us, once more, toward home. Shana Tova Tikateinu v’Teichateimu! May you be inscribed and sealed for a good new year!
Rabbi Michael Howald