At its fullest, our moon is an astonishing sight. No matter which way I gaze across the deep darkness of the heavens, our moon glimmers, casting its glow and illuminating shadows on the burnt orange cliffs of Kodachrome Basin State Park. The air is warm and pleasant as I recline in a canvas chair around the fire, trying something I have never done before: camping in Utah.
I look up and realize how the moon is radiant in its capacity to grow and change. It is incrementally steady, gradual and unhurried, shifting slowly but surely to reach its fullness, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. And as I gaze upon its radiance, I realize I am like the moon. Though an indoor kid through and through, I can try new things! Yes, I am like the moon because I have the capacity for growth and change, too.
As the embers of the fire crackle, my thoughts continue to wax poetically underneath this waning moon. Yet this was not just any full moon. It was an Elul full moon. The 1st of Tishrei and the shofar beckoned, not only to write a sermon for my congregation, but for my teshuvah (!), that is my ability to turn and return, to restore, repent and renew, to shift, to change, to grow, and become my fullest self.
The night is quiet and calm and Rabbi Yisrael Salanter’s teaching, “The greatest sound in the cosmos is that of someone changing themselves and growing from it,” is whispering from the heavens.
And so it’s no surprise that the next morning, I am hot and tired and done with the poetical moon. “Enough of this change,” I think to myself, “I’d like some A/C.”
Rabbi Reuven Leuchter, a Mussar teacher living in Jerusalem, teaches of the phenomenon most common in this season:
“A great spiritual awakening takes place each year. During the month of Elul and in particular during the period between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, the clarion call of teshuvah (repentance) rings out. Roused by this call, many of us earnestly seek guidance, searching for ways in which we can work on ourselves and become closer to God. Classic mussar (ethics) books, which might have remained closed throughout the year, are studied. Special shiurim (classes) devoted to personal development and growth attract large crowds. But as powerful and widespread as this awakening may be, what are its long-term effects? Isn’t there frequently a rapid dissipation of the desire to change?” (“Teshuvah, Restoring Life,” Introduction, 7-8).
“There is a prevalent misconception concerning teshuvah, and this also contributes to the dampening of our enthusiasm. We often think that [the spiritual work] during the period between Rosh Chodesh Elul and Yom Kippur is analogous to the knocking down of one building in order to construct another one in its place. In other words, our work is about no more than “going back to square one” or “wiping the slate clean.” Once the great teshuvah awakening has subsided after Yom Kippur, we gradually return to the place in which we stood….”
So it is with teshuvah, this spiritual act of restoration and renewal, rekindled in us each High Holy Day season and especially on Yom Kippur, our day of atonement. But none of this process is instantaneous. While brave and bold, it is not as simple as hopping on a plane with an REI sleeping bag and Merrell hiking boots. Rather, our sages teach that teshuvah is most powerful and effective and impactful when incrementally steady, gradual and unhurried, shifting slowly but surely—like our moon—scooching closer and closer toward a different perspective or way of being. The shofar’s call does not ask us to hit reset, rather to pursue cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of our soul’s ledger in order to continue with a thoughtful, moderate pathway forward.
Yisrael Salanter, a 19th-century Lithuanian Mussar scholar, affirms this approach, as described by Rabbi Leuchter:
“A person who is roused by the call to teshuvah and infused with the desire to turn away from sin is almost never able to change himself overnight; he cannot immediately turn into a different person. And his desire to change is fragile. It is likely to fade or even disappear with the passage of time. Rav Yisrael’s advice is a realistic response to this problem. By committing himself to perform a small action, a person’s desire to change will be maintained and eventually turn into an ongoing process. Rav Yisrael’s approach is not unlike the popular cliche that great achievements begin with small steps” (Leuchter, page 19, referring to Letter 7 of Salanter).
Exploring our sources, we find a plethora of ways we can make personal change. The first step is looking backward in order to forge a path forward, and sometimes it’s a painful start.
Rabbi Yonah of Gerundi’s 13th-century Spanish treatise, Shaarei Teshuvah, instructs that the first principle of repentance is regret (החרטה). Regret is a powerful and painful experience. We consider the one who looks back on her life or her year to consider the missteps, the mistakes, the miscommunications, the pain and the sorrow wrought not only on herself but on her relationships and with God. “If only,” we say to ourselves, “What if,” we wonder. Saying in her heart, as Rabbi Yonah puts it, “What have I done?… And how did I trade a passing world for a world that exists forever and ever?” Tohar hanefesh is how Rabbi Yonah describes this experience—a grief that rends and purifies the soul.
Regret and grief are just the starting point. Our souls must despair, it seems, before we can enact repair. But these painful experiences are not meant to ground us to a halt, rather grief and regret, however painful, can inspire our path forward because they move us forward knowing from where we’ve come in order to push our souls to grow beyond. Rav Yonah elucidates 19 additional steps toward repentance, as well as the 24 things that can obscure one’s efforts. Surely, we understand from these sages, showing up for Rosh Hashanah in crisp new attire and honey cake in our bellies is not enough to make a shift. Rather, incremental step-by-step changes are the pathway to true teshuvah.
Of course, as humans, we are bound to stumble in our change process. Thus an incremental approach toward teshuvah is considerably more impactful than a one fell swoop sort of shift. For those times when we trip over our previous behaviors and fault lines (and we certainly will!), the act of slow and steady incremental change might yield only slight backtracking and setbacks. And really, what’s so bad about taking a few steps back in order to take a few steps forward? We do this precise choreography to prepare ourselves to face God in the Amidah, all the more so we can do so to face our blundering and beautiful selves in teshuvah. With a gradual pace, even when we regress, much more of our hard transformational work will remain. And as R’ Salanter teaches, when one takes even one small step, it could even change the course of our lives.
So, why does it matter? Why does it matter if we change or repent at all at any such pace? Which is to say why do the High Holy Days or Yom Kippur even matter? Rav Shlomo Wolbe teaches that this soul work is “not only an opening of hope for us (as individuals) to merit a positive judgment.” Rather, we recall from our High Holy Day liturgy Unetaneh Tokef that when people share a unified vigilance in our teshuvah and middot work (as well as tefillah (prayer) and tzedakah (charity)), together we might temper how God responds to our repentance. While this complex liturgy reveals how much of life’s events are beyond our control, we can focus on the agency we do have to pursue repentance and growth. Thus, it is when each individual pursues their personal transformation, it yields collective holy gain. In community, this work is energetic, supportive and built of collective wisdom. Our individual incremental teshuvah, we pray, yields personal transformation and collective transcendence.
And still, we are each on our own path of incremental growth, looking backward on our lives, our mistakes and our changes in order to chart a fresh path, designing anew our own soul curriculum for the year to come. Let us not forget where one small step for humankind has landed us in generations past—which brings us back to our glowing moon.
No matter where we are when we look up at that startling night sky, so may it be that in this year to come, each day is another chance to inch toward collective holiness and wholeness. Let us cycle between urgency and patience with ourselves, who we have been and who we will become, looking backward and gently pushing onward, as we imagine ourselves in the way Marcia Falk’s poem “Open Gate” invites:
The arc of evening
the sun’s blue shadows
the gates still open
as three stars wait
to pierce the sky—
in the corridor
bares its maze
to begin again.
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