Teshuvah Step 1 – Defining Change
With the summer coming to an end, Elul and the High Holidays are right around the corner.
If you’re like me, you’re feeling a mixture of nervousness and excitement. The days ahead are full of promise and, at the same time, heavy with responsibility.
I’m asking myself: Where am I holding? Have I advanced my avodah (personal work/self-development) since last year? I invite you to explore these questions for yourself as I share my process and suggest exercises that I hope you’ll find helpful.
Is there something we can do to make more productive use of our time and experiences, to implement lasting change?
This time of year, with its emphasis on teshuvah, presents us with a special opportunity to examine our lives and improve ourselves. It all begins with a shift in mindset.
What do we want to accomplish through the teshuvah process? Do we want to focus on specific behaviors — such as davening with more kavanah (intent) or not speaking lashon harah (ill speech)?
Or do we want to address something deeper?
The Rambam (Hilchos Teshuvah 2:4) writes that the point of teshuvah is to become an ish acher – a different person.
A different person isn’t just one who does things differently, but one who thinks differently as well.
A different person doesn’t just daven with kavanah, but loves davening. A different person doesn’t just refrain from lashon harah, but recognizes the importance of other people and instinctively acts on their right to privacy and respect.
In the parsha of tzitzis (Bamidbar 15:39), Rashi explains that one’s heart and eyes are “spies” for the body: the eye sees, the heart desires, and the body commits the aveirah (sin).
Rashi teaches us that an aveirah is so much more than just an action. It is a process that begins with thoughts, drives, and perceptions and culminates in sin.
Rav Chaim of Volozhin (Nefesh Hachaim 1:17-21) explains that teshuvah is the process of realigning one’s internal makeup with the will of Hashem.
The goal-oriented, results-based environment we live in, however, has us thinking almost as if life were a game, with our focus on actions as if they were the runs and outs of our personal scorecards.
It’s whether we keep Shabbos, not whether we enjoy our special gift. It’s whether we do chesed, not what the other person means to us.
Focusing on actions or inactions without considering the entire scope of an aveirah is ill-fated. It’s no wonder our efforts fall short year after year!
It’s time we adopt a new approach to teshuvah, one that focuses on the root, not just the symptoms. The Mesillas Yesharim (Perek 4) writes that one’s ratzon (will) is the “playing field” of teshuvah. Ratzon is much deeper than action; it is at the root, and everything else is an expression of its state.
Pruning the branches of a tree is a superficial adjustment; reaching down to the roots and making deep change affects the trunk, branches, leaves, flowers, and fruit.
As we embark upon the path of teshuvah, let us ask ourselves the following questions:
- What do I want to accomplish through the teshuvah process? Where do I want to be the day after Yom Kippur?
- What is the underlying deficiency behind the actions I am looking to repair?