On the rejuvenation of spiritual life and the essential meaning of teshuvah
By: Eli Rubin
Many years ago, my teacher, Rabbi Elimelech Zweibel, spoke about teshuvah. “It is often said that teshuvah transcends all of the mitzvot,” he noted, “but this requires explanation. After all, nothing is higher than a mitzvah. The Rebbe Rashab said: All the mitzvot are associated with the Essence of G‑d.”1
Reb Meilich spoke about this often, and he spoke about it at length: “The truth is, there is nothing higher than the mitzvot. But teshuvah gives us a new understanding of the essential depth of a mitzvah, of how deeply they are bound up in our own souls, and how deeply they connect us with G‑d.” I don’t remember everything he said, but the essence of it has stayed with me, and I think about this every year as the month of Elul begins.
The paragraphs that follow are my attempt to understand, to paraphrase, to explain and elaborate, something of what Reb Meilich conveyed.
Cycling through the Jewish year, with its seasonal festivals and their accompanying rituals and religious themes, is like journeying through a dramatic temporal landscape. It has lofty peaks and sprawling plains, slow climbs through wooded valleys and gentle rides along sunlit streams. At some points we encounter rough weather; the going might get tough. At other times, the fresh and fine climate uplifts and emancipates. Sometimes we gaze back along the path we have traveled. Then again, we turn our faces ahead, towards the anticipated future.
One part of the year is not like another. The Chanukah season stands in contrast to that of the Purim period. The traversal from Pesach to Shavuot is much smoother than the series of tempestuous transitions taking us from Tisha Be’av to Simchat Torah.
Yet, each individual vista, cycled through sequentially, is also kaleidoscopically refracted in all the other phases of the calenderical journey. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is Pesach, liturgically termed “the season of our freedom.” Annually, in the spring, we celebrate the redemption of our forebears from Egyptian servitude, and the birth of the Jewish nation. The telling of the Exodus story at the Pesach seder, each year, is refracted in a daily obligation to remember the departure from Egypt.2
Building on intimations in earlier sources, Chabad teachings cast the personal journey out of “Egyptian” bondage as the fundamental spiritual imperative that undergirds and impells all religious activity.3 When studying G‑d’s Torah or performing one of G‑d’s commandments, you momentarily transcend the finite constraints of human embodiment, becoming encompassed in the ultimate emancipation of divine infinitude and oneness. This is underscored in Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi’s paraphrase of a well known Talmudic dictum: “In each and every generation, and each and every day, a person is obligated to see themselves as if they themselves left Egypt today.”4 As far as journeys go, Exodus is the beginning from which we set out, the destination that we are heading to, and the very process of travel, of religious activity and progress, itself.
But my concern here is with the daily significance of Rosh Hashanah, rather than that of Pesach. Rosh Hashanah is undoubtedly a lofty peak in the Jewish calenderical landscape, thus dubbed a “High Holiday,” and its observance is most iconically characterized by the ritual blowing of the shofar. In the words of the Talmud: “This day’s mitzvah is [performed] with the shofar.”5
In his great code of law, Mishneh Torah, Maimonides famously wrote that this mitzvah is really an inexplicable edict of the Torah, a gezeirat hakatuv. “Nevertheless,” he continued, the blast of the shofar does “contain an intimation, as if proclaiming: ‘Awaken, you who sleep, from your slumber … Examine your deeds, return in teshuvah, and remember your Creator!’”6
Teshuvah—often translated as “repentance,” or more literally as “return”—is a form of the Hebrew shuv that really means reconciliation. To “return in teshuvah”is to get back together with G‑d, to strengthen your bond with G‑d, to awaken yourself from spiritual slumber and to raise yourself upward, higher and higher. It doesn’t refer to a static event, to a ritual act of penance that absolves a person of responsibility for past misdeeds. It is rather a process of transformation, an abandonment of one path and an embarkation on another.7 As the verse states, “the wicked person shall abandon his path … and shall return (yashuv) to G‑d.”8
In rare cases, such transformation can happen instantaneously. But most of us are too deeply entrenched in our habitual slumber, too distracted by the sheer difficulty of getting through life in this world. We are like large ships in a storm, that can only be turned about with great, wrenching, difficulty. For most of us, teshuvah is a process that we need to work up to. We need to pause, gain control, and then begin the toilsome work of extricating ourselves, of reorientating ourselves, embarking on a new voyage of rediscovery and reconciliation.
So, although we are only commanded to blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, it’s a longstanding and widespread custom to begin sounding its piercing blasts thirty days prior, from the start of the month of Elul. As summer begins its turn towards fall, we begin our turn towards teshuvah. The experience of this transition is evocatively captured in the reminiscence of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (1880-1950), the sixth rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch:
Although it was still a clear and sunny day, the air had already changed; the Elul breeze was already beginning to be felt, a teshuvah wind was already blowing. Each Jew already became more conscientious, more thoughtful, and we began to forget about all mundane affairs … With great expectation we awaited … the sound of the shofar, the first blast, which would announce that the gates of the month of mercy had opened.9
This stretch of the year, undoubtedly, is the season of teshuvah. And yet, the Talmud states that “all your days” should be spent “in teshuvah.”10
What are we to make of this? Surely, if you’ve just decided to turn your life around yesterday, setting out on a course of conscientious observance and mystical reconciliation, there’s no reason for you to reorienitate your life all over again today? Or, posing the question from a different angle: Is there never a point at which you have satisfactorily reconciled yourself with G‑d? Does the process of teshuvah never exhaust itself?
In Chabad teachings, these questions generate wide ranging explorations of the nature and significance of teshuvah that far transcend the straightforward concern to arrive at a satisfactory answer. As with many questions of a similarly existential nature, an answer given on any one occasion rarely forecloses the ongoing quest for interpretive insight and meaning. For Rabbi Shalom DovBer Schneersohn (“Rashab,” 1860-1920), Chabad’s fifth rebbe, the association of shofar with teshuvah formed the starting point for a complete reconsideration of the purpose of the cosmos itself.11
As noted, Maimonides explained that the shofar awakens one who hears its blast to embark on a path of return. Here, by contrast, the call of the shofar is interpreted as the returnee’s heartfelt cry of regret.12 In other words, the shofar doesn’t simply inspire teshuvah, but gives expression to the experience of teshuvah, and thus provides a window into what that experience is like.
On this score, teshuvah is characterized as an “inner animation of the soul” experienced when “one is very pained that one has made oneself far” from G‑d. This anguished animation is itself a form of mystical reconciliation, albeit a bittersweet one; the distance is only overcome to the degree you recognize that the distance has yet to be overcome. As the Rebbe Rashab puts it, “there is a sense of the divine, but it is [the sense] that it is bad and bitter that one has abandoned G‑d.” Accordingly, the reconciliatory cry of the shofar expresses a determination to abandon the path of sin and to instead “accept the yoke of divine sovereignty (kabbalat ol malchuto), to be devoted to G‑d and to His will.”13
The generic form of subjugation to G‑d’s authority, practiced throughout the year, is generally habitual and therefore superficial. Under ordinary circumstances, the fact that a person habitually studies Torah and observes the commandments is not evidence that they are in an intentional relationship with G‑d, much less a soulful one. By contrast, the Rebbe Rashab wrote, “the acceptance of the yoke on Rosh Hashanah”—as expressed in the shofar’s piercing blast, and in the cry of the returnee—is experienced “in the interiority and essence of the soul.”14
For this reason, he goes on to explain, the mystical experience of teshuvah penetrates the innermost core of divine being in a manner that cannot otherwise be achieved, even by the perfect saint—the tzaddik gamur—whose every religious act is imbued with soulful love, awe, and a transparency to divine pleasure. Such righteous individuals are exemplars of piety and holiness, and they never experience the kind of rupture in their relationship with G‑d that would necessitate teshuvah. But for this very reason, their relationship with G‑d is pedestrian; it only grows and escalates in gradual increments and never by leaps and bounds.15
In an important sense, the tzaddik is not in a relationship with G‑d at all. Strictly speaking, a relationship is something constructed between one party and another. The tzaddik, however, is not “other” than G‑d, but is rather a transparent channel through which divine revelation flows into the world. The dynamism of a relationship, and the creativity that a relationship can cultivate and evoke, depends on the elemental rupture that is its basis. Only when there is someone else in the picture, is an individual induced to manifest themselves to the other in ways that they alone would never previously have imagined.16
In contrast to the tzaddik, the returnee—the baal teshuvah—leaps across the chasm of separation to create a new relationship with G‑d. Teshuvah is the leap itself. Teshuvah traverses infinity. Yet, in the moment of teshuvah, the relationship is constructed entirely out of the chasm of separation, out of the realization that one has no manifest relationship with G‑d. The relationship inheres only in the harrowing recognition it has yet to be created.17
Teshuvah, accordingly, is an experience of elemental emptiness, of profound lack. But this lack is filled with an infinite pregnancy. All that is left is the essential self, the yet unarticulated self. And the exposure of the unarticulated self elicits the otherwise unarticulated pleasure concealed in the very essence of G‑d.
In the words of the Rebbe Rashab:
Essential pleasure, as it is in His very essence, cannot possibly be [elicited] through Torah and mitzvot … this is rather through teshuvah from the depth of the heart specifically … The work of the baal teshuvah is to leap … from extreme distance to extreme closeness … The bitterness touches him to the very essence of his soul, and thereby causes the ascent of the soul to the apex of heights without any incrementalism at all … Through teshuvah from the depth of the heart, specifically, one reaches the depth and essential concealment of the infinite, that is, the essential pleasure that is in the essence of the infinite, literally.18
Torah and mitzvot, in other words, are revelatory expressions of the divine. The Torah is G‑d’s wisdom, the mitzvot are G‑d’s will. And, of course, it is very dear and pleasurable to G‑d when people toil in the apprehension of divine wisdom and in the fulfillment of divine will. Teshuvah, however, reaches beyond these revelations, to uncover the unarticulated essence of G‑d, the essential hiddenness of G‑d; the divine pleasure that transcends any prior revelation or sensation. Such essentiality is only disclosed when one’s relationship with G‑d is constructed out of nothing but the baring of the essence of the soul, expressed only in the inarticulate cry, in the senseless leap across the infinite divide. Such essentiality, in other words, can only be disclosed through teshuvah.
But this is not the whole story. The real point that the Rebbe Rashab wants to make—and which he spends more than forty discourses explaining—is that what’s true of teshuvah is actually true of all the mitzvot.19 In fact, the essential nature of all the mitzvot is revealed through teshuvah: “All the mitzvot are associated with the essence.”20 To do a mitzvah is to touch G‑d’s essence, to encounter G‑d directly, without the intercession of any mediator. A mitzvah enacts the ultimate mystical union, the ultimate overcoming of the cosmic chasm.
Unfortunately, however, this is not the way we ordinarily experience a mitzvah. Ordinarily, a mitzvah might feel more like an onerous obligation, or a routine transaction, and less like the direct encounter—the leap across infinity—that it actually embodies. G‑d might seem far removed from the prosaic world of our daily activities. It can often appear as if we are connecting with G‑d only on the level of action, doing G‑d’s will, mechanically carrying out “standing orders” issued from on-high. Worse, we may even perform the mitzvot without thinking about G‑d at all.
On a day-to-day basis, throughout the year, the true—essential—significance of mitzvot is too often forgotten. But it doesn’t change or fade. A mitzvah remains a mitzvah, an essential “bond” with G‑d. So, in a deeper sense, teshuvah is to return to the essence of the mitzvah, to awaken from spiritual slumber and recognize what it is that we are doing, who it is that we are interacting with. In reality, Torah study and mitzvah observance are the mediums that miraculously enable us to articulate the inarticulable, to reveal the essential relationship that stands beyond revelation.
Without teshuvah, however, the revelatory facet of the mitzvah bond can obscure its irreducibly essential character. Soulful love, awe, and a transparency to divine pleasure, are likewise revelatory dimensions that can eclipse the irreducible essence. It can seem as if your relationship with G‑d inheres only in positive spiritual feeling and uplift. In the moment of teshuvah, by contrast, the revelatory dimension has been stripped away. Your relationship to G‑d inheres entirely in your recognition that the positive and revelatory dimension of your relationship has been ruptured. This recognition bares your essential bond with G‑d. Thereby, the rupture is repaired and the true nature of the mitzvah bond is also disclosed.
In the aftermath of teshuvah, the Rebbe Rashab explains, all Torah study and every mitzvah act is flooded with an overabundance of essential luminosity. The revelatory facet of religious life and activity becomes transparent to its otherwise unarticulated essence. Teshuvah reveales that your bond was always irreducible and essential. And it is this irreducibility that is manifested, enacted, in the Torah and its commandments. The brokenness of teshuvah makes your mitzvot more whole, more perfect.21
Sometimes, when we talk about the special mystical quality of teshuvah, a mistaken impression might be left. Given this transcendent capacity to repair every rupture, to transform our misdeed into merits,22 our dedication to daily Torah study and mitzvah observance might become more relaxed. After all, we might reason, we can always do teshuvah. But once we understand that teshuvah reveals the true nature of Torah and mitzvot themselves, such a mistake can never be made. Every mitzvah is an affirmation of our essential bond with G‑d, nothing less.
When Torah and mitzvot are thus illuminated, any deficit, any rupture, in their enactment is rendered all the more acute. A rupture in the revelatory sphere is not merely a superficial rupture but an essential one. When this is understood, every opportunity for Torah study and mitzvah observance is embraced with even greater urgency than before. When this is understood, the anguished cry of the returnee runs all the deeper.23
The harrowing recognition that human rupture reaches into G‑d’s essence deepens the reconciliation experience of teshuvah, impelling and enacting the infinite leap of repair with even greater urgency. Every mitzvah is thus transformed into an affirmative extension of the teshuvah process, an act of essential reconciliation. So teshuvah isn’t simply a reorientation, a “once in a lifetime”—or once a year—turning point. Teshuvah is the essential element of mystical reconciliation that should endow your “every-day” relationship with G‑d with essential urgency and significance.
Teshuvah isn’t just for the High Holiday season. Teshuvah is refracted through the cycle of the year, flooding each facet of the temporal journey with essential luminosity. Illuminated by teshuvah, every mitzvah can be experienced as the leap across infinity that it actually embodies. Teshuvah is the realization that every mitzvah, every step along the way, is an act of essential reconciliation with G‑d—your essence reconciled with G‑d’s essence.