Teshuvah: A Practical Introduction

Teshuvah: A Practical Introduction

Teshuvah word cloudTeshuvah. Reflection. Repentance. Return. Repair.

Because: people. Can’t live with them. Can’t live without them. Even the best community has many small ruptures.

Imagine. Maybe you’ve been sick for months. Just getting by. No energy for social life. Your friend has been caring for a sick relative. She’s had no time for friends. So, for six months, you haven’t spoken. You feel guilty. She’s been so burdened, you should have reached out. So much time has passed. You’re ashamed now. Embarrassed to reach out. But she, too, feels guilty. Because you’ve been sick. She should have checked in. Now she is also embarrassed.

Maybe you agreed to help a co-worker on a project. If you do your part, they will make some money. But you got busy, and missed your deadline. You know they needed the money. So, now you’re too afraid even to ask if you can still be helpful.

Or, maybe you loved your late father. But you felt he misunderstood you. And thus did not raise you right. But now you are more mature. With life experience, you see you father differently. You understand why he was as he was. And you’d like to tell him. To have a loving heart to heart conversation. But it’s too late. He has passed on.

Imagine if you had a community ritual to help heal small ruptures like these. A time set aside for it. When, together, you learned skills of self-reflection. How to apologize. What forgiveness does and does not mean. And thus, with these tools, you reached out, and repaired relationships.

In Jewish tradition, we have such a ritual. The ten days of Teshuvah. Day One of the ritual is Rosh Hashanah, the New Year. One of its nicknames is The Day of Judgment. Because we begin to judge ourselves. In synagogue, our prayer poems invoke God, the compassionate judge. Outdoors, we imagine casting our sins away in a flowing stream. At home, we eat fruit and honey as we share our hope for a sweet year.

And then we get to work. We try to start our teshuvah. Yes, there is a roadmap. It comes from the Book of Leviticus. The part that tells a nonviolent offender how to repair harm done. But it was updated by the philosopher Moses Maimonides. To properly do teshuvah, he says, takes 5 steps.

(1) Recognize that you did wrong.

(2) Feel bad about it, so you are motivated to reach out.

(3) Seek forgiveness from the relevant person.

(4) Understand what reparation they need, and then make it directly to them.

(5) Do not repeat the harm.

Step five is hard. What does it even look like?

Maybe you text your friend. She tells you that it’s never too late. So you agree not to fall out of touch.

At work, you set a new goal. If you are behind schedule, you communicate. So that others can plan their work, too. Scary as it is, it’s as simple as sending an email.

And maybe you set aside a few minutes a week to remember your father. Talk with him in your imagination. Or find his favourite living cousin. Then, pick up the phone, and remember together.

Day Ten of the ritual is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. A day of fasting, singing, learning, praying, remembering, crying. Because, no matter what we fixed, so many mistakes remain. Our sincere teshuvah does not always bring forgiveness. Still, we vow to do better — even though we know we may not succeed. At the end of the day, we celebrate. And then the community, slightly stronger, leaps into another year.

Shanah tovah —blessings for a good year.


Based on my talk at Beacon Unitarian Church, Sept 23 2019.

  1. Your gift for expressing the profound so clearly and so accessibly is, itself, profound.
    Thank you, again.

  2. Laura- what a beautiful tradition and practise… a tough one but with very clear and helpful direction here.. This is a blessing to me… Thank you

    1. Kim, thank you for this comment, especially as I quietly wove so much personal content into it. Blessings for a sweet new year.

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