Teshuvah usually means returning to our goals of incrementally becoming better people. Sometimes though, we have a realization and recognize the need to change our goals. We suddenly see clearly that the goal we were striving towards is no longer what we want or what the world needs from us.
This can happen in interpersonal relationships. Sometimes we are in a broken relationship with a friend or family which we try constantly to fix. We apologize. We cultivate compassion. We pray about it in services. We reach out over and over. Sometimes these connections heal in time, but sometimes we realize that we have grown apart. Sometimes we see that the relationships are were toxic and that continuing to pursue them is making us sick.
Sometimes the same thing happens in our relationship with ourselves. We strive to look a certain way, weigh a certain amount, or be able to hit that high note. For years, I practiced yoga, I stretched and I stretched, went to class after class and always felt hindered by my back pain so bad that I would often need to limp out of class. I judged myself for not being able to just let go. Finally I realized that actually the yoga itself was aggravating my back and since I quit I have had a great relief. The goal I had set for myself and kept trying to achieve was in fact harmful.
This sort of teshuvah takes courage. It takes having the courage to see that our goals were wrong and facing the truth that we will probably be wrong again. For me, one of the biggest impediments towards this teshuvah is facing my shame of having ignored the signals for so long.
How do you know which of your goals are wise and which are in need teshuvah? That is an individual question that takes wisdom and self knowledge. The ability to deceive ourselves is quite powerful. That said, the following are a few areas I have found we are apt to make these sort of errors:
One way to flag goals for further discernment is when you have worked diligently at something year after year, but are unable to make headway. Sometimes this is the time for fortitude and courage, but sometimes we just are just banging our heads against the wall or twisting our poor backs into a pretzel in yoga class.
We see in the Torah that Moses makes himself miserable by refusing to abandon his goal of entering the Land of Israel, even after G!d tells him that he would not enter. He becomes a tragic hero, unable to celebrate his successes and find fulfillment. Instead he pleads until his dying breath for what he already knows he will not achieve. It says in Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers: "Who is happy? One who is content with his or her lot." We live better lives and can apply our energy more skillfully when we set ambitious but achievable goals. It takes wise discernment and wisdom to recognize when we are ambitious enough and when we are pursuing a path that is fruitless.
Another signpost that you may be engaging in the wrong pursuit comes when we adopt the paths of another. Philip Roth once told the young Ian McEwan, "Write as if your parents are dead." Roth meant by this that he could only come into his own as a writer when he overcame the expectations of his parents. When we reflect on our goals and see that our dreams are the those of mothers, fathers, grandparents, teachers, professors or rabbis, we must inquire whether these should in fact be our own.
Perhaps it is a beautiful coincidence that the universe calls us to the same profession or field of study as our parents, but for many, our stories are deeply wound up with those of our parents. We can work to free ourselves while our parents still live, and many of us still struggle with parental expectations long after they have passed.
One more piece of this puzzle. Sometimes we live in our parents' shadow by rebelling and rejecting their goals. In these situations too, our parents are very much "alive." On a personal level, much of what originally spurred on my own Jewish exploration and observance was murky neurotic mixture of fulfilling my parents' fantasies for a spiritual and good son while rejecting their sceptism of organized religion.
On Rosh Hashanah the liturgy speaks again and again of a Book of Life. Some see The Book of Life as a magical book much like Santa Claus List of good children. In this reading, instead of the "bad kids" receiving coal, those left out of The Book of Life die. I don't believe in this. It's clear that righteous people die every day and sometimes the wicked live to a ripe old age.
I see the Book of Life to be the book we write with our life. Each day, we write a page with our actions, conversations, thoughts, and prayers. The Book of Life is our entire life story to this moment. While many of the pages have already been written today we have the power to change what follows. Through teshuavah, we alter the plot, the main characters, and the themes of the story. The Talmud states "Great is the power of teshuvah, for a person's intentional sins become like merits." Through transforming our next steps, we also change how our previous missteps are understood. Will they have been missteps learned from? Will they be good stories of how we overcame adversity? Or will we continue down the tragic path of making the same mistake over and over again?
Recently a rabbi gave me a provocative writing assignment: to write my own obituary. I scrawled out how I thought my life would it would be remembered. I imagined who would come to my funeral. I wrote what I thought folks would say. I found this experience of writing my obituary to be a wonderfully impactful act of cheshbon hanefesh - of taking spiritual account of my life. As the Talmud says - contemplating the day of your death leads to teshuvah.
In many ways, writing my own obituary was a physical manifestation of the the Book of Life we all write each day. Holding my own obituary in my hand was a wonderfully inspiring way to inspire me towards further teshuvah.
We say that on Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. Although the past is set, between now and Yom Kippur we have an amazing opportunity to change what comes next.
At Kol Nidrei we will all gather to forgive ourselves and each other for where we have fallen short. What can we do between now and then, to right our course and start again?