The Nature of Teshuva

| holidays, musings |

What is the nature of teshuva (often translated as repentance or return)? How does this process begin?  How do we ourselves take steps towards being our best selves, and how do we create the space for others to do so?

One immediate response might be that which Maimonides, the Rambam, suggests in his Laws of Teshuva: to identify all those things that we did ‘wrong,’ to articulate and enumerate them, to confess to them (vidui).  From there, the Rambam says, we can begin to do the work of not repeating such actions and behaviors.  We can begin to do the work of return–returning from ‘wrong’ behavior to our best and highest selves.

In his work Likkutei Moharan, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav offers an alternative approach.  Rather than beginning from the ‘wrong,’ he suggests, the seeds of teshuva begin with an identification and acknowledgement of what is right and good.

Know!’  he writes ‘You must judge all people favorably.  Even if you have reason to think that a person is completely wicked, you must search until you seek out some bit of goodness, some place in that person where he is not evil.  When you find that bit of goodness and judge the person that way, you may really raise him up to goodness.  Treating people this way allows them to be restored, to come to teshuva…

Here, Rabbi Nachman offers a gift for those of us who struggle to let go of grudges, to see beyond the frustrated personality traits of relatives, to open our hearts to people who have hurt us in the past.  Sometimes, Rabbi Nachman acknowledges, full forgiveness is too hard to achieve in one go. And yet, this does not need to discourage us entirely.  Even taking one step, seeing one good element in another human being, is a worthy exercise, because our small step will help enable that person to change.

This is an amazing claim!  The very opening of our heart towards another human being helps create the space for that person to move forward in teshuva, in return towards her best self!  The process of teshuva, therefore, is not one sided, it is not solely about me doing my best to make amends, do teshuva, seek forgiveness from people I have hurt, work towards my better self.  Nor is it reciprocal, with one person seeking forgiveness and another granting it.  Rather, the process of teshuva is dialectical and dialogical: it happens through the steps forward of the one who wants to change, and the belief on the part of another that the person has the potential to do so.

Rabbi Nachman does not stop with this tremendous idea.  He goes on to encourage us to do something even more challenging: to extend this position of open heartedness, of kindness, of belief in the goodness of a human being to ourselves:

You have to search until you find some point of good in yourself to restore your inner vitality and attain joy.  And by searching for and finding some little bit of good that still remains inside of you, you genuinely move from the scale of guilt into the scale of merit.”

For those of us–including myself–who can be our own worst enemies, Rabbi Nachman’s words ring loudly.  Many times, we fail to acknowledge the goodness in our own work, our own capabilities, our own choices. Rabbi Nachman offers a beautiful practice—the practice of identifying one small good thing about ourselves—as a tool for releasing these patterns, which painfully prevent us from granting ourselves forgiveness, from becoming our best and highest selves

Rabbi Nachman then beautifully suggests that this behavior, the identification of the good in ourselves and in our souls, sends our unique melody out in to the world, blending the notes of our individual music into the symphony of humanity.

With wishes for a new year that is full of seeing the good–in our world, in our friends, families and colleagues, and in ourselves.  And may this goodness lead to renewal, return, and joyful songs.