Jhos’ Rosh Hashanah Drash

chochmat halev rosh Hashanah

Tonight begins the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, when people all over the world gather to engage Judaism’s wisdom tradition of Tshuvah, which, while it has no parallel English concept, is often translated as “repentance.”  But in fact, if you look up ‘repentance’ in the Strong’s Concordance—basically a list of every word in the bible and where it appears—you will find that tshuvah is not repentance, at least not from a biblical perspective.

The Hebrew word in the bible that means ‘repentance’ is “nachum”, which means to be sorry, to console oneself, to have compassion, to be moved—which scholars believe derived from an even more ancient word meaning: to breathe, pant, or sigh. The first biblical occurrence of nachum is in Genesis, chapter 6, verse 6, when God, seeing how cruel and violent humanity has become, decides to flush the earth with a flood to get rid of us—the text says:  “(V’yi-nachem Adonai) And God repented with a grieving heart for having made humanity on the earth.”  And then God sees Noach futzing in his garden, and says, “Well, except for that guy—he’s okay.” 

And of course the story goes that God wipes out humanity, except for Noach and his family, and the world is laid to waste. Noach’s first response after it’s all over is to make an offering. And God has an internal dialogue, which says, “I will not curse the land ever again on account of humanity. Even though the human heart is inclined towards evil, I will never again wreck every living thing, as I have done.”  But there is no mention of tshuvah in this story. 

When we find the words related to tshuvah in the Torah, it is about returning to someplace, or someone; or making some kind of transformative move, with or without remorse, regret, or guilt. 

It was the wisdom and insight of the early rabbis that recognized and articulated the subtle whisper of consciousness that is at the root of tshuvah. They recognized that action comes from someplace inside us—perhaps discomfort or spiritual yearning. Or perhaps a mental cloud lifts and we see that we have lost our way and want to get back home. The rabbis recognized that through the action of return we are able to move beyond the past—humbly and consciously into the future. 

In their bold interpretation, the rabbis introduced this idea by first affirming that biblically mandated temple sacrifices of animals and grains would atone for one’s misdeeds. But then they made a subtle move, adding: “as will death and Yom Kippur im ha-tshuvah, with tshuvah.” They beautifully and deftly linked the act of sacrifice with the restoration of one’s reputation. They affirmed that rebuilding trust in a community requires tangible action, an offering to all who were affected by the behavior, and a restoration of one’s own sense of nobility. 

Brilliantly, our sages chose this word to describe the process through which humanity atones. T’shuvah derives from the Hebrew root “Shuv”, which, depending on how it is constructed has a wide range of meanings, including:

to turn back                to turn against 

to come back              to go back

to return                     to restore

to repair                     to recover

to rescue                    to answer

to repeat                    to respond

to bring back            to reply

The rabbis saw the action of turning back, returning, answering, and recovering as a spiritual act. They didn’t spend much time talking about how people feel; rather they looked at, and tried to encourage the way people perceived themselves and then acted accordingly. To the sages, remorse, guilt, and regret were only as a means to an end: we should become aware of the pain and destruction we have left in our wake, enough to be motivated to act, change course, offer restitution, and by so doing, transform ourselves. 

There is an oft-quoted teaching from the Babylonian Talmud that says:

We have learned that Rabbi Eliezer says: Repent one day before you die. His [befuddled] students asked: “But how does a person know on what day they will die?”  He said to them: “All the more so should one repent today, just in case tomorrow they die!” And so a person spends their whole life in a state of tshuvah. 

So, here we are, gathered to make tshuvah, on Rosh Hashannah—even though our master wisdom teachers tell us that this is an activity that should be going on every day.  So what’s so special about today? Why are we here? I would offer that our tradition recognized, long ago, that something powerful and transformative happens when we gather in community to do this work, aware that we aren’t the only one who has veered off course this year.  The way back is a unique journey for each and every one of us.

T’shuvah happens internally and externally, mostly incrementally, occasionally dramatically. We tend to get off course in small measure, but inevitably there comes a moment when the inches have added up into feet, and the feet into miles.  I have an ongoing relationship with my body where, when I gain a pound or two, I’m like, “No big deal”. 4, 5, I’m like, “Okay, okay.” 10, I start thinking, “Alright, I’ll deal with it next week.” But by the time I get to 15, I’m off buying new pants. And its time to reckon with what happened—stress eating, self-soothing, chaotic schedule, not enough exercise—and what about the other ways eating and living get tangled? Heart burn, cholesterol levels, alcohol consumption, disrupted sleep patterns, back pain.  

Because when one part of our life gets off track, our whole life gets off track. And now I have to decide—am I okay with the 15 pounds? Or am I gonna turn back? Either way, I’m making tshuvah—I’m either accepting the path of having a 165 pound spirit vehicle, or I do what I need to do to get back on the 150 pound road.  And both choices are predicated on the action I take. Neither path has to do with what I think or say, but what I do. And if that is true for issues that are mostly just between me and me, how much more so is it true when our missteps directly affect, hurt or damage others? 

Some tshuvah is isometric, imperceptible to anyone but ourselves—the torque that we feel when we are resisting forces that would pull us down. Saying no to that drink, that toke, that website, that deal; instead we take a deep breath, we step away, we log out, we bite our tongue, we let the rush pass over without moving. That is tshuvah, too.

We go off the road for all kinds of reasons—because we are bored, or angry; because we are hungry, or lost.  We get off track pursuing love or following hate; we can, with the very best of intentions, run down a spiritual alleyway thinking we have found an awesome short cut to enlightenment.

Or, in a drunken stupor, we can stumble into a deep and nasty rut. And sometimes tshuvah happens to us. We get fired or betrayed; our health fails, our relationship crashes; our life is disrupted by external forces, often beyond our control, and we have to adapt. 

From a Jewish perspective, veering off into the weeds is expected, and accepted, as a vital part of human experience. The tradition assumes that there’s not one person in this room who hasn’t made a wrong turn or been wronged, who hasn’t found themselves in a dance with jealousy or greed or arrogance; who hasn’t indulged in, or been the topic of gossip.  And that’s actually good news because the tradition offers us a liturgical path back to wholeness and a spiritual toolbox to repair what has been dinged, scraped, or broken—either by us, or in us.  The rabbis teach that when one person heals through tshuvah, the whole world is healed.  

Tshuvah is therefore, first and foremost, a healing process that begins when I notice that I am out of touch with my core values. First I ask, “Who am I?”  and then I turn, face my self. 

And through conscious action, I choose to come back to center through:


I begin the process of healing with:


And I make an offering:


And through this process, I am able to shift back to center and be atoned. 

So, let’s start our inquiry now. Why are you here tonight? What do you want from these rituals and rites, prayers and petitions? Let’s muster up our courage, go inside, and let’s start charting our course. 

So, get comfortable, let your body relax, and let’s start with a few breaths and a meditation.

Are you here to go back—to someone, to somewhere, to something, to your self? 

Are you here to come back—to someone, to somewhere, to something, to yourself?

Are you here to turn away—from something you did, thought, felt, or said?

Are you here to answer—for something you did, thought, felt, or said?

Are you here to seek answers—for something you experienced, learned, felt, or heard?

Are you here to reconcile—a conflict, a problem, an inquiry?

Are you here to respond to a conflict, a problem, an inquiry?

Are you here to bring back—wisdom, peace, resolution?

Are you here to reply—to a call, a question, a need?

Are you here to restore—your soul, your integrity, your heart?

Are you here to return—to your spirit, your story, your source?


Call to us, our Center, and we will return. 

Make our days new again.


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