A Guide to Teshuvah: For Ourselves

Jewish ritual By Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg 03rd Oct 2022

Internal Teshuvah – beyn adam le’atzsmo

Teshuvah, return, is not just about our relationship with other people, or the world. It’s also about our connection with ourselves. ‘I need some headspace.’ ‘I feel numb.’ ‘I need to get back in touch with who I am’: such thoughts are familiar to most of us.

Many things can come between us and our innermost self. It may be stress: life is so hectic, there are so many demands, that there’s simply not a moment left to think. Or maybe our heart is a sore and painful place to revisit. Yet just as we need to protect our physical health, so we need to take time for what nourishes our soul.

This season with its many hours of prayer offers space and time. I appreciate that this is only partly true. There are all those meals to think about, even on Yom Kippur: what will everyone eat when the fast is out? It’s far harder when there are young children to manage. But hopefully, it’s possible to find some space, outer and inner; we owe this to each other.

People sometimes ask in moments of particular anguish, perhaps when a loved one is ill: ‘How will I cope?’ Often I ask them in return what they do in easier weeks to restore their spirits. They may say: listening to music, yoga, or walking the dog. I encourage them, however hard the days, to try to keep at least a little space for what brings them back to their core emotional and spiritual self, because it is from here that we draw strength to face the world.

The Zohar, the central text of Jewish mysticism, ponders over the verse from Psalm 130 ‘From the depths I call to you, God.’ Rabbi Abba explains that these are ‘the depths of the well’ the most profound of which is called repentance.

I believe that when we’re washed out and weary it may still be possible to travel back down to the depths of our heart and rediscover within ourselves the sacred wellsprings of life. Sometimes those wells may feel empty, drought-shrivelled, and we long for restoration ‘as a deer longs for pools of water’ in a desiccated land. (Psalm 42)

Sometimes the well contains tears, because to find ourselves again we have to encounter and abide with the wounds, griefs and disappointments which life has inflicted on us. Sometimes, no less hard, the journey takes us through bitter waters of remorse, because we also have to face how we have made mistakes and hurt others and the struggle to forgive includes forgiving ourselves.  

Yet I believe that the well is still there, and that somehow, in ways I do not understand, from sources beyond geographical exploration, it will be replenished with mayim chaim, life-giving waters. For, though it lies in the depths of our being, the Zohar refers to this inner well as ‘on high’, a holy space fed by the sacred energy which nourishes all life.

I hope that, sometimes at least, we can find this place of homecoming, and that from it we can take the calm and courage, the compassion and hope, to go back out and face our challenges.

Read the rest of the series:

  1. Language
  2. Injustice
  3. Environment
  4. With Each Other
  5. With God

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