The opportunity to start all over again is something that almost all of us must have wished for, at least once in our lives. I don’t mean starting life all over again, but rather being given a second chance, another opportunity to do it differently, to try to get it right. From having a second chance to sink that incredibly easy putt to creating a different business model or choosing a different career, almost everyone I know has said more than once if only I could start all over again, if only someone had given me a second chance to get it right.
Always getting it right the first time is not only humanly impossible, but according to the rabbis, God also needed several tries at Creation before settling on the world as we know it. Even after creating a world that God typified as “very good,” God was so disappointed and disenchanted with the human population, that God destroyed that world with a flood, leaving only Noah, his wife and their children, along with a pair of each species to repropogate the world. Nor did God’s disappointment end with the generation of the flood. More than once God was so disappointed with Israel that he threatened to destroy them and start all over with Moses. Only Moses’ intervention on behalf of the people prevented disaster.
In effect, after each of God’s disillusionments with humankind in general and with Israel in particular, God gives humanity and Israel a second chance, a chance to start over again. Like a parent, God anticipates future disappointment as Israel relapses into its earlier patterns of disobeying God and not living up to their part of the Covenant, the agreement Israel ratified with God at Mount Sinai.
Built into the anthropology of rabbinic Judaism is a sophisticated theology of second chances that has its source in the writings of some of Israel’s most famous prophets, namely Micah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel to name just a few. We call this theology of second changes, Teshuvah, repentance.
Teshuvah or second chances is one of the key themes of the High Holydays. Along with atonement and forgiveness, Teshuvah is the third member of the triad that carries us along spiritually for seven weeks from the beginning of the month of Elul until Hoshana Rabbah, the seventh day of Sukkot.
Judaism does not expect us to be perfect. It anticipates that we will make mistakes, that we will miss the mark, which is the fundamental meaning of the Hebrew word for sin. Like the archer, who shoots many arrows before hitting the bull’s eye, we who labour in real life fall short of the mark again and again. Teshuvah, the idea that we can regain God’s grace, after missing the mark, can give us hope. We, however, do not regain God’s grace and we do not restore our sense of personal human dignity, by an act of faith, by reciting a credo of beliefs, by submitting ourselves entirely either to God or to one who claimed to be the Son of God. Rather, Teshuvah requires action, a personal decision to change direction and the will-power to act on that change.
Maimonides, the twelfth-century philosopher and legal scholar, suggested that Teshuvah is a process that follows five distinct steps. First we must be prepared to admit that we are not perfect, that we have missed the mark, that we could do better. Second, we must focus on specific areas where we know we could improve. These could be areas that require personal growth, like patience or courtesy or they could be areas that could benefit our health and well-being such as choosing a healthier diet and exercising. And while we are speaking about food, this second dimension of Teshuvah asks us to consider changing to a kosher diet as well.
The third dimension of Teshuvah is actually taking the concrete steps to change. If courtesy is our goal, remember to say please and thank-you. If food and diet is our focus, have more salad and fewer french fries. If trying to keep kosher is our objective, start small by avoiding pork and seafood.
Once we admit to our weaknesses and take the concrete steps to change them, the last two stages of Teshuvah fall logically into place. We make a verbal declaration to ourselves to try our best not to fall back into the behaviour patterns we are trying so hard to change and then, to resist temptation, when situations arrive that could easily allow us to fall back into those old habitual behaviour patterns.
Getting a chance to start over again is something almost everyone has wished they had at least once in their lives. Little do most of us realize that we Jews get that chance every year at Rosh HaShanah. Teshuvah is much different from secular New Year’s resolutions, for in the latter case we alone are the monitors of our success or failure at keeping the resolution. Teshuvah is different because our tradition imagines that those who embark on really making a change in their lives are supported in their endeavour by God.
This year, 5774, what do you want to change in your life? On what make-over do you want to focus? What would you do differently if you could start over? For what would you like a second chance to get it right? This Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, make room in your hearts, in your mind, make time in your celebration to consider Teshuvah, making changes that will benefit you, your family and perhaps our community, our country and even the Jewish people. Second chances might come on any day of the year, but Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur concentrate the opportunity to focus on taking the concrete steps that will improve the quality of your life and strengthen your relationships with family, friends, community, and yes, even with God.
On behalf of Joyce, Zev, Jeremy and Ezra, I want to wish you and all your friends and indeed, the entire people of Israel a Ketivah v’Hatimah Tovah, that we all be written and sealed in the Book of Life, Health, Prosperity and personal growth, a life that begins with Teshuvah.Rabbi Lionel Moses