This article first appeared in The Jewish Press on September 27, 2011 and has been reprinted with permission.
It was the kind of event I attend frequently these days, and I was in a role in which I often find myself. It was a Jewish gathering to which a number of political officials had been invited. I was asked to sit with a non-Jewish official in order to explain the language of some of the speakers to him. It was about this time of year, so it was no surprise to me that one of the speakers used the word “teshuvah.” He actually used it enough times that my non-Jewish companion felt compelled to ask me, “What is ‘teshuvah?’ ”
In my many years of experience in the rabbinate, I have emphasized to my Jewish listeners that teshuvah is no easy term to define. Literally, it means return. But it is generally used to mean repentance, or atonement, or personal change. And in actual practice, it is quite a complex process.
But for this gentleman, I felt it was appropriate to keep things simple. I therefore told him that teshuvah refers to the improvement of individual religious behaviors required of Jews, especially in preparation for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
My companion found this explanation adequate, and matters might have ended there were I not the contemplative type, constantly reviewing and reconsidering my words. It was during the long drive home that I realized I had shortchanged my non-Jewish friend, and had done an injustice to the sacred term “teshuvah.”
Individual religious behaviors? Does teshuvah apply only to individuals and not to their relationships? Only to individuals and not to communities? Is teshuvah limited to only the religious aspects of our lives, and not to our social, political, and even economic conduct? And do only our behaviors require teshuvah and not also our emotions, attitudes, and thoughts?
These were the questions that ran through my mind. I made peace quite easily with the question of whether or not I had been fair to my companion. For him, my definition of the term used by the speaker earlier that day was more than adequate. But for myself, in my own teshuvah process, defining “teshuvah” as “improving individual religious behaviors” would be inadequate, to say the least. For my students, congregants, and other recipients of my teaching, defining teshuvah in such a narrow fashion simply would not do.
To properly define teshuvah in a manner both consistent with its traditional meaning and relevant to the lives of contemporary Jews, a much more comprehensive approach is necessary. To achieve that better definition, two graphic images will prove helpful: that of a box and that of a circle.
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First, to help us understand the concept of teshuvah and apply it to our personal lives, we must think out of the “box.” We must be creative and mercilessly honest with ourselves. We must realize that much of what has been written about teshuvah – and very much has indeed been written on the subject – was addressed to individuals living in a very specific “box.” That box was the society of a century ago, or even many centuries ago. Those teshuvah prescriptions were written for individuals who lived a lifestyle we can no longer imagine, just as they could not possibly imagine the nature of our lifestyles today.
Even those tracts about teshuvah written in more recent times are typically addressed to a very narrow segment of the Jewish community. The mussar shmuezen (ethical discourses) published by contemporary yeshiva heads and prominent rabbis are most commonly directed to their bachurim, their disciples. It is no wonder that many of us find the standards demanded by those works to be excessive, beyond our reach, and often disappointingly irrelevant.
This point was made several decades ago by none other than Rav Yechezkel Sarna, the head of Chevron Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He was a close disciple of Rav Nosson Zvi Finkel, zt”l, the legendary “old man” of Slobodka. Rav Sarna was an adherent of the Mussar movement, which advocated fear of God as the essential component of the process of teshuvah. But in his writings, Rav Sarna rejected this approach as inappropriate for our times. Cultivating love and joy rather than fear was the alternative he recommended for our generation.
Thinking outside the box calls for a discussion about teshuvah that relates to the way most of us actually live our lives. We live our lives as husbands and wives who are both working; as parents of children who are not naturally obedient – and we are part of the sandwich generation as the adult children of aging parents. We spend most of our day working hard for a living with all the religious challenges that entails. We are doctors, lawyers, accountants, storekeepers and laborers, and we need a teshuvah process that addresses the problems those roles impose upon us.
Moreover, none of us lives as isolated individuals. We are parts of families, of social networks, of communities large and small, of a very heterogeneous nation, of humanity. The process of teshuvah must have impact upon us as units of those greater wholes.
I therefore suggest that we think of the process as a series of concentric circles, which brings us to the second of the two graphic images. In the innermost circle are the most personal issues we must address as we do teshuvah. Here, it is appropriate to speak of the individual. But even here it is inappropriate to focus only on improvements we need to make in our religious practices; we must seek to improve our ethical behavior even in ways that transcend the religious prescriptions of halacha.
Through introspection, we must examine the quality of our religious practices and be sure they are performed with enthusiasm and joy and intention. We cannot stop at the level of mere behavior and lose the opportunities for emotion and feeling and, ultimately, for spiritual meaningfulness.
We must also carefully examine our social, economic, and political practices, which often transcend obvious religious guidelines. In the social sphere, the manner in which we choose our friends and the ways in which we relate to them always require introspection and often demand improvement. The ways in which we spend our leisure time must be open to the kind of self-critical scrutiny that is part of genuine teshuvah. Whether we budget our money so that we live within our means or allow ourselves to get into crippling credit card debt is another subject open for the teshuvah process. Our political views and our political behavior, whether we vote and whom we vote for, are all fair game for a “teshuvah for our time.”
But then we must go beyond that innermost circle and examine our relationships to the outer circles. We must seek and grant forgiveness within our family circle and do all that is necessary to enhance and refine the family crucible. We must review our friendships and acquaintances, and see to it that they are improved.
As we move toward the circles nearer to the periphery, we must explore the nature of the roles we play in our synagogue community, in our neighborhood, and in the Orthodox world in general. Are we carrying our weight in those circles? Are we defining our priorities properly? Are we using the spiritual resources available to us, which often go begging for us to use?
Nearer to the outer limits of those concentric circles are the roles we play in our nation. Do we have any relationship at all with those members of our Jewish people who differ from us ideologically, culturally, religiously? What is our relationship, if any, to the state of Israel? Do we travel there? Do we support it financially, either directly or through the institutions with which we identify there? As citizens of the United States, do we let our politicians know how important Israel is to us, and do we help explain the true nature of our homeland to those who could potentially delegitimize it?
If we make use of this model of concentric circles, we are in a position to discuss not only the obligations of that innermost circle, which is ourselves, but also our obligations to the other encompassing circles. For example, not only must we speak of teshuvah for the individual, but the family as a whole needs to do its teshuvah as well.
Husband and wife are well advised at this time of year to sit down together and ask, “How can we as a couple do teshuvah? How can we improve our relationship? How can we be better parents? How can we be better children to our own parents?”
Furthermore, I have seen entire families sit down during this season, parents and children in conference, and explore ways they as a family can improve and do better in the year to come. But how many families have ever done that?
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I have been examining only the ways in which the innermost circle must relate to the outer circles. I would like now to suggest that the outer circles themselves are capable and indeed obligated to do teshuvah.
This notion first came to me many years ago in response to a phrase in Rambam’s Hilchot Teshuvah, a masterpiece on this important subject. It contains the following words: “Yom Kippur is a time of teshuvah for all, individuals and communities…” Clearly, this is precedence for the idea that not just the individual person but the community as a whole, one of the outer circles in our scheme, must do teshuvah.
It would only be proper for all the members of the community to gather in a kind of town hall assembly to collectively reflect upon areas in which the entire community needs improvement. If such an assembly were convened, I think the community would find it helpful to examine its priorities and to consider redefining them.
As a visitor to numerous American Orthodox communities, and as a careful observer of them, I know of one priority that needs to be reset and I would like to devote the final portion of this message to that area.
I speak of priorities in the disbursement of charity.
For many years now, the day schools of all of our communities have known financial difficulties and, often, financial crises. This situation has been excessive in recent years, at least in part because of the economic reversals our nation has suffered. The result has been that schools have been forced to resort to raising tuition rates. Some schools, even after raising tuitions, have been forced to close their doors. This alone is cause for alarm.
Even more worrisome have been the effects that raised, often exorbitant, tuitions have had on Orthodox Jewish families. The need to find the money to pay for increased tuition has caused severe marital stress in many families. The need for both parents to be wage earners often deprives children of necessary care. Overworked husbands have little time for their families and no time for their religious responsibilities.
Most distressing has been the solution to which many parents have turned. Rather than cope with these impossible pressures, they have chosen to limit the size of their families. The costs of Jewish education have become translated into birth control and the reduction of the number of Jewish children.
That this situation is intolerable is apparent. Equally obvious is the conclusion that the funding of basic Jewish education must be the primary goal of the community at large. There is no more important goal than Jewish continuity, than Jewish survival.
Until now, the brunt of the burden of day school budgets has been placed upon the shoulders of the parent. We now see clearly that those shoulders are insufficient for the task. Parent resources are limited, especially because family budgets are so tight, and the typical parents of school-age children have not yet reached their maximum earning potentials.
Numerous organizations have been attempting to address this serious problem. The organization with which I am proudly affiliated, the Orthodox Union, has made the cost of Jewish education an overriding priority for the coming years. Possible solutions include state aid to private schools, better fiscal management of educational institutions, the pooling of the resources of competing schools, more effective use of educational technology, and larger class size.
But all of these proposals can only contribute partially to the ultimate solution of the problem, which lies in the hands of the community at large. All members of the community, whether or not they have children attending day schools, must contribute to those schools on a priority basis. Communities can simply no longer afford to direct their resources to all their causes.
If every member of the community were to review the charitable contributions he or she made over the year 5771, it would emerge that only a relatively small percentage of those contributions were directed to local day schools. The surprise would be in how much of those hard-earned funds were donated to causes of questionable legitimacy; to distant cities and countries which the giver had neither obligation nor allegiance to; or to a plethora of other causes of far lesser urgency than the day schools of our own neighborhoods.
Individuals need to do teshuvah. And that teshuvah must be a rigorous one, including improved relationships, more wholesome spirituality, and real change in all aspects of life.
Communities need to do teshuvah too. They need to sit down as groups and reason together, engage in communal introspection, ask each other hard questions, and courageously rearrange their priorities. If they do so, they will surely find that the resources to address the most critical issue of contemporary Jewish life, the adequate funding of basic Jewish education, are in their grasp. Together, members of the community can achieve much more than individuals acting separately. The group is certainly greater than the sum of its parts.
Teshuvah, prayer, and charity are our supreme mission at this time of year. And we are taught that they are the foundations upon which we can build a year free from evil decrees and, even more so, upon which we can garner the blessings that will form the basis of a year of peace, prosperity, and significant spiritual and material achievement.
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union.
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