Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 5 September 2009 / 15 Elul 5769

Path of Penitence

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Shiri

Dear Rabbi,

It is now the month of Elul, a special time for teshuva in preparation and anticipation for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. But I’ve run into a problem. I don’t know exactly how to do teshuva or what path to take. Please set me on course.

Dear Shiri,

It’s interesting that you seem to use the language of movement and travel in your description of teshuva: “run into”, “path”, “on course”.

Just as movement is a dynamic which is generally applicable to all, but travel is highly individual, so too there are general principles of penitence, but the paths of teshuva are entirely personal.

In general, teshuva starts with introspection. Searching our beliefs, attitudes and deeds in order to determine what’s in line with the will of G-d and what’s off course, or worse, in the wrong direction. Once we’ve recognized what needs improvement or changing, we must truthfully own up to and regret having erred, correct any damage we’ve caused, and make firm resolutions about not going there again.

These three common elements of teshuva are referred to in Hebrew as “vidui” – confessing/admitting, “charata” – regretting/repenting and “kabala l’atid” – making corrective resolutions for the future.

But within these general parameters, the particular path of teshuva a person takes is highly personal and known only by a person and G-d. Regarding this, the wise King Solomon wrote allegorically: “There are three things that are concealed from me…the way of a ship in the heart of the sea” (Prov.30:18). The sea has no ways, no set paths; and the way a ship travels through the sea leaves no indication of it having passed there. This can be understood as referring to teshuva. There is no set road or fixed course; and the path one takes is a very personal and private matter, which need not be observed or traversed by others.

You have to search deep within yourself to hear your own inner voice like a beacon in the night drawing you to G-d. In fact, to continue the analogy, in times of old people primarily navigated the sea, not by day when the light showed no way, but by night when, looking to heaven, they would be guided by the stars. So too, we should be guided safely through the tempestuous seas of doubt and temptation by turning our eyes Heavenward for guidance in finding our own personal path to penitence.

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