This Shabbat is a very special one, Shabbat Shuva, the ultimate preparation for the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. But as we reflect on our previous deeds and mistakes and indulge in serious introspection and repentance, we are forced to ask the most basic of questions: What is Teshuva? Who are we, and to what are we returning?
The answer at first glance would seem so simple – we are returning to G-d and his Torah. Indeed this is true but upon further investigation, there seems to be a deeper and lesser-acknowledged reason… I turn to a famous Hasidic story.
Rebbe Zuscha, a Chasidic giant in his time was on his deathbed. His students entered the room and could not believe what they were seeing. Their teacher crying concerned about his position in heaven. They asked him “Why are you crying? You are a great leader who has accomplished so much in your life time”. The Rebbe responded: “I am crying for if they ask me in Heaven ‘why weren’t you as devoted to G-d as Avraham Avinu?’ I would respond because I am not Avraham. Even if they were to ask me, ‘why didn’t you accomplish the successes of King David?’ I would respond because I am not King David. But if they were to ask ‘why weren’t you Zuscha?’ I would have no answer and that is why I am crying.”
The story teaches us the profound nature of Repentance. As individuals, we do not only return to G-d but we also return to ourselves. Man faces many challenges, trials and tribulations in his lifetime some of which he will fail. He looses his way and fails to achieve the mandate, which he was given before entering the world. Divergence from Halacha (which means path) is in essence a rebellion against one’s real self, an act of self-betrayal. Sin can therefore be extremely painful to bear as it contradicts one’s true self. This realisation is part and parcel of the Teshuva process.
The beauty of Hebrew illustrates this idea. The biblical word for sin is Chait, which can also mean to miss the target. In sports to miss a goal is called a chait. In life failure to achieve that which is achievable, to leave the true purpose of for which we were created is therefore known as chait. Man has the ability to make a difference in this world and to act according to who he really is. Sin is the act that prevents us from achieving these goals.
Hence, Teshuva is the mechanism that reunites us with G-d, His Torah and ourselves. It is a painful but a redemptive process as it gives us the ability to act again, in accordance with whom we really are. We can also now understand why the Sages said that Yom Kippur is one of the happiest days of the year. The inspirational prayers and melodies ignite in us the desire to rediscover ourselves, to redirect our energies to express who we truly are.