Jewish Journal

Returning to Ourselves

by Susan Esther Barnes

September 25, 2012 | 8:00 am

Icon from Wikimedia/Aran Ho Yeow Yong

During the High Holy Days, one of the words we hear about the most often is “T’shuvah.” This is the time to make t’shuvah. The Shabbat that falls between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shuvah. Often translated as repentance, t’shuvah also means to turn, or to return. But from what are we turning, and to what are we invited to return?

As part of the Saturday morning liturgy, we say, “Elohai, n’shamah shenatata bi t’horah hi,” or, “God, the soul you have given me is pure.” In contrast to Christian theology, we don’t believe in “original sin.” We are all born with a pure soul, free of sin.

Then, of course, life happens, and we mess up. It is inevitable. We lie, we cheat, we steal. We hurt ourselves and others. We make poor choices. And, too often, we try to deny what we have done. These things may be called sins.

It is important to note, however, that although sins may be deeds, they do not constitute a state of being. Although I sin, that does not render me a bad person. It just makes me human. And, as a human, I have the opportunity at all times, and especially at this time of the year, to reflect on my sins, to turn from them, and to try to be a better person.

And if I am to be a better person, whom should I emulate? Should I try to be more like a famous person from history, such as Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King, Jr.? Should I try to be more religious, like Moshe Rabbinu? Should I try to be more like my rabbi, Michael Lezak?

There is a story in the Talmud about a rabbi named Zusya, who became deathly ill, and then became very frightened. When his students asked him why he was so afraid, he said,

If God should ask me why I did not act like Abraham, I can say that I was not Abraham. And if God asks me why I did not act like Rebecca or Moses, I can also say that I was not Moses.” Then the rabbi said, “But if God should ask me to account for the times when I did not act like Zusya, what shall I say then?”*

Or, as the aforementioned Rabbi Lezak told us he learned on a recent retreat with the Institue for Jewish Spirituality, “I am not a failed attempt at being you. And you are not a failed attempt at being me.” The person whom we should emulate, then, is not someone outside of ourselves.

Rather, when we contemplate to what are we invited to return at the start of each new year, I would suggest that it is to ourselves we must return. This is the season during which we look back over the past year, and find the forks in the road where we chose to be someone other than our own best self. This is the time to remind ourselves, “I was made in the image of God. God made me with my own uniqueness for a reason,” and to ask ourselves, “What can I do in the coming year to nurture and to set free the pure soul God has given me?”


*Translation from Blog Sameach

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Susan Esther Barnes is a religious Reform Jew who can regularly be seen greeting people at her synagogue before services. She is a founding member of her synagogue’s chevra...

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