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A Teshuvah Lexicon

The central mitzvah and activity of the High Holy Days is תשובה teshuvah, the task of realigning ourselves with our highest values and taking the steps we need to manifest those values. “Sin” and “repentance” are the English terms usually associated with this process. These phrases, as commonly heard, carry a burden of guilt and heaviness that can impede our embrace of this beautiful and life-affirming process. The Hebrew vocabulary for these activities, however, reveals a refreshingly different perspective on human nature, and provides us with an optimistic roadmap for bettering ourselves.

חטא Chet

Chet is primarily rendered into English as “sin”. But it’s origin is in the root “to miss”, as in shooting an arrow and missing a target. That is to say, a chet is a “miss”. We took aim at our target, we shot our arrow, and we missed the target. A chet, therefore, is not a reflection of our essence, but only of our behavior. As such, after missing the target we always have the possibility of trying again. We are intact and capable of change, even if our behaviors have missed the mark.

כונה Kavanah

Kavanah is usually translated as “intention”. It is a central and deeply meaningful concept of Jewish spiritual practice. We are asked to fill our actions with intentionality, to have our insides line up with our outsides, to pay attention to what we are doing. But the origin of kavanah makes the term even more grounded and achievable. The root of kavanah is the verb “to aim”. Kavanah means “aim”. Therefore, when we commit a chet – a miss – it is because our kavanah – our aim – was off! As we prepare to take an action, we must practice our aim. We will miss the target countless times. That does not mean that we are fundamentally bad people. It means that as human beings, it takes a lifetime of practice in order to improve our aim.

Avigayil Landsman pointed out to me that the gematria – the numerical value – of חטא chet is 18, equal to the numerical value of חי chai, “life”. That is to say, as long as we are alive, we will be missing the target. This is inherent to being human, and in the Jewish understanding, the Creator understands this about us. That is why we need the High Holy Days every single year, to become aware of and to acknowledge the ways we have missed the mark, to make amends, and to practice our aim for the coming year. And God forgives us for not being perfect; how could anyone possibly hit the target every time?

תשובה Teshuvah

Teshuvah is usually translated as “repentance”. But its origin is in the root “to respond, answer, reply”. Teshuvah literally means “response” or “answer”. Teshuvah is our constructive response to having committed a chet, to having missed the mark.

A response necessitates that there is a question, a call. Something calls to people of conscience, urging them to do right. Life calls to us, and we sense its demand. Somehow, the universe is not neutral about our behavior, but rather there is a standard that we sense and toward which we aspire. Our ability to hear this call and to respond to it is precisely what elevates us to the plain of being human.

And so, when we notice that we have missed the target, we respond, and this is the process of teshuvah: we track down our arrow. We assess what damage our miss might have caused – did we wreck some property, or God forbid, injure someone? We do our best to apologize for our poor aim, and to make amends. We recommit to working on our aim. We pick up our bow and arrow and try again.

Teshuvah means response. If you are able to respond, you have “response-ability”. You are responsible. What a beautiful term. Often thought of as stolid or steadfast, to be responsible actually requires nimble presence: presence of mind, presence of self, so that you can respond to the question before you, the human being before you, the problem before you. To be responsible means that when life’s demand comes before us, we answer “Hineni”, here I am, ready and willing. To be responsible is noble, beautiful and life giving, as in every moment we try to offer our best answer to life.

On the Jewish path, because our sins are the result of errant behaviors, rather than inherent flaws, we affirm that change is always possible. Sometimes (rarely) it is dramatic and instantaneous. Most of the time it is incremental. We backslide, we forget, we repeat our mistakes. But with many misses and countless repetitions, we do change. We learn to be patient with ourselves, and to forgive our failings. Bit by bit, our aim improves. We love better, we enjoy more, we accept what is out of our control, and more and more we do the right thing as a matter of course. We’ll never be perfect, but we also figure out that perfection was never the right target at which to aim.

I’ll close with a little story. You may have heard it before. It is called “Autobiography in Five (Short) Chapters”, by Portia Nelson, and this is a slightly adapted version:

Chapter One. I am walking down a street. There is a giant hole in the middle of the street. I fall in. I am terrified. I don’t know what happened. I don’t know where I am. It is dark. I don’t know how to get out. I am down there for a long time. Finally, I look up and see some light. With incredible effort, I scramble up toward the light, and manage to climb out. I continue walking.

Chapter Two. I am walking down the same street. There is a giant hole in the middle of the street. I fall in. This seems very familiar. It’s not my fault! I don’t know how this happened! I am down there for a long time. Finally I look up, see the light above, and scramble out. I continue walking.

Chapter Three. I am walking down the same street. There is a giant hole in the middle of the street. I know it’s there. I see it. I fall in. I get out as quickly as I can. I continue walking.

Chapter Four. I am walking down the same street. There is a giant hole in the middle of the street. I know it’s there. I see it. I walk around the hole.

Chapter Five. I walk down another street. (There will probably be a giant hole in it somewhere!)

G’mar Chatima Tova – May you be sealed in the Book of Life for a good year!

Rabbi Jonathan