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General Teshuva

Sometimes, at key moments, we notice a larger need to reorient the self that we are. This can occur due to an outside stimulus, like a divorce or loss, or even something positive like a new friendship or a child. It may also result from long term addictive or destructive behaviors that are creating havoc in a person’s life. They “hit bottom” and realize they must change. Sometimes, says Rav Kook, it comes from a deep encounter with what he calls the “spirit of teshuvah” that calls an answer from us as we see the person that we are must become someone different. This is teshuvah clali or general teshuvah.


Realizing this type of teshuvah doesn’t occur every year, I invite you to look in the mirror. I mean this literally. How do you see yourself? What are the strengths and weaknesses that have brought you to this moment?

As you look at yourself ask: is this the person I want to be? Am I on the path that will lead me to wholeness and a life lived with meaning? Am I hurting myself and others through ongoing addictive behaviors?

Finally ask: who do I want to see looking from this mirror next Yom Kippur? Do I need the self that gazes out at me to have changed, to look back at the me from now with love and compassion and gratitude for the growth and change that has occurred?


12 step programs help people with visible addiction overcome their destructive behavior. They do this through helping the addict own their failings and to forge a path towards meaning. 12 step programs insist that the addict seek forgiveness and seek God. Such programs work because they require the person to both take responsibility for the harm they have done and to aid them in creating healthy meaning and purpose.

The truth is many more people experience self destructive behaviors even when they are less visibly an addict. As Maimonides teaches, real teshuvah requires an awareness of what we have done combined with a willingness to confess. We need an honest self-reflection that demands effort. Rav Kook observes that anxiety is a sign of a need for teshuvah. Anxiety is a sign that something is out of balance. The person of complete teshuvah feels joy and a sense of wholeness. That anxiety signals a need to change something. So our bodies inform us of the need for deeper change.

A sign that we are doing our teshuvah right is that after it hurts (because change is always hard) we begin to feel lighter and more joyous. A burden we have been carrying gets released and we experience a harmony between the self we are and the self we ought to be. That convergence creates joy. Rav Kook says the more complete we are in our teshuvah process, the more joyous and good we are going to feel.

Finally, Rav Kook observes that the choice to set out on this process is itself joyous. When we decide to truly change, the spirit of teshuvah, something of God, reaches back out to us to pull us along. We suddenly realize we were never alone. It is in that moment, even before all the work is done, that we are “cleansed like the driven snow” and filled with a deep and abiding joy.

May it be so for all of us!

Lshana Tova (And Shabbat Shalom!)

Rabbi David Booth

Thu, May 30 2024 22 Iyyar 5784