Teshuvah Disclaimers

We are approaching Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.  The last month of the Jewish calendar, Elul, is supposed to be a time of closeness to God, when we do a chesbon hanefesh, a self-assessment of how we have acted over the past year.  Jewish law and thought gives a lot of weight to teshuva, literally, a “return” to God, through a correction of ways we have transgressed.  The 10 days in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are known as Aseret Yimei Teshuvah, the 10 days of Teshuvah, where we ask forgiveness from our fellow (wo)man for our misdeeds and say special versions of the prayers, placing special emphasis on God as melech, the king who assesses us and rules over our fates.

But what does one actually do to carry out this self-assessment?   And how?  It’s mostly about taking an inventory of our traits, much like a storekeeper takes an inventory of his wares.  Ideally a person does this every day.  So what are we to add during this time?  The answer, as I understand it, is that although we are to assess ourselves throughout the year, now is the time to particularly pay attention.

And for people like me, it’s dangerous.

In taking out the scorecard, assessing things that I did well and things that I did not, times that I stopped and helped somebody, and times that I got impatient and rude, my mind tends to block out the good and remember the bad.  Additionally, should someone give me a compliment for a success, I tend to think that it was God that really guided me through it and that I in fact, did very little.  On the other hand, when I struggle, fall short of a goal, or make someone else upset, I think it’s all my fault, rather than letting God have a piece of that too – understanding that challenge was part of His plan for me as well.

I’m accused pretty often of being too hard on myself.  It’s seems like a funny character fault in Western society that is teeming with self-help books and a Jewish culture that emphasizes self-improvement and doing good deeds.  But a lot of mussar, or self-improvement texts are not designed for someone like me, or women in particular, who tend to fall more often into the self-critical category than self-aggrandizing.  If mussar is depressing rather than helpful or uplifting – stay away, I’ve been advised.

The Kotzker Rebbe taught that a person should have a piece of paper in each side pocket. On one should be written, “The world was created (just) for me”. On the other, “I am (originated from only) dust and ashes”. So the key is knowing which piece of paper to take out!

There is another trap that I fall into, and that is to compare myself to others.  That is when it is time to recall a  story about Rav Zushya, an early Chassidic master. He was on his deathbed, and a number of students were there to share his final moments. Rav Zushya told them that he was scared, afraid even, of God’s final justice. “I am not afraid that God will ask me, ‘Zushya, why weren’t you like Abraham?’ but rather, ‘Zushya, why weren’t you a Moses?’ I can answer Him, ‘But you didn’t make me with the abilities of an Abraham or Moses.’ But what if God asks, ‘Zushya, why weren’t you a Zushya?’ What can I answer?”

Being better than someone else is a never-ending challenge, because we have incomplete information.  I don’t really know what someone else’s journey is all about!  I find that as I overcome my own challenges, new ones, and usually more complex ones, crop up.  Being my best self is enough of a game of Whack-a-Mole.

So my blessing to you readers is that you should have the proper intuition to know which piece of paper to take out when, to reach your potential.


2 Responses to “Teshuvah Disclaimers”

  1. 2 Rivkah September 18, 2011 at 5:45 pm

    Gevaldig Ilene! lots of love, Rivkah

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Ilene Rosenblum is a writer and marketing professional living in Jerusalem.

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