Finding a theme for the newest YouTube video of the National Jewish Outreach Program (NJOP), “Soul Bigger,” should have been easy — the topic was Rosh HaShanah/Yom Kippur. But when the first version of the lyrics came out, we questioned whether the repeating motif of repentance sounded too much like a church revival meeting. However, we realized that teshuvah (repentance in Hebrew) is one of the most beautiful and spiritual concepts in Judaism, far more so than any fire-and-brimstone idea that the word “repent” may conjure up.
Teshuvah is a major theme of the High Holy Days. In fact, the Musaf (additional) Service has at its focus the line, “oo’teshuvah, oo’tefillah, oo’tzedakah ma’avirin et roh’ah hagezeira,” (and repentance and prayer and charity will turn aside the evil decree).
Maimonides, in the Mishneh Torah’s Laws of Teshuvah, writes that a person who sins “will repent” — “the one who sinned shall repent of his sin before God and confess.” What is so striking about Rambam is his language: “when a person will repent” not “if a person will repent,” an idea that stems from the Torah.
But teshuvah does not just mean to repent, to feel sorry and apologize; a more literal translation would be “return.” This, of course, implies that we return to something. In this case, we return to God, and we return to the pristine condition our souls were in when we were born. By doing teshuvah, we can again reach that pure state.
Although there might be an element of fear in the High Holy Days, what these days are truly about is coming back to who we really are: the pure, good children of a loving Father and King.
The following is a list of some excellent books about teshuvah by a variety of authors, both classic and modern:
Mishneh Torah Volume 4: Hilchot Teshuvah by Maimonides, edited by Rabbi Eliyahu Touger (Moznaim Press). Rambam writes “A discussion of the requirements for true repentance, which includes the role of Yom Kippur, the principle of reward and punishment, the World to Come, Messiah, and the proper attitudes and motivations in performing mitzvot.
“Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl (Beacon Press). The key to teshuvah is knowing that we have a choice. Frankl, having survived Auschwitz, emphasizes the idea that humans always have a choice. “People can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical distress.”
“Gates of Repentance: Sha’arei Teshuvah” by Rabbeinu Yonah (Feldheim Publishers). The classic work on repentance and religious conduct. For those seeking the path to repentance and re-connection with God, this incisive guide is essential. With vowelized Hebrew and English translation.
“On Repentance: The Thought and Oral Discourses of Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik” by Pinchas Peli (Jason Aronson). For five decades prior to his death in 1993, Rabbi Soloveitchik was the unchallenged leader of modern Orthodox Judaism in the United States. In “On Repentance,” noted scholar Dr. Pinchas Peli has gathers the major points of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s teachings, based on the annual teshuvah lectures The Rav offered for many years between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.
“Teshuva: A Guide for the Newly Observant Jew” by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz (Koren Publishers Jerusalem). Teshuvah is a personal, multifaceted spiritual reawakening; a desire to strengthen the connection between oneself and the sacred. The book offers advice and guidance in dealing with some of the difficulties likely to be encountered along the way. It addresses matters of principle and spiritual orientation: what the observances mean, how they are related, and how a person, having embarked on the journey of teshuvah, relates to self, family, and the surrounding society.
“You Shall be Holy — A Code of Jewish Ethics Vol. 1” by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin (Random House). Focusing on the vital topic of personal character and integrity and with the goal of restoring ethics to its central role in Judaism, Rabbi Telushkin offers both classical and contemporary sources to illustrate how ethical teachings affect our daily behavior. Topics include, among others: judging other people fairly; knowing when forgiveness is obligatory, optional, or forbidden; avoiding speech that shames others; and understanding why God is the ultimate basis of morality.
“Teshuvah” by Rebbetzin S. Feldbrand (Israel Book Shop Publications). This book presents the timeless advice of our sages on the topic of teshuvah in an easy-to-read format and is guaranteed to revolutionize and enrich the reader’s preparations for the High Holy Days. It will help you unlock the secrets of successful teshuvah.
“Second Chances: Transforming Bitterness to Hope and the Story of Ruth,” by Rabbi Levi Meier (Urim Publications). Deep feelings of depression and giving up hope are often part of the human experience. Drawing upon his years as a clinical therapist and spiritual chaplain, Rabbi Meier explores strategies that serve as models for a more positive and optimistic life, transforming tragic circumstances into a force for healing.
“Anatomy of a Search,” by Rabbi Dr. Akiva Tatz (Artscroll/Mesorah Publications). Rabbi Tatz takes you inside the “Teshuva Revolution” as he shares with us his life and the lives of the young people from many backgrounds whom he meets and tutors. We’ll step into the thought processes of young people searching for a better reality, and we’ll find ourselves gripped by their quest and drawn into their ascent.
“Crown Him With Joy,” by Rabbi Hadar Margolin (Targum Press). During the High Holy Days we tremble before Him yet our hearts are filled with joy. Simcha, joy, is the vital ingredient that enriches and complements the awe and fear that characterize this awesome time. Rabbi Margolin shows us how to utilize the power of joy to create a close and loving relationship with God. Use this easy-to-read book to learn new ways to deal with personal challenges and gain a deeper understanding of what teshuvah really is.
“Not Just Stories,” by Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski (Mesorah Publications). Stories are often the best entrance to the rich spiritual, intellectual and moral core of chasidism. Rabbi Twerski inspires us with his classic chasidic tales that touch on the spiritual themes of a movement that breathes life, pride, and vigor into millions of Jews.
Rabbi Yitzchak Rosenbaum is associate director of National Jewish Outreach Program. Janice N. Klein works part time at NJOP while studying full-time for her MSW at Wurzweiler School of Social Work.