Teshuvah, Regret and Transformation

Elul Day 16

The heart of teshuvah is to seek relationships that have been damaged by our words and deeds, or our failure to speak and act, and repair them. We must seek out those whom we have wronged, as Mishnah Yoma reminds us, to ask their forgiveness. This is often a difficult task. Rehashing "history" is like opening an old wound and watching it bleed anew. Here's another way to think about it: the old wound is surrounded by scar tissue. Consider your teshuvah the process of excising the scar tissue so that the wound can heal afresh and the tissue will no longer be weakened and blemished…Rambam's first stage of Teshuvah is Regret. Our lives are filled with regrets. That is how it is. Missed opportunities, failed attempts, unappreciated sacrifices. At this time of year we focus on the breaches which can be repaired by changing our ways: our relationships."

– Rabbi Amy R. Scheinerman

I have been reading a lot about teshuvah during this holy month, and one can find a lot of fabulous (and slightly weird) stuff on the Internet. The dovetailing of psychology and spirituality is particularly interesting to me, and has given me fresh ways of seeing and thinking about the whole thing. The word teshuvah literally means re-turn, turning to or toward or back to, but is often awkwardly translated as repentance or atonement. 

Teshuvah is an ongoing process, almost like a labyrinth. There are times of year where we are more focused on it, like the High Holy Days, but living a life of integrity seems to be connected to a lifelong commitment to teshuvah. The farther we stray from the heart of who we are, the more regret we have. Every act we commit that betrays our ethical integrity, or betrays our essence, is a breach of sorts. When we consciously engage in teshuvah, we are choosing a path of healing and wholeness. We are making connections and mending broken places, especially in relationships. The interpersonal aspect of teshuvah is quite important, both in terms of taking a thorough inventory of ourselves, but also in terms of what we say or do to repair that which is broken. There is a quality of healing to this whole thing. 

I have to admit to myself where I have fallen short, hurt or harmed or disappointed someone else. Or neglected someone, whether intentionally or not. It's not just about the bad stuff we did on purpose; it's also about any unconscious or inadvertent behaviors. Times we should have spoken up or spoken more lovingly and didn't. Times we fled rather than staying put and working through something. Times our priorities were askew and consequently hurt someone else. 

One of my favorite books is a memoir called Practicing Resurrection by Nora Gallagher. The title alone was enough to grab my attention. It is a memoir about discernment, about human vulnerability and choosing one's path. I wonder about the connection between teshuvah and resurrection. Of course resurrection has some particular theological meaning in Christianity, but from my perspective, there are other meanings too; words like restoration and replenishment come to mind. The dictionary also refers to rising from decay or misuse; that definition invites my curiosity and wonder. Isn't part of this whole teshuvah thing about places inside of us that are in a state of decay or misuse? Aren't we talking about making healthy and whole those parts of ourselves that are rotting or breaking down? 

I love Rabbi Schneiderman's words above, and her analogy about scar tissue. Even when a wound or injury has healed, sometimes there is scar tissue that forms, and it can cause pain and knotting up around it. And in some cases we need help cleaning out the old scar tissue so that new healing can take place. 

Last year I tore the ligaments in my ankle, and it was quite painful. I followed the doctor's orders and did my physical therapy exercises daily without exception. I couldn't exercise for months because the ankle need to rest in order to heal properly. I did everything I could with the best recommendations from Western and complementary health care providers. 

Finally I went to a massage therapist who specialized in "neuro-muscular reprogramming." She could actually feel (don't ask me how) where there was old scar tissue and where the more recent injury was healing. Of course they were connected, and impacting one another. And there was some disconnection between my thinking and my action. Even a simple daily act like walking was affected by old scar tissue and old ways of thinking that were actually hurting me. I had to relearn how to walk, how to plant both feet fully and firmly on the ground, and to pay close attention to how I was standing and moving in the world. 

Whether we are talking about teshuvah, or healing old wounds, or some psycho-spiritual self-examination, I pray we can achieve some amazing moments of reconnection, restoration and rejoicing.