The birth of a new year is a time of reflection and resolution, a time when hope and inspiration fill the air. We dream about what this upcoming year holds in store, how we can make the rest of our life the best of our life. We all have ideas, ambitions, and aspirations that we yearn to bring to fruition, and the new year gives us “permission” to revisit these goals and breathe new life into them. For a brief moment, everything is crystal clear; we see our purpose and our path with vivid clarity. However, there is an underlying frustration that accompanies this time period, as well. If we reflect honestly, we often realize that our new year’s resolutions are awfully similar to those of last year, and the year before, and the year before…
We have brief moments of inspiration, but they soon fade into oblivion, only to be resuscitated for a few more days the next year, in the hopes that somehow this year might be different. However, there is another option – a way to actually make this year different. By truly understanding this time of year and fully tapping into its powerful themes, we can turn what was previously fleeting inspiration into lasting, eternal change.
The Deeper Themes of T’shuvah
Elul and Rosh HaShanah center around the concept of t’shuvah, and Parshas Nitzavim is clearly linked to this theme, as well. The p’sukim in Nitzavim discuss the theme of t’shuvah, the importance of choosing life – choosing what is right and connecting ourselves back to Hashem (see the first p’sukim of perek 30 in Sefer D’varim). As Parshas Nitzavim is connected to the transition from Elul into Rosh HaShanah, let us delve more deeply into the concept of t’shuvah.
T’shuvah literally means “return,” but whom, or perhaps what, are we returning to? The Gemara (Kiddushin 39b) explains that Hashem created t’shuvah before creating the world itself. What is the meaning of this enigmatic statement, and what lessons and implications does it have for us as we proceed through the t’shuvah process?
The Practical Form of T’shuvah
The Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos T’shuvah 1:1) discusses the three-step process of t’shuvah:
First, one must reflect on his past and acknowledge that a problem exists.
One must then transition into the present and strongly feel the pain of his mistake, regretting it wholeheartedly.
Finally, one must look toward the future and resolve to never again commit this same mistake.
This three-step guide is the practical process of t’shuvah. However, there is a deeper essence of t’shuvah that is the foundation for these three steps, and understanding this deeper essence is the key to truly transforming ourselves through these three steps.
True T’shuvah: Returning to Your Higher Self
Genuine t’shuvah is not just about self-transformation; it’s about self-expression, returning to your true and higher self. As we previously stated, the Gemara (Niddah 30b) explains that while we were in the womb, we were in a perfect and transcendent state of being, and a mal’ach taught us kol haTorah kulah. As the Vilna Gaon explains, this refers to the deepest realms of Torah, a transcendent Torah that lies far beyond this world, beyond the confines of space and time. (Quoted in Maalos HaTorah by Rabbeinu Avraham, brother of the Vilna Gaon. See also Even Sh’leimah 8:24.) This Torah is the very root of reality, and you were granted complete understanding of its every detail. Not only were you shown this level of Torah, but you also learned your specific share of Torah; you were shown your unique purpose in the world and how your unique role fits into the larger scheme of the human story as a whole. You were given a taste of your own perfection, of what you could, should, and hopefully will become. And from this transcendent realm, you were birthed into the physical world with the mission to actualize everything you were shown in the womb while in your primordial, perfect state.
In essence, your job in this world is not to create yourself, but rather to recreate yourself – to re-attain your original state of perfection, as you were shown by the mal’ach. This time, however, it must be done through free will: by choosing to become great. Only by overcoming challenge and difficulty and only by asserting your willpower can you fulfill your true potential. In essence, our entire life is a story of t’shuvah – returning to our original, higher, and true self.
The shofar is a wake-up blast, meant to shake us from our stupor and return us to our true self. When we hear the shofar’s piercing cry, we yearn to return to our source, to our higher selves. The word “shofar” shares a root with “l’shapeir,” to perfect and beautify. Strikingly, it also shares a root with “mei shafir,” the amniotic fluid that surrounds the fetus while in the womb. When we blow the shofar, we are reminded to improve and perfect ourselves, to return to the fetal state of perfection we once knew, and to return to our true selves.
The Three Stages of T’shuvah
There are three stages of genuine t’shuvah:
The first is individual t’shuvah, where we return to our higher selves, our fetal selves, our true selves.
The second stage of t’shuvah goes beyond the limited self, turning the focus from individual to community.
The third stage of t’shuvah is returning to our absolute root and source, to the Source of all sources, to Hashem Himself.
The Rambam, in discussing the laws of t’shuvah, states that someone who removes himself from the Jewish community has no share in Olam HaBa (Mishneh Torah, T’shuvah 3:11). In other words, even if this person keeps all of Torah and mitzvos and is an upstanding Jew, if he disconnects himself from the community, he loses his eternal existence. This requires explanation. After all, this person didn’t commit a heinous or evil act; he merely chose a life of isolation. Why should this warrant such extreme punishment?
The answer is profound. As human beings, we begin our lives as completely self-centered creatures, perceiving ourselves as isolated, separate, and disconnected from everyone else. As we progress through life, we learn to break down those walls and psychological barriers, recognizing that we are part of a bigger self, a collective self, and a higher consciousness. At root, all of klal Yisrael is one, an interconnected self. Each of our individual neshamos is part of a greater whole, like individual cells that make up a single human body. A central aspect of Olam HaBa is experiencing yourself as part of klal Yisrael, as part of a greater collective reality. If, however, one disconnects himself from klal Yisrael, he has uprooted himself from reality. Just as unplugging a light bulb from its electrical circuit extinguishes its light, a soul simply cannot exist when disconnected from its root. This is not a punishment, but merely a consequence.
This is the second stage of t’shuvah: returning to our collective self, to the single soul of klal Yisrael.
The Third Stage of T’shuvah
The third stage of t’shuvah is returning to our absolute root and source, to the Source of all sources, to Hashem Himself. The Nefesh HaChayim refers to Hashem as the “neshamah shel neshamos” (the Soul of all souls). Hashem is the root of existence, the absolute root of all our souls. Our journey through life is about sourcing our existence back to Hashem; this is the ultimate t’shuvah.
We can now explain the Gemara that states that t’shuvah preceded creation (Kiddushin 39b). This is not merely a chronological description; it is a fundamental principle: T’shuvah is the root of this world. All of existence is created with the purpose of returning to its source, to fully reflect its absolute root – Hashem.
May we be inspired to fully actualize all three stages of t’shuvah this Rosh HaShanah and seal ourselves in the Book of Life, the book of true existence.
Rabbi Shmuel Reichman is the author of the bestselling book, The Journey to Your Ultimate Self, which serves as an inspiring gateway into deeper Jewish thought. He is an international speaker, educator, and the CEO of Self-Mastery Academy. After obtaining his BA from Yeshiva University, he received s’micha from RIETS, a master’s degree in education, a master’s degree in Jewish Thought, and then spent a year studying at Harvard. He is currently pursuing a PhD at UChicago. To invite Rabbi Reichman to speak in your community or to enjoy more of his deep and inspiring content, visit his website: www.ShmuelReichman.com.