As High Holy Day tides approach and soon over-wash with their poignant waters of joy, awe, solemnity and introspection, it’s tempting to imagine that this season is only for emotional and spiritual internals.
This season of teshuvah (returning, repairing, forgiving) is for thinking and feeling teshuvah – but mainly as springboards for action.
It’s good to think teshuvah in our minds and feel teshuvah in our hearts. It’s healthy to commit to change behaviors that don’t serve us, others or the world. It’s right to arouse intention to seek and give forgiveness. Good, healthy and right as our inner turns can be, they aren’t fully teshuvah until they spur action where action is possible.
Jews are called to action. Our spiritual ancestors answered Sinai’s call by responding na’aseh v’nishma: “We will do and we will hear” (Exodus 19:8) – doing is paramount. Shabbat doesn’t just happen magically: “The Children of Israel will … do Shabbat for all their generations as an eternal covenant” (Exodus 31:16) – doing makes Shabbat. Doing is our covenant.
Doing is the goal of the inner return and repair we call teshuvah. The riveting High Holy Day Avinu Malkeinu liturgy pleads to God: Aseh imanu tzedakah va’chesed – “do with us justice and lovingkindness.” On Yom Kippur, we hear anew the call to emulate God – “Be holy, for I [the Holy One] am holy” (Leviticus 15:2) – so this season calls us to do likewise. We are to do the same justice and lovingkindness that we crave for ourselves.
What is a teshuvah of doing? It depends on context, but usually includes action knowable to others. It can mean actually speaking apology to people we wronged (not just thinking or feeling it). It can mean correcting a rumor we spread (even if we can’t undo all of a rumor’s harm). It can mean sending an email to begin repairing a relationship. It can mean communicating forgiveness long restrained by grudge. It can mean returning an item that belongs to another.
In all of these cases, teshuvah means doing: thinking and feeling are the fertile soil of teshuvah, but action is the harvest –the purpose and fulfillment.
Often teshuvah is risky: action risks rejection and failure. But in most cases, that’s exactly the point. Except in abusive or dangerous contexts in which repair isn’t safely feasible by action in this world, risk is part of what we must do to heed the call of teshuvah. A true teshuvah of action asks courage to risk our hearts in service of doing true repair and healing. Our hearts and souls – and others’ hearts and souls – are worth it.
That’s the call of this season – a teshuvah of action that’s riskier – and far more healing and liberating – than thinking or feeling alone.
Justice and lovingkindness, community and spirituality, compassion and mercy, forgiveness and repair, Shabbat and Jewish life – all of these call us to do. So, in this season of teshuvah, what are you waiting for? Make that call. Send that email. Just do it.