T’SHUVAH – BEGINNING WITH OURSELVES – Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah

The year has turned. Rosh Ha-Shanah approaches and we have arrived at the season for t’shuvah, for ‘turning’ towards others and repenting our misdeeds. But how do we do this? If we don’t know how, the simplest thing to do is to focus on attending all the services and keep ourselves busy reciting all those prayers and singing all the evocative and special melodies.

Yes, I am suggesting that coming to synagogue on Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur can be a diversionary activity. Indeed, when we are there, the plural form of most of the prayers – so important for conveying the message that we are all in it together – may function as a real obstacle to the key challenge of the yamim nora’im, ‘the days of awe’, which is to examine ourselves and our failings over the past year and resolve to change.

Perhaps we could start with a cheshbon ha-nefesh. The expression means, literally, ‘an account of the soul’. Perhaps, just as we might draw up an account of our expenditure over the past year, we might draw up an account of our actions – towards family, friends, colleagues, fellow congregants, neighbours, people in the wider community, strangers near and far, and the world around us. In other words, we make a list of the errors and wrongs we have committed that encompasses everything from ignoring the needs of our partner or spouse and bullying a workmate, to jumping the queue, being rude to a waiter and discarding our rubbish on the beach.

But there is a danger in drawing up an ‘account’ of our misdeeds, if we simply focus on what we have done to others. The danger is that we are left feeling totally wretched – which is the last place we want to be if we are going to have the courage to change. Our cheshbon ha-nefesh can only work if we also focus on what we have done to ourselves over the past year. In fact, this is the place to make a start, before we consider how we have treated others. If we can understand how we have hurt ourselves, mistreated ourselves, ignored ourselves, belittled ourselves, then we may have a chance of recognising what we have done to other people.

So here are some questions for ourselves:  Have I slept and rested enough? Have I taken the time each day to eat a proper sit-down meal? Have I exercised? Have I paused to notice the trees sway, the shapes in the clouds and the changes in the quality of the light at different times of the day? Have I forgiven myself, when I’ve made a mistake? Have I stopped to reflect and appreciate myself when I’ve done something well, or when someone has thanked me?

As Hillel taught: ‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?’ (Avot 1:14). May we all feel supported by one another as we make our t’shuvah journeys and may the coming year bring blessings for all our lives. L’shanah tovah!