By Rabbi Steven Schwarzman
(September 2019) – The 1966 movie, The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! was a comedy where a Soviet submarine ran aground on a small New England island, causing comic alarm in the midst of the Cold War. Now that we are in the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah, we might be forgiven for shouting, maybe even with equal panic, The High Holidays Are Coming! The High Holidays Are Coming!
Perhaps we never really feel ready for the holidays, not in terms of the practical preparation, and not in the spiritual realm, either. We may find ourselves caught off guard when we begin contemplating the themes of the season: repentance, life, and our roles in the world as people and as Jews.
We can use the month of Elul, leading up to Rosh Hashanah, to get ourselves ready, or as ready as we can be. As Rabbi Alan Lew, z”l, wrote, the period of preparing really begins in the summer, and culminates with Sukkot. But for most of us, the hard-core work of teshuvah begins on Rosh Hashanah and ends on Yom Kippur.
Condensing the period of repentance into ten days like that may make it more intense than it needs to be. After all, teshuvah is not about achieving perfection. It’s about getting back on course with our lives. It’s not a superhuman effort; it is, by definition, a very human effort.
Maimonides teaches us how we can do this. The first step? Simply recognizing that we have gone astray and sinned, both against G-d and our fellow human beings. Sounds easy, perhaps, but we all know people who can’t seem to see what they’re doing wrong. And those people include each of us.
The next step is to sincerely regret what we have done wrong, and to stop doing it. The regret might come easy, but the behavioural change can be harder.
The third step is to confess and apologize and make amends for what we have done. Rambam teaches that confession and apologies are best done publicly, which makes it very hard, though effective. And apologies for our sins against other people can’t be made to G-d. We have to go to those we have hurt and apologize to them.
And the true test, Rambam says, is when we are presented with similar circumstances after we have done all the previous steps. Will we succeed in holding back from doing that same sin again? If so, then we have successfully completed the process of teshuvah.
On one level, all we have to do for the holidays is go to shul for a while, and prepare and enjoy the holiday meals. On a deeper level, we are given the chance to reconnect with the best, purest parts of our souls, and through this process, also reconnect with our friends and families, and with G-d. What’s not to like about that?
True preparation for the holidays is really preparing ourselves to live better lives. It can be hard to do, but it’s not scary. Let the new year come, and may it bring blessings. And if we do our prep work, we can add to the blessings, for ourselves and for all the people we interact with in our families, in our community, and in the world.
Rabbi Steven Schwarzman is the spiritual leader of Beth Shalom Synagogue, a conservative egalitarian congregation, in Edmonton.