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Rosh Hashana: The Three Stages of Teshuva (Parshas Netzavim)

 

 

 

 

The second Daniel woke up, he knew something was wrong. He felt perfectly fine, but he had no memory of who he was. After searching his house, the only useful thing he could find was a book that he himself seemed to have written. It contained a list of instructions, explaining his life's story and how he suffers from a form of amnesia, sometimes forgetting who he is. He had written this book as a guide for whenever his amnesia affected him.

The book guides him to a mentor who takes Daniel under his wing and agrees to teach him. Daniel has an incredible desire to grow and improve. He finds learning difficult, but enjoys the challenge. As he continues reading through the book, he realizes that it also includes a detailed philosophy of life, a deep spiritual perspective of the world, and an emphasis on living with a mission-centered focus.

As Daniel goes through life, he faces a number of challenges: financial difficulties, relationship struggles, and some health battles. However, the principles in the book, along with the mentor he studies with, help prepare Daniel for the challenges he faces; they always help him fight through and thrive. Most of all, they help Daniel deal with his arch nemesis, Aaron. It appeared as though Aaron's mission in life was to crush Daniel's dreams and thwart his every goal. For every step forward Daniel takes, Aaron is always there to challenge him, attempting to push him two steps back. But Daniel never gives up, always managing to push past his challenges. Even when Daniel has a minor setback, he always manages to pick himself back up, re-harness his willpower, and keep push forward.

After a lifetime of growing, learning, and contributing to the world, Daniel is now a nearly perfect being. One day, just after waking up, the world itself disappears from under him and Daniel finds himself in another dimension, standing face to face with… himself.

"I'm sure you are confused" the other Daniel says, "but I will explain everything. I am the real Daniel, or at the very least, the original Daniel. I was created perfect. Everything in my life was easy, clear, and perfect. But at the end of my life I felt that something was missing. I suddenly realized that I didn’t want to be perfect, I wanted to become perfect. I therefore devised a plan.

I created a younger version of myself, without any memory of who he was. I then created a perfect arch-nemesis who would challenge him, and thereby push him to grow. This arch-nemesis would grow along with him, continuing to counter and challenge him as he evolved and grew. But I did not leave Daniel to fend for himself; I created a book of instructions that would guide Daniel back to perfection.

You, Daniel, are a part of me. Therefore,through your journey, a part of me gets to experience the process of becoming perfect.

You have just finished your journey; you have reached a perfect state. Now, you get to enjoy the perfection you’ve built.

 

A New Year

 

The birth of a new year is a time of reflection and resolution, when hope and inspiration fill the air. We dream about what this upcoming year holds in store for us, 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 Teshuva

 

Elul and Rosh Hashanah center around the concept of teshuva, and Parshas Nitzavim is clearly linked to this theme as well. The pesukim in Nitzavim discuss the theme of teshuva,[1] the importance of choosing life - choosing what is right, and connecting ourselves back to Hashem. As Parshas Nitzavim is connected to the transition from Elul into Rosh Hashanah, let us delve into the concept of teshuva.


Teshuva literally means "return"- but whom, or perhaps what, are we returning to? The Gemara [2] explains that Hashem created teshuva 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 teshuva process?

 

The Practical Form of Teshuva

 

The Rambam [3] discusses the three-step process of teshuva:

  • First, one must reflect on their past and acknowledge that a problem exists.
  • One must then transition into the present and strongly feel the pain of their mistake, regretting it wholeheartedly.
  • Finally, one must look towards the future and resolve to never commit this same mistake again.

 

This three-step guide is the practical process of teshuva. However, the essence of teshuva is the deep foundation for these three steps, and understanding this essence is the key to truly transforming ourselves through these three steps.

 

True Teshuva: Returning to Your Higher Self

 

Genuine teshuva is not just about self-transformation, it's about self-expression, returning to your true and higher self. As we previously stated, while we were in the womb we were in a perfect and transcendent state of being, and a malach (angel) teaches us kol ha'Torah kulah (all of Torah).[4] As the Vilna Gaon explains, thisrefers to the deepest realms of Torah, a transcendent Torah that lies far beyond this world, beyond the confines of space and time. 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 alsolearned 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 perfect, primordial 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 malach. This time, however, it must be done through free will, by choosing to become great. Only by overcoming challenge and difficulty, only by asserting your willpower, can you fulfill your true potential.[5] In essence, our entire life is a story of teshuva- 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 "li'shaper", to perfect and beautify. Strikingly, it also shares a root with "mei shafir", the amniotic fluid which surrounds the fetus while in the womb. When we blow the shofar, we are reminded to improve and perfect ourselves, to return to our fetal state of perfection we once knew, to return to our true selves.

 

The Three Stages of Teshuva

 

There are three stages of genuine teshuva:

 

The first is individual teshuva, where we return to our higher selves, our fetal selves, our true selves.

 

The second stage of teshuva goes beyond the limited self, turning the focus from individual to community.

The Rambam, in discussing the laws of teshuva, states that someone who removes himself from the Jewish community has no share in Olam Habah (the World to Come). 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, a higher consciousness. [6] At root, all of Klal Yisrael is one, an interconnected self. Each of our individual neshamos are part of a bigger whole, like individual cells that make up a single human body. A central aspect of the experience of Olam Habah is experiencing yourself as part of Klal Yisrael, as part of your true, collective reality. If, however, one disconnects themselves from Klal Yisrael, they have uprooted themselves from reality itself, and simply cannot exist. Just as if you unplug a light bulb from its electric circuit, the light extinguishes, if a soul is disconnected from its root, it ceases to exist. This is not a punishment, merely a consequence.

 

This is the second stage of teshuva, returning to our collective self, to the single soul of Klal Yisrael. [7]

 

The Third Stage of Teshuva 


The third stage of teshuva is returning to our absolute root and source, to the Source of all sources, to Hashem Himself. The Nefesh Ha'Chaim refers to Hashem as the "Neshama shel neshamos", the Soul of all souls. Hashem is the root of existence, the absolute root of all our souls. Our entire journey through life is about sourcing our existence back to Hashem - this is the ultimate teshuva.

 

We can now explain the Gemara which states that teshuva preceded creation. [8] This is not merely a chronological description, this is a fundamental principle: teshuva 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 Himself.

 

Let us now briefly display how the three themes of the Rosh Hashana tefillah reflect these stages.

 

The Three Themes of the Rosh Hashana Tefillah 

 

The three themes of the Rosh Hashana davening are Shofros, Zichronos, and Malchuyos. Shofros relates to the blowing of the shofar, zichronos relates to remembering seminal events from Jewish history and Hashem’s covenant with the Jewish People, and Malchuyos is the process by which we crown Hashem King. Judaism is a holistic religion, in which everything is interconnected, expressing an underlying oneness. How, then, do these three themes connect under a larger unifying theme?

 

Shofros

The shofar represents one's individual spiritual yearning. It is a haunting, wordless cry that returns us to our higher self, our fetal self.

The bracha we recite on the shofar refers to the "kol shofar", the voice of the shofar. This is because blowing the shofar is meant to draw our attention to the unique depth of the shofar’s role in our tefilah.We blow the shofar as a part of the Rosh Hashanah prayers, but it is unique amongst the tefilos. While all the other prayers utilize words, the shofar is a wordless cry. What is the meaning behind this?

Speech is always a limited expression of one's inner thoughts. Formulating ideas and feelings into words requires taking that which is abstract, beyond finite form, and giving it concrete form and expression. By doing so, one limits that infinite potential into just the words that are spoken. This is why words often fail to describe and convey that which is most important. Words are a limited form of expression, one that does not loyally convey the full force of "self" contained within it. Kol, however, is the root form of verbal expression, a speech that has not yet been formed into words. The wordless cry of the voice is not limited to specific words - it is beyond words, beyond finite expression.

On Rosh Hashanah, we cry out with the resounding kol of the shofar, expressing our deep yearning to return to our root selves, a yearning that cannot be expressed in words alone. As the blast of the shofar jars us from our stupor, we join in its cry, as our souls beg to return to their root.

 

This is also why the concept of kol is always connected to crying. When does one cry? When the clear path ahead loses its clarity and expression. When one hears the doctor's report and finds out that instead of fifty years, one has only weeks left to live, they cry. Or, when one thinks they only have days left in this world, and they receive the news that they have been cured of their illness, they cry. When the clear and expressed path breaks down, we cry. This is because the spiritual concept of crying is the breakdown in expression. This is why the Hebrew word for tears, “dim'a”, is also the Hebrew word for "mixture", something that is unclear and confusing. This is also why the Hebrew word for crying, “bocheh”, also means "confusion".

 

On Rosh Hashana, we cry out with a resounding kol, expressing how deeply we yearn to return to our source, to Hashem. The concepts of kol and crying reflect the concept of focusing on the root and source without focusing on the expression. On Rosh Hashana, we take a step back from the expressed physical world and return back to our transcendent source.

 

Zichronos

 

Zichronos refers to the concept of memory, building upon this same theme. Memory represents tracing something from the present back into the past. It is an exercise in sourcing something back to its root. On Rosh Hashana, as we discuss the Akeidah and other seminal moments in Jewish history, we connect back to our collective self, the root soul of all of Klal Yisrael.


The Akeidah holds infinite layers of depth and meaning, and has striking implications for us as we trace ourselves back to our collective self.At the Akeidah, Yitzchak was willing to give up his life. The very willingness to give up one's life for Hashem reflects the belief that one is not merely a physical being, but a spiritual consciousness that transcends one’s body. This is why Chazal note that the letters of Yitzchak's name spells “keitz chai”- he who lives (chai) while paradoxically also existing beyond life (keitz). At the Akeidah, Yitzchak rooted himself beyond space and time, while still living within it. On Rosh Hashana, we remember this, and tap into our unique nature as Klal Yisrael, a nation that transcends this world while paradoxically living fully within it. The root of our ability to do so stems from Yitzchak and the Akeidah.

 

Malchuyos

 

On Rosh Hashana, we crown Hashem as our Melech, our King. We declare Hashem to be the source of everything, our ultimate root. This is our mission in this world, to become a walking kiddush Hashem- fully connecting ourselves back to Hashem, our Creator. It is for this reason that we don’t mention viduy or any of our sins on Rosh Hashana. Our singular goal on this day is to source ourselves back to Hashem, crown Him as our King, and root ourselves within reality, connected to Hashem.

 

Our Three-Stage Ascension

 

While all three of these themes are connected to all three forms of teshuva, shofros most deeply reflects our individual teshuva, zichronos most deeply reflects our collective teshuva back to our collective self, and malchuyos most deeply reflects our ultimate teshuva, sourcing ourselves back to Hashem Himself. May we be inspired to fully actualize all three forms of teshuva this Rosh Hashana and seal ourselves in the book of life, the book of true existence.

 

[1] See the first pesukim of perek 30 in Sefer Devarim.

[2] Kidushin 39b.

[3] Hilchos Teshuva 1:1.

[4] Niddah 30b. For a fuller discussion of this topic, see chapter on Parshas Bereishis, section: “Your Creation Story”. See also chapter on Parshas Mishpatim for a deeper explanation of why this process occurs.

[5] See chapter on Parshas Tetzaveh for a deeper explanation of why we need free will and the importance of overcoming challenge.

[6] See chapter on Parshas Terumah for more on the process of expanding one’s sense of self.

[7] For more on the topic of experiencing the oneness of Klal Yisrael, see chapter on Parshas Terumah. For more on the nature and formation of the oneness of Klal Yisrael, see chapter on Parshas Beshalach.

[8] Kiddushin 39b.

 

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