Turn us towards you, Lord, and we will return. Renew our days as before.
Next Wednesday evening (20th September), Jews around the world will celebrate Rosh Hashanah and the beginning of a new calendar year (this year 5778) for two days, followed by Shabbat. As well as opening the new year, Rosh Hashanah also marks the beginning of the “Ten Days of Repentance” observed between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. During these ten days, Jews make a special effort to consider their actions over the past year and many also try to pray more often or more intensely and to donate to charity. All of these are considered to contribute to repentance and ensure an inscription for good fortune in the Book of Life that God is believed to open on Rosh Hashanah and seal on Yom Kippur (though of course repentance is a continual process that goes on through the year).
The translation of the Hebrew teshuva as repentance is somewhat limited. It conjures notions of reward and punishment, absolution and apology all of which are relevant and form part of the process, but do not get to the heart of the verb, the Hebrew root of which is associated with return. The concept in Judaism is that the process of repentance is one of return to good ways of thinking, acting and living, and through that is a return to closeness with God. It is a process of turning away from things which do harm, and turning back to a path which is both spiritually and physically beneficial.
The Ten Days of Repentance are a chance to focus on this action – to consider the things in our lives that are destructive and turn away from them, and to turn towards those areas where we might be able to make a better impact to ourselves and to society.
The culmination of the Ten Days is Yom Kippur, on which many Jews (including those who often are not so observant) fast from sunset on the preceding evening until nightfall, and practice other symbolic acts, including not wearing leather shoes, not bathing or using perfumes and not engaging in sexual relations. In Leviticus 23 Yom Kippur is described as a day of “self-denial” and the rituals of Yom Kippur are designed to assist with this. Confessions said in the Synagogue during Yom Kippur are universally recited in the plural. It is a day about repairing society, as much as it is about repairing ourselves.
A final reflection that I find quoted more often in Christian circles and less often in the Jewish tradition is Isaiah 58, which essentially describes the fasting performed on Yom Kippur in negative terms as “you see to your business and oppress your labourers. You fast in strife and contention and you strike with a wicked fist”. Rather the fast that God desires is to “unlock fetters of wickedness, And untie the cords of the yoke. To let the oppressed go free; To break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, And to take the wretched poor into your home; When you see the naked, to clothe him, And not to ignore your own kin”. Often I find these “types of fasting” placed in opposition to one another (sometimes in a way which opposes harsh Jewish legalism with loving Christian grace…), but it is not clear that is necessary. Yes, the Prophet rails against fasts which are days for people to “starve their bodies” or “bowing the head like a bulrush” but it is the intention behind these which is at fault, not the actions themselves. As Leviticus states that Yom Kippur is about “self-denial” (and not a day or mourning or sorrow as all other Jewish fast days are) these practices can contribute to that. The intention of the fast is to consider the values that the Prophet espouses; to deny ourselves and become a part of the collective, and to fully appreciate how we can respond to the needs of the most vulnerable who are a part of that.
Thus the Ten Days of Repentance are an opportunity to begin that journey towards Yom Kippur. It provides space for self-reflection and cheshbon nefesh or an “accounting of the soul” before we move beyond those thoughts on the Day of Atonement itself. The “return” of repentance is to return to community and society; to appreciate the values of ethics and social responsibility and reflect on how we respond to them.
Wishing all those celebrating a happy and sweet new year, and ketiva v’chatima tova