The dangerous irony is that I could spend all month blogging about Elul and repentance and never actually get around to doing it. But how do I go about doing teshuvah?
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach ("Reb Shlomo" to his followers) was known as "the singing rabbi." He was one of the most influential Jewish religious songwriters in the 20th century. He was also a pioneer in the baal teshuva movement, through which countless Jewish young people have returned to the Jewish faith and way. Reb Shlomo told two stories:
The first one is someone came to the Holy Rizhner* and said, “Can you please teach me how to repent?” and he answered, “Listen, man, when you did your sinning you didn’t come to me to ask me how to do it. If you know how to sin. You also know how to repent.”Reb Shlomo said "Even if you study all the books in the world about repentance, nobody can tell you how to do it, just you alone."
The other story is, someone came to the Mittler Rebbe**, who’s like a master of Teshuva and has written many books on Teshuva. “You have written so many books; please teach me how to do Teshuva.” So the Mittler answers, “To tell the truth, after all the books I’ve written, I still don’t know.”
I think the truth Reb Shlomo was communicating is that teshuvah is something that comes from faith--it comes from the heart. Thus, there's no fool-proof formula that can be prescribed.
But just because there's no exact formula for teshuvah doesn't mean we should be discouraged. Rather, we should see it as an opportunity to serve God. Most of the practical advice I've read on doing teshuvah during the season of Elul has involved several things:
- Set aside time to prayerfully consider your life before God. Go somewhere where you can be in solitude for a time.
- Ask yourself questions like, "What regrets do I have from the previous year? What mistakes did I make? Is there anyone I need to ask forgiveness from? Are there any wounds in my heart that affect how I think of or relate to certain people--my spouse, my family, friends?"
- Be specific--list out your realizations so that you can take them with you and continue to do the process of making things right. Then at the end of the high holy days you can dispose of the list as a way of showing that God forgives sin and accepts the penitent.
- Don't go overboard in being introspective! Teshuvah isn't about beating yourself up. As much as possible, let your teshuvah be characterized by gratefulness (to God for revealing these things to you) and joy--the kind of joy you get when you return home after a time away.***
For more practical advice on doing teshuvah, I recommend checking out Rabbi Russ Resnick's article "The Month of Elul."
* Yisroel Friedman (1797-1850) (Der Heyliger Rizhiner)
** Dov Ber of Lubavitch (1773-1827)
*** Returning home is how Reb Shlomo described the most fundamental way of teshuvah.