(originally published in the Vaad of Seattle newsletter)

A few decades ago, Tradition Magazine published a wonderful article by Prof. Yehuda Gellman entitled “Teshuva and Authenticity”. Whenever I have the opportunity, I enjoy giving a class using this article as a springboard for discussion.

Essentially, Prof. Gellman argues that doing “teshuva” is especially complex in our day and age. If a person were to be lost on a desert island, it would be challenging to respond authentically to the predicament – because of the many movies and books we have all read about people getting shipwrecked on desert islands. As human beings, we naturally refer to the models we’ve seen or read about – as we respond to our own personal predicaments.

Back in the 1980’s, at the height of the Ba’al Teshuva movement in Israel, it became suddenly possible for someone with little or no background in Torah learning to attend a yeshiva or seminary. No longer only the domain of great scholars, yeshivot opened up with the goal of teaching the religious novice the depths of Torah in an authentic and inspiring way. This had major impact on Jews the world over; in fact, many of us greatly benefited from this watershed development!

That said, it also became a greater challenge to forge one’s own religious personality. Having a role model is essential for religious growth; after all, who does one learn from if not from one’s rebbe and one’s peers? At the same time, we all have a tendency to cut corners, to adopt the form and approach of others – “copying and pasting” their experience and approach, and applying it to ourselves. This tendency can often lead to unintentionally negative results. For, since we are all individuals, each of us must confront, head-on, our own personal deficiencies. Although a religious framework – including Rambam’s laws of Teshuva – is helpful in that process, it cannot replace an honest reflection on one’s own particular challenges.

Prof. Gellman beautifully illustrates this in his closing passage:

“Several years ago, when I was in graduate school, the calendar of studies allowed a month's vacation to study at a famous yeshivah in the greater New York area. The intensity of the learning contributed to a mounting sense of the seriousness of the day of judgment. By the time Rosh Hashanah came this feeling was very strong. The experience of Rosh Hashanah increased it to the point where at Yom Kippur I was completely gripped by the awesomeness of the day of judgment. My davening on that day expanded the experience of being judged more and more; until I got to the words Yodea mahashavot be-yom din, "He knows my very thoughts on this day of judgment. " At that moment the utter simplicity of those words aroused within me the absolute conviction of their truth. For the first time in my life I actually believed that He knows my thoughts. As a result I couldn't continue to daven. I was paralyzed. All about me people were throwing themselves around, waving their hands in remorse and pleading. I couldn't go on. Since He knows my thoughts, He knows that what I am doing is a fake. He knows my true feelings, what I really believe and what really is important to me. The external signs mean nothing to Him. He knows the truth. It's no use. I sat down, paralyzed. Finally, I went out for a walk in the neighborhood. Gradually the feeling wore off. The absolute conviction that He sees through me faded away. Then, when I no longer believed it, only then was I able to return to the beit midrash and daven, shaking, waving my hands, contorting my face, with the rest of them. I had returned, from the “I” to the “they”. The disorientation of being torn out of context was replaced by the feeling of the beauty and the pleasure of castigating oneself in fellowship. The fear of being alone gave way to the strength of community.”

In other words, community is both a beautiful and helpful component in the teshuva process – but it cannot replace personal reflection and an internal “accounting.”

Let us all use the upcoming fast to experience a profound re-encounter with our true selves.

Gemar Hatima Tova & Tizku Leshanim Rabbot!