Today is the first Sabbath following the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. It a special Sabbath which takes its name from the opening verse of the biblical passage read in synagogue on this day: “Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God, for you have fallen because of your sin” (Hosea 14:2). The Hebrew word for return is shuvah, hence the Sabbath is known as Shabbat Shuvah or the Sabbath of Return. Traditionally on this day rabbis devote their sermons to the theme of repentance, encouraging their congregants to take advantage of the propitious time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), which falls eight days later, by repenting and making amends.
What does “return” in this context actually mean? On the most basic level it means a return to God. When one commits a sin, one is distanced from God. Repentance then is the act of returning to God. On a deeper level, though, repentance can mean a return to one’s self.
Many of us live fragmented lives. We rush about trying to make a living or raise a family, which in today’s climate are both becoming increasingly difficult. Our focus tends to be on output; long hours at work, time-consuming commutes and responding to the demands of clients, colleagues or managers. Consequently we are left with very little time for any meaningful input such as personal learning and development, cultivating relationships and just thinking and reflecting. As a result we lose touch with who we really are, what we are truly capable of and what matters most in life. This tragic fragmentation of self can lead to behaviour that conflicts with one’s deepest principles. Repentance then is a process of returning to one’s deepest self and rediscovering the moral bedrock of one’s value system.
But how does one begin to put together a fragmented life? How does one recover the lost inner self? The answer is by contemplating higher-order questions. The types of questions we routinely contemplate in the course of our busy lives are what can be termed as lower-order questions. These are questions that begin with what and how and that have relatively clearcut, straightforward answers. Higher-order questions on the other hand begin with why. Why am I here? Why do I have the gifts and talents that I do? While the particular answers to such higher-order questions can be deeply subjective, Judaism at least provides a framework for considering them by asserting that every single life is imbued with unique purpose. Such as the following passage from the Talmud: “A human being creates many coins from the same die and they are all identical; the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One blessed is He, coins all people from Adam’s die and not one looks like another. This is why every person must say ‘The world was created just for me’.”
The Talmud is not encouraging narcissism. On the contrary, it is calling on each individual to recognise his or her uniqueness and as a result to make a distinctive contribution in life. It is not a lesson about taking; it is a lesson about contributing and doing something extraordinary with one’s life. In other words, identifying that which is unique in us leads us to think less about what we need and more about what we are needed for.
Returning to one’s true self through higher-order questioning is what the Sabbath of return is all about. One needn’t be Jewish to appreciate its importance and recognise its potential positive impact on our lives and society.
This article first appeared in the Guardian on 1October.