Some people will tell you that "teshuva" is supposed to be a returning to God, or to the Self, or to synagogue (especially if you're late paying your dues...) Rabbi David Wolpe has an interesting take on teshuva, stating that, "perhaps in teshuva is the idea of returning to the world, away from the preoccupation with the self. Beating one’s chest does not feed the hungry or comfort the bereaved." Regardless of which metaphor you choose, the important thing is to return; to go back to where you were before.
But what if where we were before wasn't so great? How many of us feel we used to be in some magical state of perfection that we are trying to return to? Were we ever free of sin or unburdened by mistakes or bad choices? I know I wasn't! So what am I meant to be returning to?
One of my favorite rabbinic stories may shed a little light on this quandary:
Consider the parable of a prince who was far away from his father - a hundred days' journey away. His friends said to him: "Return to your father." He replied: "I cannot. I have not the strength." Thereupon his father sent word, saying to him: "Come back as far as you can according to your strength, and I will go the rest of the way to meet you." So the Holy One, Blessed be Adonai, says to Israel: "Return unto Me, and I will return unto you" (Malachi 3:7).
In this story, was the prince flawless? Do we imagine that he and his father never fought? If I know parents and kids, it's unlikely that this is the case. But that's not the point of this story. What is the central message here? If we start turning back, by examining our own behaviors and actions, and we look for ways to begin new paths, God will meet us halfway. The point of turning back isn't to get somewhere, it's to make that gesture towards improvement.
If we are willing to take that first step, God is already on the road to meet us. But the work won't be done for you. This ten-day period is an opportunity for you to break from old habits and start fresh. You don't have to create some imaginary goal or yardstick to measure success; just begin the process. Teshuva is indeed about turning around, but it's the start of something, not the end. And we've got the whole year ahead of us to figure out where to go from here, but at least now we know the journey has begun!
Shana Tovah - Have a great New Year, and may you all be written into the Book of Life.