The first way to repent on Yom Kippur like a mensch is not to use the word repent. Rather, a mensch uses the word “return.”
The word in Hebrew is Teshuva, from the root “shuv” which means to return. I could not even begin to guess at how many books and articles have been written on Teshuva over the few thousand years. But here is a good one if you’d like more info.
I have always gotten a lot out of Yom Kippur. The process of making it right with people, thinking about the past year, fasting, and going to services is both meaningful and transformative. My life changed on Yom Kippur when I was 40 – a sacred number in Judaism – it was the first of several strong spiritual experiences I’ve had on the holiday. (See page 4 here for the story).
How the Mensch Repents on Yom Kippur
Rabbi Alan Lew of blessed memory wrote “Teshuvah begins with a turn, a turn away from the external world and toward the inner realm of the heart.” (This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared. p 157)
This teaching puts us within a Mussar framework because we are focusing on the inner world. In addition, “return” takes us away from the flavor of shame that can come with the word “repentance.” Moreover, it implies that we already have what we need to do the right thing.
At the same time, we can’t do it alone. This is especially true when it comes to longstanding hurts or habits. It is not an accident that 12 step programs turn to a higher power for help overcoming addiction. While a lifetime of habits are not an addition per se, they might as well be when it comes to changing some of them. So how do we ask for that help, especially if we are not sure about the Divinity? One hint to the answer comes from the 27th Psalm. King David wrote,
One thing I ask from the Divine, this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Divine
all the days of my life
As I wrote in the concluding chapter of The Spiritual Practice of Good Actions, “dwell in the house of the Divine” means to be a good person. Today let’s focus on the beginning of the phrase, where it says “one thing I ask.” David shows us that we can ask the Divine for help on a personal basis. And, we should ask for only one thing at a time.
In the month of Elul, it is traditional to read the 27th Psalm every day. Each day we’ll repeat it
One thing I ask…
One thing I ask…
One thing I ask…
Which brings us to a Mussar Practice to repent on Yom Kippur Like a Mensch
****Here’s the Mussar Practice***
Ask for one thing. I am in two personal transformation workshops this year – the American Mussar one I am facilitating, and one run by Rabbi David Jaffe. Both offer an opportunity to create a spiritual plan for transformation. Through the discussion in these groups, it has become clear to me that we should only ask the Divine to help us with one thing. Not because the Divine is unwilling to help us with more than one thing, but because we are only capable of changing one thing at a time!
When coaching kids in softball or soccer, we were taught to only correct one thing at a time. When they improve on the first thing, then we help them improve the next thing. Similarly, when I work with clients, we pick one change to make in our life at a time.
When you are in services or on your own, say quietly to yourself “Please help me________.”
If you are not sure of the Divinity, you may be wondering who will hear you. At minimum, you will hear yourself, which is an important step on the transformation path.
For those of you who do not celebrate the High Holidays, and/or are not Jewish, the general principles of asking for help and focusing on one thing at a time still hold. I encourage you to try this practice as well.
This Mussar practice to repent on Yom Kippur like a mensch is an Order practice, as it says
First things first, and last things later – Pirkei Avot 5:10
A mensch remembers that there can only be one first priority. By asking for one thing, we bring our focus to a single thing we want to change. Yes, we have many things we want to improve about ourselves, but by going one at a time we can actually make lasting and meaningful transformation.
What is the one thing that you will ask for in 5779? Please comment below.