Hasn’t everyone had a flat tire or missed a flight, or perhaps even boarded a plane intending to land in one city but ending up in another? We have all found ourselves in a different place from what we planned.
Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski tells the story of an early Chassidic Rebbe who was once falsely accused of theft and was jailed.
It was a miserable experience. There was violence and extortion. One prisoner, however, was different. He had been kidnapped as a child, knew he was Jewish and he knew his Jewish name.
That’s it. He had no other connection to Judaism or to the Jewish people.
The Rebbe befriended him and taught him the Shema. Little by little, he learned some Hebrew and some Jewish practices. After two months, both the Rebbe and his fellow prisoner managed to escape.
In jail, the Rebbe had wondered: Why did G-d put me in such a different place? After the escape, his friend returned to his religion and his people. The Rebbe had his answer.
The call of teshuvah is to do voluntarily what life does to us involuntarily. Almost everyone ends up in a different place — living in a different city, pursuing a different field or marrying a different person — than anticipated. We suffer from an unexpected illness, rejoice in an unexpected simchah or never marry at all. We end up with a family larger or smaller or different than we thought we’d have.
Life changes us. It puts us in a radically different place. To do teshuvah, to repent, is also to put ourselves in a radically different place.
The Talmud states that G-d created the world with the Hebrew letter heh because it allows for teshuvah. A heh is shaped like a doorpost, with a jamb and two sides, but without a floor. The heh is an abbreviation for G-d, and the space within the heh symbolizes the Divine Presence. Open at the bottom, the heh allows the human being the freedom to sin, to exit from the embrace of G-d.
The Talmud extends the metaphor. The heh not only allows for sin. One of its two sides is actually incomplete; it is slightly open just beneath the jamb. This second opening signifies the possibility of return, of re-entrance into the sacred space — of teshuvah.
One comes back in from a different place, not through the floor, not from the same place one exited. The Talmud asks: Why can’t the sinner just come back in via the same space through which he left? “It won’t help,” says the Talmud. It doesn’t work that way. It is necessary to come back in from a different place.
Teshuvah is not linear. Teshuvah is not a matter of sinning and then thinking it possible to repent the sin, to correct the sin, to return to where one was before.
If teshuvah were linear, it would be a matter of remorse, doing a bit better, growing a bit, then reentering G-d’s sacred space, symbolized by the space inside the heh. But teshuvah is not linear. That is why, year after year, so many people go through the entire Rosh Hashanah season, think they have done teshuvah, and then, as the next Rosh Hashanah rolls around, feel that they really haven’t improved much, if at all. They’re right back where they started, stuck in the same bad habits, beset by the same failings and inadequacies.
They did not realize that to come back in, it is necessary not so much to “grow” as it is to change.
Not to focus on the same old failings and try to remediate them, but to follow a larger dream.
To harness a larger motivation.
A grander aspiration.
A life-changing dream.
Within a larger whole, one can more readily cure those old failings.
Within a larger spiritual discipline, one can more likely fix those bad habits.
Motivation counts. When that is larger, so are the results.
Maybe I once thought it far-fetched that I could really, permanently, study more Torah, or spend more time with my family, or make a difference in the community. Actually, I can — but only if I do not just retrace and reorient a few steps. I can, but only if I become a different person. When I enlarge my vision — when I, say, set out not to study more Torah but to complete the entire Talmud; when I set out not to close my email an hour a day but rather the minute I come home from work until the next day; when I set out not to give a bit more to the community but to take on the presidency of an important organization — if I can truly envision a different me and extend my reach, I can achieve my goals.
I conquer my inadequacies if I aim higher.
If I come in from a different place.
That is teshuvah.
The second opening in the heh means: We need to figure out how to do something voluntarily as big as what life does to us involuntarily — how to travel far from our comfort zone.
How to enter from a different place.
It takes that dimension of change to get us out of the rut, the pattern of sin and teshuvah of last year, only to find ourselves right back where we started this year.
It takes that dimension.
The Alter of Slabodka said: “If I knew that I could be only what I am, I could not endure it, but if I did not strive to be like the Vilna Gaon, then I would not even be what I am.”
That is why there is a second opening.
It is not a second chance — it is an invitation to an entirely new world.
That is what teshuvah on Yom Kippur asks, and that is what teshuvah promises.