Shanah Tova! The traditional Torah readings for Rosh HaShanah span Genesis chapters 21 and 22, the stories of Hagar and Sarah’s contentious relationship and the binding of Isaac. Neither are easy texts to read, and they present us with the difficult realities that our honored ancestors were complex, flawed humans. But Rabbi Alan Henkin interprets Abraham’s disturbing willingness to sacrifice his own son (after standing up to God for the sake of strangers in the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah) as the ultimate “human capacity for self-transcendence.” Rabbi Henkin reminds us that cheshbon hanefesh, the accounting of the soul, is not easy. A “torah of complacency” as he calls the popular day-to-day approach to Judaism isn’t quite sufficient for the season of Teshuvah. This is why we read these difficult texts on Rosh HaShanah: to remind ourselves to thoroughly self-examine our reactions to the world around us, our assumptions of morality, our biases. We can only make sincere teshuvah if we engage in this emotionally tumultuous process of cheshbon hanefesh and are willing to attempt Abraham levels of self-transcendence, to view every difficult decision and moral dilemma from every angle and see beyond our own instincts and projections.
Rabbi Sharon Brous, in her 2010 interview with Krista Tippett for NPR’s On Being, talks about how cheshbon hanefesh works best if we approach it in stages. On Rosh HaShanah, we take account of our own souls. We think about the obvious mistakes we have made, the personal apologies we must issue, the steps we need to take to be better people in the year to come. From Tashlich through the next ten days, we take account of the soul of our community. How is Ner Shalom or the Jewish community as a whole taking responsibility for missteps in its relationship with the wider community? What PR goofs need to be fixed? How can we be more inclusive and better representatives of Jews everywhere in the year to come? By the time the Neilah service closes the Gates of Repentance on Yom Kippur, we should be taking account of the soul of the world. How is humanity progressing? How can we all care for each other a little better, come together a little stronger? In this ever-shrinking world of the internet and social media, how are we using these tools to help us connect and learn from people who live entirely different lives?
And if we do this hard work of cheshbon hanefesh, if we truly take account of our own souls, the spirit of our community, and the soul of the world, and make sincere teshuvah for all our mistakes, personal and communal, then what? Maimonides says the only true mark of teshuvah is to be faced with the same moral dilemmas again and to choose a different response. If we do all this self-examination and determine to work harder on building communities in the year to come, but ultimately don’t do much differently, we are not making teshuvah. Hana Senesh wrote in her diary on October 11, 1940, “I want to make a confession, to give an accounting of myself, and to God. In other words, to measure my life and actions against the lofty ideals I’ve set for myself. To compare that which should have been with that which was....” She was 19 years old and had just emigrated to British Mandate Palestine from Hungary. In the following year, she joined the Haganah, a predecessor for the IDF. Four years later, she would parachute back into Nazi-occupied Europe to rescue her people left behind. Unfortunately, she was caught, tortured, and murdered by the Nazis. She left behind many songs and poems that later became very well known, including the poem “There are stars/Yesh Hakochavim” which is among the selections of readings for the Mourner’s Kaddish in our Mishkan Tefillah. If anyone knew what it meant to take an accounting of her soul, to stand by her beliefs, to put her body where her mouth was, it was Hana Senesh.
When I read her quote in the Rosh HaShanah study selections of the new Mishkan HaNefesh, it struck me right in the heart. Just over two years ago, after an emotional year and a politically meaningful summer, I wrote very similar words for myself in a d’var Torah for Parashat Shoftim. I felt I had been dormant on my beliefs for too long, letting the busy life of a rabbinical student get in the way of truly living out the rabbinate I desired, and I decided it was time to start acting like the person I wanted to be. This decision had its difficulties, but thankfully none so dangerous as those Hana Senesh faced. Overall, it has been the most rewarding, refreshing, realest decision I have ever made. I cannot recommend strongly enough how great it is to be your truest self even when it’s difficult. To make cheshbon hanesh, see where you’re falling short, and make true teshuvah to yourself and your community, can be incredibly liberating. And once you’ve done that, there is always room to continue to grow and adapt and continue changing, but there’s no going back to the person you were before. True teshuvah means true transformation. It means making new decisions when faced with old options. It means living out your values. It means continuous self-examination, not just at the High Holy Days. There will always be things to repent for and things to resolve to be better on in the year to come, no matter how hard you try to think about these things throughout the year, but the High Holy Days can be a much more rewarding, joyful, and transformative Ten Days of Awe if they don’t need to be spent making amends to every person you know, because you’ve been good at dealing with your relationships as problems arise, if you don’t spend the time feeling bad about yourself, because you know even if you’ve missed the mark a few times, you’ve truly been working on your teshuvah and living your most honest life.
May this Rosh HaShanah be one of great self-examination for us all. May our souls be accounted for in a deep and meaningful way. May our teshuvah be thorough and sincere. And may our year to come be one of self-liberation and living our values, bringing us peace and joy. Amen and Shanah Tova.