The shofar blasts on Rosh Hashanah are designed to wake us up. How do we avoid hitting the snooze button, rolling over and going back to sleep once the holiday passes? That is the goal of Yom Kippur -- to keep us spiritually awake.
In the days of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, Yom Kippur was primarily a day focused on ritual purity. While ritual purity and impurity may not mean much to us today, these ideas still have metaphoric power. The rabbis of the Talmud spoke of spiritual impurity as a state of dulled awareness and emotional insensitivity. Purity, as they understood it, is a state of emotional and intellectual awareness and receptivity, or being awake. Yom Kippur is the holiday of being fully awake.
How do we fall asleep spiritually? In the physical realm, most people sleep six to eight hours and are awake the vast majority of the day. But how many hours, or minutes in the day do we feel emotionally and mentally alert, ready to fully encounter and receive the wide variety of people, sensations, and events that fill our days? If we are honest, we know that many of our thoughts and behaviors are unreflective habits. While habits are an important part of our functioning, negative rote behaviors can ground us into a spiritual rut. For example, instances of poor eating, lateness, or avoiding a difficult conversation may not be a big deal on their own, but if these become habitual, they can leave us living in ways that undermine our potential.
The High Holiday cycle of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is designed to help us break out of old habits and wake us up just that much more to what is possible. Teshuvah, or returning to our best selves, is the key spiritual technology for these times. The great 12th century thinker, Maimonides (d. 1204), teaches that the essence of teshuvah is to resolve to change and to verbalize, as specifically as possible, what one did and how one wants to change. This verbalization is called vidui, commonly translated as "confession," but perhaps better understood as simply acknowledging our reality. By articulating our life situation honestly and expressing how we want to grow, we can speak ourselves into greater wakefulness.
Maimonides was aware that even such an inner process as teshuvah could be done in a rote, unaware way. We can go through the motions with just about anything. He writes that one who verbalizes how one wants to change but doesn't really resolve to change is like a person who immerses in ritual, purifying waters while holding the carcass of a small animal in his hand. Immersion is an act of purification; the carcass transmits ritual impurity to the holder; one act nullifies the other.
The contemporary Israeli rabbi Ya'akov Warshofsky points out that the animal needs to be dead to transmit impurity. Why is this so? Perhaps it teaches us something important about our spiritual lives. What parts of ourselves, or what habits do we hold onto even though they are dead? These behaviors or qualities may have served an important purpose at some point in our life, but now they are dead. We don't need them anymore, but we hold on because they are familiar and comfortable. These deadened parts are the source of our spiritual sleep or dullness. How can we arouse the desire to let go and make our teshuvah truly renewing?
The key is in our approach to vidui, or acknowledgment, itself, as Maimonides teaches us. Inspired by a teaching from the Hasidic master Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav (d. 1810), I want to suggest the following exercise: Choose one or two areas of your life in which you want to grow, and write down exactly how you see yourself now. Then write with as much detail as possible how you envision the future after you've made these changes. This is your personal vidui. Concrete detail is key. I write mine on a small index card and bring it with me to synagogue to say out loud as part of my prayers on Yom Kippur. Whether you go to synagogue or not this Yom Kippur, writing out and speaking about the ways you want to grow, in as much detail as possible, will help loosen your grip on those dull or numb parts of yourself.
Teshuvah does not stop with Yom Kippur. Revisit what you wrote at the beginning of each month, reading out loud your vision for change and assessing your current situation. This process will keep us from falling back into numbness and hitting the snooze button once the High Holidays are over. Teshuvah can keep us fully awake throughout the year.
Rabbi David Jaffe is the founder and dean of the Kirva Institute and the spiritual advisor at Gann Academy in Waltham, MA. He is in Israel for the year working on a book about the inner life and social activism. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Seventy Faces of Torah is a pluralistic Jewish scriptural commentary, produced by The Center for Global Judaism at Hebrew College, in which thought leaders from around the world offer insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.