The marathon has already started.
We are going through the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe. We are in the middle of Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the 10 days in which we are proposed to generate that repentance that leads to teshuvah, a change in our behavior.
It is interesting how this act of teshuvah in which we immerse ourselves, and which is essentially an individual, almost solitary act of contrition, takes place precisely on these days when the Batei Knesset, the synagogues, are packed. It is a custom or necessity to be accompanied by a large number of members of our people, of our community, at the precise moment in which we must "go inward" and be ourselves.
We could assume that it is an escapism, a kind of refusal to submit to judgment—indeed, more than one: that of Kadosh Baruch Hu, our God, and ours; one more severe than the other. I would be unable to decide exactly which is the tougher of the two. The judgment that each one of us makes to himself, when one does it with seriousness and commitment, is usually harsher.
We have already talked a lot about teshuvah, about this concept that implies review, compensation for the damage caused, reconciliation and the most difficult part of the process, that is to reorient our behavior once we face the same situation in which we had made the mistake and avoid to repeat it the wrong way.
The point has to do precisely with RETURN, lashuv, lachazor bitshuvah.
If what we have to do is GO BACK, we are going back to a place where we have already been. A place we already know.
It is to open our minds and our hearts to cleanse them of all selfishness and ulterior motives and take them to a primitive state of zero contamination, in which we have surely already lived at some time.
And perhaps later, at some point, the created interests began, the desire for power or authoritarianism, violence, intrigues, or the urge to be or appear to be something we yearn for, etc., etc... everything that led us not to see clearly the correct road.
It is exactly what the prophet Hoshea pronounces almost aloud in the Haftarah this Shabbat, encouraging Bnei Israel, the People of Israel, to repentance. Hoshea calls us and tells us: “Shuvah Israel ad Adonai Elohecha ki kashalta beavonecha” (“Return, Israel, to the Lord your God, because you stumbled in your mistakes.”
We can spend the 10 days between Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur as a mere preparation for one more fast. Or we can have respect for the judgments that come our way and get ready for them. Get rid of false pride, petty goals and look at ourselves seriously with the critical gaze that we sometimes have towards others.
It is reported in Masechet Berachot that when Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai fell ill, his students went to him and asked him for a blessing.
The teacher in his last breath told them: “May it be the will of God that your fear of Heaven be upon you as the fear of people is upon you. That just as you take care of what people will say, you take care of what God will say.”
I would add: may we also take care of what we will say about ourselves the day we really look at ourselves in front of that mirror that shows everything, which is our conscience.
May Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai’s blessing be extended to all of us this Shabbat Shuvah.