The process of introspection and repentance in order to accomplish transformation, really begins a month before Rosh Hashana, with the advent of the Hebrew month of Elul. During this special period, It behooves us all to both study and modify our actions.

There are many wonderful writings concerning the Jewish virtue of repentance, but almost all are based, to a degree, on one of the earliest classical works on the subject–Maimonides’ Hilchot Teshuva, the Laws of Teshuva, commonly defined as repentance.

In Maimonides’ introductory sentence to his Laws of Teshuva, he writes: “There is one positive Biblical commandment contained in these laws, and that is, for the malefactor to ‘do teshuva’ from his iniquity before God and to confess.” Before we can even discuss the process of teshuva, we must understand what the concept means.

The Hebrew word teshuva connotes repentance, but the root of the word means to return. In modern day Hebrew, a response to a question (i.e. an answer) is known as teshuva.
If that is true, to what are we returning?

Rabbi Avigdor Nebenzahl, Chief Ashkenazic rabbi of Jerusalem’s Old City, asks this pointed, yet poignant, question and offers three answers. First, he suggests, those who do teshuva return to the innocence of their youth, when we lived without sin. Teshuva enables a person to travel back in time, metaphorically speaking, because the Talmud declares (Talmud Psachim 54a) that God created teshuva before he created the world. As such, it is not bound by the laws of nature.

Second, those who do teshuva, return to the beginnings of Jewish national identity, the Revelation at Sinai, where our ancestors stood “as one person with one heart,” declared “na’aseh v’nishma,” that we will accept the Torah before knowing what is contained in it. At that moment all iniquity was forgiven.

Third, Rabbi Nebenzahl suggests that those who do teshuva return to the ultimate source of spirituality, the habitat of souls, under the heavenly Throne of God. This esoteric center, with no corporeality, represents the true source that draws us to God. The soul within our body draws its nourishment from this epicenter, where no wickedness exists. This is the decisive “return” that we seek.

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