As I sit immersed in the space that exists between the holiday Rosh Hashanah and the holiday of Yom Kippur, traditionally known as the Aseret Y’mai Teshuva (Ten Days of Repentance), I am consumed with thoughts about the concept of time and the concept of repentance. The appearance of this space on my calendar causes me, and many others I am sure, to reflect on the year that has passed, both the time that has elapsed as well as the actions I have and have not taken that have shaped myself and those around me. The question I want to pose here is What is the connection between time and repentance?
If you think about it, time in many ways is meaningless and doesn't exist. The way we measure time can be seen as artificial and contrived. In Judaism we have a blessing, a blessing that many will be saying numerous times over the next couple of weeks, the blessing of shehecheyanu. The Hebrew is as follows: "Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha'olam shehecheyanu v'kiy'manu v'higyanu lazman hazeh." And an English translation: "Blessed are You Adonai our God, King of the world (alternatively: Creator of time and space) who has supported us, protected us, and brought us to this time."
Traditionally, Jews say this blessing on holidays and upon special new occasions (some say it upon wearing a new article of clothing for the first time). I think this blessing and this time of year remind us that, yes, time can be fleeting and if we allow it to be, time can be meaningless. The challenge of this time and this blessing is to figure out how to sanctify the time and the space we are in now, at this very instant. Now is the only time that is not meaningless and not only is it not meaningless but it is absolutely exploding with potential.
I really like the message of the blessing of shehecheyanu, but I have trouble reconciling it with my understanding of repentance. Specifically if at its essence one understands the blessing of shehecheyanu as a reminder to seize the moment, that being every moment, why does there seem to be a specific season in which one should repent?
This coming Shabbat is known as Shabbat Shuva (the Sabbath of Returning). There is this sense in the Jewish world that now is the prime time to repent. The Haftorah portion that is read on this Shabbat begins with the verse, "Return, Israel to the Lord your God, for you have fallen because of your sin." The verse implores us to return from our wrong doings and repent. But why do we read this verse now on this Shabbat? Does it have to be that during the days before and after Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we are implored to repent and all other times the concept hardly registers on our collective radar screens?
The truth is that according to Maimonides, a 12th century Jewish scholar, true repentance has extreme time restrictions associated with it. Maimonides writes "what constitutes complete repentance? He who is confronted with the ideal situation wherein he previously sinned and it lies within his power to commit the sin again, but he nevertheless does not succumb…" If this is the case then our emphasis during this space of year on repentance is grossly misguided and fatally flawed. There is no one time of year when one should be focusing on repentance, rather according to Maimonides we have to be prepared to repent at any moment, because at any moment the test you failed previously could plop itself down in front of you again.
There is a story from the Babylonian Talmud that enhances this point. "Rabbi Eliezer said: ‘Repent one day before your death.’ His disciples asked him, ‘Does then one know on what day he will die?’ Rabbi Eliezer responded ‘All the more reason he should repent today, lest he die tomorrow.’"
At every moment we have the potential to better ourselves and repent for all of those things that we may have done wrong in our lives. This time of year not only comes to remind us that it is essential to sanctify time so that we can imbue it with meaning, but it also suggests a way for us to do so. The process of intense introspection and repentance provides us with a way to sanctify time. The days surrounding Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are not the only times we should be looking to repent, looking to return to good from bad that we may be doing deliberately or inadvertently. But just as this season reminds us to sanctify time it also reminds of how we can go about doing just that.
Written by Reuben Posner, Jewish Education Associate in Hillel’s Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning.Learn More
Additional commentaries and text studies on Yom Kippur at MyJewishLearning.com.