Thank God I’m a Work in Progress: A Reflection on Teshuvah

Alissa Thomas
January 27, 2013
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Teshuvah is a lifelong work in progress.

Every year during Elul and the Yamim Noraim, I find myself digging deep into the process of teshuvah. I think to myself that I would love to feel such an intense spiritual desire toward growth and tikkun year-round. But each year after the chagim pass and I get more entrenched in the routines of daily life, I realize that teshuvah is a very tough state of mind to maintain and is in fact my greatest work in progress.

Teshuvah requires a raw awareness of our flaws and negative intentions as well as a continuous commitment to change and growth. Most importantly, teshuvah depends on humility before God and honesty with ourselves—two perspectives that are not always so intuitive. Teshuvah is a vigilant magnum opus through which we separate from our baser instincts in order to return to our purest, holiest selves.

The Rambam describes teshuvah gemorah, or a complete teshuvah, as a state in which a person literally separates himself or herself completely from a trait or a temptation to the point that when given the same opportunity to transgress, he or she will not repeat the prior act (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 2:1).

This stipulation proves harder than it seems. The work of detaching parts of the self that have become nestled and entrenched in the very fabric of a person’s natural response forever shakes and alters the mind and soul. It is the tireless work of creating a new perspective and drawing closer to God Himself.

I am profoundly struck by this image of teshuvah as a reshaping and recreating of the self. Through peeling back the layers of our baser instincts that inhibit the intimacy between the soul and God, we reunite with the humility, generosity, and love that compose our reshit, our God-given beginning and self-chosen end. It is an admittedly painful process, but the outcome is worth it. I believe that the struggles of teshuvah, the trenches of examining and transcending, are actually some of the greatest moments of our lives.

But how do we maintain the mindset of teshuvah year-round, when it is so hard?

In Vayechi, the last parshah of Bereshit (which also happens to be the last parshah of 2012), Yosef’s brothers come to him and are worried that he will no longer be kind to them after their father’s passing. Yosef responds, “Veatem chashavtem alai raah Elokim chashavah letovah,” or “You intended evil against me, [but] God designed it for good” (Bereshit 50:20). This verse could literally mean, ‘You, my brothers, intended to do evil against me, but God intervened and changed that evil into good’. But it could also mean, ‘Though you, my brothers, intended to do evil, you had no real power because God had a greater plan to begin with, in which my struggle would lead to good’.

Though both interpretations seem similar, the distinction comes from whether God intervened in the aftermath of human actions or if God intended from the beginning for Yosef’s struggle to lead to an ultimate good. Basically, ‘Gam zu letovah,’ or ‘This [struggle] is also for the good’ (Masechet Taanit 21a).

I would like to apply the second of these two interpretations of Yosef’s response in Bereshit to our discussion of teshuvah.

Following the model that God intended for Yosef’s struggle to lead to good, we are able to approach the struggle involved in teshuvah, self-examination, and self-growth as ultimately leading to a God-intended good.

In this way, we can see that God gave us the ability to do teshuvah, so that our struggle, our growing pains, would give us the necessary strength and perspective to draw close to Him. Teshuvah is therefore a gift, and the process of teshuvah embodies our response, our freewill to be partners in God’s creation, in God’s plan. It is precisely because teshuvah is so hard to maintain throughout the year and is such a raw process that its benefits are so prized—“Elokim chashavah letovah.”

With this in mind, may we continue to grapple with God’s role in our growth and struggles and be blessed to extend our teshuvah year-round. May we contextualize the vulnerability and growing pains of personal evolution as holy, crucial steps toward our own divine goodness, ethereal intimacy, and transcendent joy. And as we begin the secular new year of 2013, may teshuvah be a work in progress that challenges us to embrace, reinvent, and nourish our relationships with ourselves, others, and God.

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Alissa Thomas is currently a student at Yeshivat Maharat. She graduated from Brandeis University with a bachelor’s degree in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and a bachelor’s degree in Classical Studies Archaeology and Ancient History. She has studied at Machon Pardes, Neve Yerushalayim, and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. She has completed one unit of Clinical Pastoral Education at Bellevue Hospital and is also the present Rosh Beit Midrash for Uri L’Tzedek. She is originally from Los Angeles, California and currently lives in New York City.

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