Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is a festive holiday on which we celebrate the creation of the world and engage in rituals to bring in a “sweet” new year. It is also a serious holiday, the beginning of ten days of repetenace and forgiveness.
The Three Books of Judgment
The Rabbinic Sages taught that on Rosh Hashanah, three books lie open in heaven:
- one for the completely righteous;
- one for the completely wicked; and
- one for those in between.
On Rosh Hashanah, the completely righteous are immediately inscribed in the Book of Life, the completely wicked are immediately inscribed in the Book of Death, and the fate of everyone else is weighed from Rosh Hashanah through the concluding prayer on Yom Kippur, ten days later.
Quick side point: This is why, instead of greeting people with “Happy New Year” on Rosh Hashanah, the customary greeting is to wish people that they be immediately inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life.
How to Avert a Harsh Judgmwent
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, in his introduction essay to the Rosh Hashana prayer book, explains that according to the Talmud, a written account of oral traditions, there are certain actions that have the power to avert or annul a harsh judgment, or at least mitigate its harshness.
According to the Babylonian Talmud, there are potentially five such actions:
- change of name
- change of deed
- change of place
The Jerusalem Talmud lists three actions:
On the surface, this might look like a difference of approach, but my take on this is that they are saying the same thing. The Babylonian Talmud is simply enumerating three aspects of teshuva.
Teshuva is often interepreted to mean “repentence,” but comes from the word that means “to return.” So, what are we returning to? The Babylonian Talmud enumerates these three areas, which all relate to changes in identity.
Three Aspects of Teshuva (Repentance)
(1) Change of Name
Part of the process of repentance, and of any transformation, is a shift in identity. And what is a name? It is a reflection of identity.
Think of people you know who had a nickname when they were younger, and then stopped going by that nickname. Or maybe they went by a shortened version of their name — Rob for Robert, Joe for Joseph, Abby for Abigail, Jen or Jenny for Jennifer, and so on — and eventually shifted to using their full name.
Or maybe they continue to use the shortened version.
What determines whether a “Jennifer” goes by Jen, Jenny, or Jennifer? It’s her perception of the identity that she associates with each version of the name.
The roles we play in life are another name label we use, and another source of identity. We have familial roles: mom, sister, aunt, daughter, father, brother, son, uncle. We also have workplace roles: client, consumer, sales person, manager, employee, entrepreneur. And we have career roles: lawyer, doctor, sales person, banker, coach, teacher, janitor, speaker.
These names we adopt, the roles we play, are how we define ourselves.
When we are caught up in the trance of fear, we lose who we are. This is when we do or say things that cross the line. In awareness, we recognize that what we said or did “is not who I am.” This is a renunciation of an identity that no longer serves us.
(2) Change of Deed
Just like names, we also associate deeds and actions with identity.
The ancient Rabbis understood the process of teshuvaas abandoning the sin and turn away from the action that we committed that was wrong, by changing behavior.
Teshuva is about breaking the pattern and changing our actions. This, too, requires a shift in identity.
For example, of you offered me a cigarette, I would decline. If you pressed me on why, I might eventually say “I’m not a smoker.” That’s a statement of identity.
We perform actions consistent with the identity we create for ourselves. If you want to change your behavior, one secret is to shift your identity.
(3) Change of Place
Rabbi Sacks explains that one interpretation of the word teshuva is “homecoming.” This is because in the Torah, sin always led to exile. He explains that a sin is an act committed in the wrong place. The punishment, exile, puts the actor in the wrong place. In this understanding, teshuva is the act of coming home — changing your place from a place of exile to your home.
This “change of place” need not be a change in location. It can also refer to an inner place — the place within ourselves where we are at “home” or in our true nature. When we commit a sin, we are not in our true selves. We are disconnected from our heart and soul. Often, we are acting from our mind: our ego — the source of envy, pride, lack, and anger.
Through the act of teshuva, we move from our heads to our hearts, coming home to our true selves and our true nature.
The Essence of Repentance
What we see here is that the essence of repentance involves changing our identity in three ways:
- how we describe ourselves;
- how we act; and
- what we call “home.”