Heshbon HaNefesh, an inventory of the soul.
During this season of soul searching, we look inward evaluating our actions over the past year and identifying our merits and missteps. Then we commit to improving upon imperfections in our personal attributes or behaviors. We seek out those we have wronged, asking for forgiveness, to make teshuva, for our sins. We begin with Heshbon HaNefesh and follow with teshuva—repentance for both sins against others, and sins against God.
For me, this 2nd charge is more fraught with difficulty. For what exactly does God want our apologies? We beat our breasts, pray until we’re somewhat delirious, search our souls, and beseech God.... These are sins between us and the Life Force of our universe, our Eternal Sovereign—what is our teshuva truly for?
It is no coincidence that on Yom Kippur, we read the story of Jonah, an example of imperfect teshuva between a person and God. Jonah is a story of ironic inversion. As a prophet, he is the anti-hero. God calls Jonah to go to Nineveh to proclaim judgment against the Ninevites’ wickedness. What does Jonah do? He flees in the opposite direction! He boards a ship attempting to escape God’s summons, and while he is aboard, God unleashes a mighty storm to force him back. After the terrified sailors identify Jonah as the cause of the storm, they throw him overboard, hoping to appease God who will allow them to survive.
In the turbulent waters, Jonah gets swallowed by...a great fish. Once inside the fish, does he immediately beg God for forgiveness? No! He dawdles 3 days before capitulating to God’s will, finally agreeing that he will go to Nineveh. Jonah, the man God chooses to prophesy (sigh) to the people, never asks for forgiveness after deliberately turning away from God’s call.
This is a story of descent. Throughout, the Torah repeats the verb yarad, to go down. Our prophet falls deeper and deeper down while fleeing from the Eternal. God commands Jonah to go up to Nineveh at the beginning of the story. What does Jonah do? He goes down to Jaffa. He “descends” into the depths of the ship during the storm. He goes down into the belly of the great fish. Jonah delves deeply into his id, into his fears, his anger, his demons. Each time he gives into his flaws, he descends again.
Once in Nineveh, does Jonah offer a great prophecy to the people? Does he proclaim words of judgment against them? Does he bellow God’s wrath? No, he only states, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”1 Jonah’s speech to the Ninevites is merely one sentence, almost inarticulate, not a grand exposition.
Then comes more irony, the unexpected inverted outcome: the Ninevites repent and God renounces their punishment. The evil civilization, the Ninevites, demonstrate exemplary behavior. They fast. They put on sack cloth and sit in ashes. God forgives them. Jonah is deeply aggrieved at God’s abounding compassion. He confides that he fled from God’s initial directive because he knows God is,
“compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, and renouncing punishment,”2
words that are part of our High Holiday liturgy.
Jonah is irate that God accepts the Ninevites’ teshuvah. “Please, God, take my life, for I would rather die than live,”3 he cries. This is our prophet, a man whose ideological distress at Nineveh’s reprieve leads him to beg God to take his life.
As the story concludes, God provides a plant to shade Jonah as he sits in the desert sun. But the next day, the Eternal brings a worm to destroy the plant, and as Jonah is sitting in the sweltering heat, he again begs God for death. God responds that Jonah cared so much for the plant which he did not nurture or grow. Shouldn’t God care about Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left?4 Thus, God is merciful and forgiving, and Jonah is left to contemplate his attachment to the plant and his apathy for God’s people.
God gives us the possibility to atone and be forgiven, and Jonah, the anti-hero, evolves to become the sinner whose choices are ignorant. The irony in our story is that the Ninevites repent and are awarded a future filled with hope, while Jonah, our main character, is evasive, unable to repent, and unwilling to engage in God’s process of atonement. Here is our example of how not to make teshuva, how to avoid Heshbon HaNefesh. Again and again we proclaim God’s abounding kindness, mercy, and renunciation of punishment. Jonah’s insincere and forced attempts at teshuva will never allow him to realize the power of God’s forgiveness.
I return to the original struggle. What are the sins we commit against God? I believe Jonah offers us the answer: evading God’s call—whether it is a call to connect with the Divine, a cry of moral indignation, or a request for teshuva. The Eternal calls us with a summons, a purpose, and we have the choice, as Jonah did, to heed this call. Evading a Divine summons is one aveira, one way we transgress against God. But the Rabbis identify several types of sins against God including both unintentional violations of Jewish law as well as deliberate moral lapses.
So how do we know if we have sinned? A pesha is an "intentional sin"; an action committed in deliberate defiance of God. Jonah’s ignoring God’s summons to Nineveh is a pesha. An avon is a "sin of lust or uncontrollable emotion". It is a sin done knowingly, but not done to defy God. Coveting, your neighbor’s wife, the 10th commandment, for example, is an avon. A chet is an "unintentional sin" one does by accident, such as forgetting to say a blessing before eating. Jonah deliberately resists God’s call, therefore none of his sins are chets.
And yet, despite everything, Judaism understands that no human being is perfect, and people sin throughout their lives. One sin does not forever condemn a person; there is always the road of teshuva, or return. God always tempers justice with mercy, and the Talmud teaches that a repentant sinner attains a more exalted spiritual eminence than one who has never sinned.5
But there is one assumption in these definitions that we may find troubling. God is personified as intimately knowledgeable of each Jew’s actions and actively intervenes in our lives. This conception of the Divine may not speak to many of us. Moreover, descriptions of the Eternal in our liturgy are that of a male, vengeful, violent, intervening being. This may not resonate with us, and yet we are expected to pray to this God with all our being during our 10 Days of Awe. Perhaps the issue is in defining who or what this God is to which we repent.
Jonah was lucky enough to have God speak to him, we may not feel such closeness.
As I seek to define the Divine for myself, I hold several truths: the experience of deeply connecting with another human being, the awe and majesty of creation and our natural world, the moral forces within us pushing us towards goodness, and our wholeness, our center. When we are able to silence all of the noise in our head, all of the to-do lists, the doubts, the criticisms, the guilt, the remainder is the Eternal—the wholeness, the shalaim.
This is similar to the idea of the still, small voice the prophet Elijah mentions. If we can internalize God as the true, most whole part of ourselves, the utter unity, we may find that we can relate to this idea of God accounting for our sins. Jonah has a relationship with God but chooses not to listen. We have the opportunity now for Chesbon Hanefesh, an accounting of our souls, and the chance to connect with the Divine in each of us.
Another way to heed God’s call is through halakha, or Jewish law. Traditionally, halakha was our path against sinning. It provided a blueprint for living holy lives. Halakha’s elaborate structure is based on the Torah’s central idea that we are created b’tzelem Eloheim, in the image of God. We strive to be holy because God is holy. Our rabbis defined this holy society through a rigorous legal structure and a path to follow these laws. Halakha not only guides religious practices and beliefs, but also numerous aspects of day-to-day life. While halakha is often translated as "Jewish Law,” a more literal translation is the "the path" or "the way of walking."
However, many may ask, “Isn’t it enough to simply be good moral people? Why are there so many additional specific demands?” Laws about observing Shabbat, fasting, and the mandate to study and to observe holidays feel overwhelming in our hectic lives and may not reflect our contemporary consciousness.
Our legal structure may need to be adapted from generation to generation and the direction and width of the path may vary, but they are both necessary. As liberal Jews we like to focus on our flexibility and the importance of being able to change and adapt as times change. But without a path to guide our behavior we cannot truly have the freedom to adapt and change. The safety and security of the path allow us true flexibility. Rabbi Tirzah Firestone states, “I do believe that the only way for me to discover that having no boundaries does not equal freedom was to eliminate all structure. The loneliness that resulted from having no limits, and the lack of form and authority that I called freedom but that eventually sickened me, were requisite ingredients for my later appreciation of spiritual discipline, ritual and community.”6
Thus, while we may balk at the individual mitzvot, the individual commandments, most of us need the means to emulate God and create a holy society. Through our Reform espousal of educated choice, we are able to look at the entirety of Jewish law and decide what holds merit for us personally.
The Yom Kippur service leads each worshipper from guilt, to joy and confidence in God's love and mercy. Teshuva is a means to re-align ourselves with God’s will, to figure out what God wants of us, to filter all of the noise in our heads. Judaism understands the psychological importance of turning our attention to this once a year. We could never tolerate examining ourselves this thoroughly every day, but once a year Jews are called to look deep within, to descend as Jonah did, to cry out to the Eternal and emerge more whole and more at peace. 8
The Rabbis emphasized God’s desire for our repentance and inclination to forgive.In the commentary on Shir Ha Shirim, the Song of Songs7 they wrote, "Make for Me an opening (of repentance), an opening as narrow as the point of a needle, and I will make the opening so wide (for pardon) that camps full of soldiers and siege engines could enter it.”
We stand here this evening before the open Gates of Repentance. This is not necessarily comfortable ground. We may not have a plant for shade or security or reassurance. Like Jonah, we may have turned away from God’s call—resisting, running in the opposite direction. But we also want to strive not to be like him. May we have the strength required for Heshbon Hanefesh, for earnest self- examination. As we acknowledge our missteps, may we rededicate ourselves to finding wholeness, to reconnecting with the Source of Life, and to finding our own Jewish path of holiness and teshuva.
1 Jonah 3:4.
2 Jonah 4:2.
3 Jonah 4:3.
4 Jonah 4:11.
5 Talmud Berakhoth 34b.
6 Tirzah Firestone, with Roots in Heaven (Penguin Books: New York) 1998
7 Song of Songs 5:2.