I keep having this feeling that Elul is going to be difficult for me this year. Elul, the Hebrew month that proceeds Rosh Hashanah, is supposed to be a month of preparation for the coming Days of Awe and the task of repentance—returning to God—which is known as "t'shuvah."
I am so overwhelmed by all the changes in my life—a new congregation, a new house, children to settle in a new school and surroundings—when am I supposed to find the time to look deeply inward and ready myself for t'shuvah? I have sermons to write and others to care for. When can I focus on myself?
We tend to think of t'shuvah as being a kind of self-guided psychoanalysis. We place ourselves on the figurative couch and try to probe our lives intellectually—what am I doing right, what am I doing wrong, where do I need to change? Or, we think of t'shuvah as if it were a kind of exercise, like long-distance running, that requires weeks of strengthening practice.
It is not that analysis and practice are not helpful in reaching t'shuvah. They are. It is just that they are not the main point of t'shuvah.
Rabbi Menachem Nachum Twerski, the author of Me'or Eynayim, wrote that t'shuvah has nothing to do with time. He cites a well-known rabbinic teaching that says that t'shuvah was one of the seven things God created before the world (B. Pesachim 54a):
T'shuvah preceded the world…and the world exists in time. However, prior to the world there was no conception of time at all. Therefore, there is no quality of time in the repair of t'shuvah, just the moment. Since it comes from beyond the concept of time, it can repair everything in an instant. T'shuvah has no need of time.
When you imagine that t'shuvah depends on time, you are not thinking about real t'shuvah, which requires one to believe that it can repair everything in a moment, without time. This is what our beloved rabbis meant in saying, “If not now, when?” This statement means that if you think that the repair of t'shuvah will be “not now”—since you believe that t'shuvah takes a long time—then you will also think, “When will it ever happen?"—for you believe that, taking time, the repair of t'shuvah could not be complete even if you spent days on end, like the sands of the sea, working on it.
But this is not t'shuvah at all, since it is not rooted in the belief that t'shuvah is beyond time and that it can repair everything in an instant.
"Repair everything in an instant." How does that work?
It begins with the recognition that I am in need of repair and that I cannot do it myself. It begins with the recognition that in order to be repaired, I have to let go of all the conceits about my own importance, relinquish my grip on my invented self, and return to my Source. That's what the word t'shuvah means—"returning."
It doesn't take time. It does not require lengthy analysis or practice. It just requires a moment to let go and return again.