High Holy Days: On Communal Teshuva

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Teshuva -- roughly translated into English as ‘repentance’ but actually involving much, much more -- is fundamental to Jewish thought and life. It is, actually, the very engine of all Jewish growth. We were created in order to develop and progress, in order to undertake the process of striving for the ideal of our very being. It is for this reason that we – each and every human being throughout history – were born imperfect, with challenges to be addressed, with parts demanding completion in a greater whole. The goal of life is to undertake the demanding task of improving on this beginning. This is not a job that we can necessarily complete; in fact, we can always improve on who we are. It is these increments of improvement, though, that God desires. These steps – not the impossible, completion of this never-ending task - are what God wishes.
It is with this recognition that we can understand that teshuva – the process of this growth – is, thus, not just to be a religious focus of certain days within the Jewish calendar. It is actually a life-force that should imbue every day of our lives. We may, thus, ask, though: if this is so, what makes the time period around Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur so distinct? It cannot be because it is solely the time of the year that we are to focus on teshuva as this involvement in our personal growth should be part of our daily existence. The call of this time period must be for a special focus on teshuva beyond our regular involvement.
There are actually many answers to this question, many different explanations of what are the variant special foci of this time period. One is that such an emphasis allows us to evaluate our daily involvement in teshuva. It is like any worthwhile endeavour we undertake on a regular basis – we also need a time to examine and evaluate these daily activities and processes. Rosh HashanahYom Kippur is a time for us to focus on our very method of personal, continuous teshuva. It is not solely a time for looking at ourselves – which should be daily – but a special time to look at how we do look at ourselves.
Another reason for the special focus of teshuva at this time is the unique call of a specific form of teshuva. When we think of teshuva -- in fact, when we think of religion in general -- we see it as a very personal endeavour. We consider it to concern me, my personal being and growth and my relationship with God. In fact, when people think of religion, they often just think of the personal relationship with God. This is where Torah is different. We, the Jewish People, are to have a communal, national relationship with God.
The nature of this communal relationship obviously touches upon the very nature of community and nationhood. It demands a consideration of our communal and national essence and then how this entity of the ‘us’ is to connect with God. This demands a development of this ‘us’, its progress and growth – a further striving for the ideal ‘us’. This leads to the demand of communal teshuva. A specific focus of Rosh Hashanah - Yom Kippur is, in fact, this communal teshuva.
To ponder this concept of communal teshuva, we have to articulate how we express the communal in our Jewish lives. Prayer in a minyan could serve as an example. This communal prayer has two dimensions. One is that we, as a group of individuals in personal prayer come together to pray together. This is reflected in the silent prayer we, as individuals, recite together at the same time. The other is the prayer recitation of the Chazan [Cantor]: we pray as a community through his prayers; he is our representative. There are thus two facets to community. One is that it bonds together distinct and separate individuals in a group allowing them to function optimally with each other. The other is that it is a creation of a new entity, a new gestalt, which fuses us together into a distinct whole which can reach heights beyond those available to solely a collection of individuals.
These two dimensions also exist in communal teshuva. Part of teshuva, even our personal teshuva, is approaching others whom we have wronged, rectifying our wrongdoing and asking for forgiveness. While this is an activity which can, and should, be undertaken, as necessary, throughout the year, part of the concentration of the High Holiday period is a call to remember this obligation to another. It reflects the communal focus of the time albeit, essentially, it is still of a personal nature. This focus is on our personal improvement in our interaction with another and thus can be, and should be, part of our daily commitment to improvement as well. It is the uniqueness of the focus on the other dimension of communal teshuva that actually demands a special time.
This is the focus on the unique gestalt of the community as our focus is not only on how we individually interact with each other but how we function as a communal entity. The focus of this teshuva is the ‘us’, the unique dynamics that combine us as a distinct community. This focus is not on how we may, as individuals, have wronged each other but how we, as a collective, did not meet what should be the standards of our community as a collective, as an ‘us’. Our question is: how did we, as an ‘us, as a collective, as a distinct entity of joined parts striving to go beyond these parts, do in reaching for our communal ideal? This focus is one we have to necessarily share as a group. Rosh HashanahYom Kippur is the special time period for us to come together in this focus.
This is specifically identified in the unique Yom Kippur Avodah [Temple Service] of the Kohain Gadol [High Priest] in Temple times. As part of his service he was to ask for atonement for the entire nation: one man representing the entire community in a petition before God. Atonement is only possible if it is accompanied by teshuva and, thus, in this request before God from a single, representative of the nation, we also encounter the essence of this side of communal teshuva. The Kohain Gadol necessarily calls upon us to consider the gestalt. His Avodah demands of ‘us’ to consider how we can do better as an ‘us’, within the uniqueness of our distinct collective. This idea permeated the Yom Kippur Temple Service and its memory and the hope for its re-emergence should still embrace us in our thoughts today. It should call us to communal teshuva in every respect.
Rosh Hashanah – Yom Kippur is a time when we should be thinking of how we can do better, be better. The fact is that this consideration of how we can improve should be a daily consideration but a special time for this consideration still has its value. The unique call of communal teshuva, at this time, demands of us, though, to merge our individual reflections into a consideration of the whole beyond the self, of the gestalt of our collective. This is the unique focus of this High Holiday time period.
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht is the Founding Director of Nishma, which fosters the critical investigation of contemporary issues. For further info, see and You can follow Rabbi Hecht on Twitter @NishmaTorah. Rabbi Hecht writes periodically for Jewish Values Online.
Please note: All opinions expressed in Blog Postings and comments on the Jewish Values Online site and through Jewish Values Online are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views, thoughts, beliefs, or position of Jewish Values Online, or those associated with it.

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