First published in Times of Israel
The relationship between God and the Jewish people is dynamic and complex, taking many forms in different contexts and periods. At times, God is referred to as the king and ruler, an object of authority and control whose judgment we fear. At times, He is our father in heaven, from whom we expect nurturing and protection. And some texts, such as the romantic Song of Songs, illustrate God and the Jewish people as intimate lovers.
Each type of relationship serves to develop different parts of the self and creates the skills to connect with ourselves and with others in our lives. With God as King, we develop a relationship with Him that is based on submission and fear and awe. For many, particularly those of us who may struggle with authority, this relationship may be the one that is most difficult with which to connect. However, doing so enables the development of humility and respect in a world that runs according to rules and demands adherence.
God as loving father develops our parts that anticipate and even to some extent feel entitled to, being nurtured, protected and cared for. For this protection, we are eternally grateful and we express our gratitude the moment we awaken each morning. Through this parental relationship we learn to trust, to be vulnerable enough to ask for help, and to express appreciation.
With God as partner, we learn the skills to be intimate with the other. We learn to be a loyal partner, and to experience vitality, creativity and passion with the other. But as in all relationships, we experience conflict, and sometimes we injure and disappoint God. And at this time of year, more than any other, we learn how to repair conflict with the Divine through Teshuva, or repentance.
Maimonides indicates that there are three basic facets to the process of Teshuva. The elements of Teshuva, not necessarily in order, are taking accountability and confessing our sinful, or hurtful acts, experiencing and expressing real remorse and regret, and committing to change. While this process occurs through our relationship with God, these elements are exactly what are necessary to repair our relationship with ourselves as well. Intimacy begins with the self. Only when we can take accountability, feel regret, and provide forgiveness, empathy and compassion to ourselves, can we do so in our relationships with others. Teshuva is a process not unlike therapy, which allows for self-reflection, self-understanding but most importantly, self-forgiveness.
Some approaches to the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur emphasize fear and trepidation upon approaching judgment. These approaches underscore the authoritarian power of God to reward good behavior and punish bad. As a child who went through the yeshiva day school system imbued with the values of the Musar movement, the Jewish ethical, educational and cultural movement that developed in 19th century Lithuania, I found the scales we colored in first grade, weighing our good deeds against our bad, frankly, terrifying. I recently read that some Hasidic groups see Teshuva as the opportunity to return to one’s self, emphasizing God’s fatherly love rather than punishing wrath. This feels like a more soothing approach. After all, relationships feel safer when they are secure attachments rather than held together by insecurity and fear of abandonment or punishment.
For some, Teshuva may be about fear, guilt, and shame. But ultimately, this can be a narcissistic and self-absorbed experience. Self-compassion and forgiveness allows for repair with others. In our real relationships, showing true accountability and sincere regret to the ones who we have hurt is far more authentic then an unfeeling “I’m sorry if I did anything to hurt you.” Committing to change means saying “I wouldn't want you to feel that way again because of me.” Conflict happens in all real relationships and Teshuva is a template for relationship repair. Teshuva requires vulnerability. We don’t stand before God and rationalize our behavior, deny, defend or become reactive. So too, it takes vulnerability to put down our defenses and create a space to move towards our partner with open arms and say, “I don’t want to fight anymore.” The vulnerability and authenticity that emerges in us through Teshuva, connecting to God and the self, are key elements in healing our intimate relationships.