Most of us live a fragmented existence. We are pulled in many directions at once. Our days have no clear purpose or direction. Our activities do not reflect who we are or who we want to be. Our time is filled with a hodgepodge of desires and obligations that we have bundled together and called ‘a life’.
In the fifth blessing of the daily petitional prayer, the shemonei esrai, we say, “hashevanu beteshuvah shelaimah lefanechah” – bring us back to You in whole-hearted repentance. This phrase can alternatively be translated as “bring us back and return us to the state of wholeness before You.” In this prayer we are asking God to lift us out of the state of fragmentation that is our lower self and return us to the wholeness that is our true Self, our Divine Self.
We tend to think that the solution to our problems is to keep adding more to our life. But the truth is that the more complex our life is, the more disjointed it becomes. Wholeness is achieved through simplicity and clarity.
A gardener removes the excess wood from a tree in order to give the tree form and light. This strengthens the flow of nourishment to the central branches and gives the tree balance and beauty.
The process of teshuvah works the same way. Teshuvah is about removing the layers that distract and confuse us. Teshuvah is about getting rid of those aspects that block out the light of our true Self. Teshuvah is about creating harmony, wholeness and peace within the whole of our being.
How do we achieve this state of inner clarity and harmony?
According to the Hasidic Master, Yisrael of Koznitz, we begin by taking a good look at ourselves. Next, we identify the issues that are keeping us from moving forward in our spiritual journey. Then, we stop making excuses and just accept what is wrong. We decide in the depth of our heart that we will not live this way anymore. We determine in the core of our being that we will never go down ‘that road’ again. And we do this with such firmness and conviction that it becomes engraved inside us, so that even God Himself will be willing to testify, so to speak, that our teshuvah is real. This is the meaning, Rebbe Yisrael says, of the word ‘lefanecha’ in the fifth blessing of the shemonei esrai: we must keep deepening the process of our teshuvah until it reaches before the throne of God Himself.
To follow this path requires courage, humility and strength. Such a lofty goal is not easily attained. It is achieved through firm commitment and intense inner work. The basis of this work is faith, wisdom and prayer. Faith will give us courage, wisdom will teach us humility, and prayer will fill us with strength.
Yet despite our best efforts and intentions, we are not always up to the challenge that the above process demands. Sometimes, in order to return to a state of wholeness, the only course for us is to change the circumstances of our life. In the laws of teshuvah, one phase of the process of repentance is voluntary exile. We remove or ‘exile’ ourselves from those situations and conditions that keep us locked into negative modes of behaviour and thinking. In this way, we break the habitual patterns that have built up over a lifetime. We separate ourselves from the things that feed our lower self to make space for our Higher Self to be revealed.
Not all of the Hasidic Masters believe that teshuvah will occur as a result of self-introspection and the harnessing of the will. Rebbe Natan of Nemirov teaches that the impulse to do teshuvah arises out of a deep longing for holiness. Sometimes, he says, it is only by sinning and then being distanced from God that we realize how much we want to be holy and live in holiness. The spiritual darkness that we experience after we have sinned, where we feel cut off from God and cut off from ourselves, arouses within us a great longing for God and a life of holiness. It is this intense yearning that leads us to do teshuvah, to change our way of living and return to who we really are.
Why is it that we need to fall in order to awaken our yearning for God? The answer lies hidden in the fundamental nature of our existence. Teshuvah, Rebbe Natan declares, is an integral part of the process of tikkun olam (fixing the world). Our task in life is to be a vessel or pipeline through which God’s light can radiate into the world. When we are our true selves, we live in harmony with the Divine Will. In this natural state, we act as perfect pipelines for God’s light.
However, when we do a chait, a wrong or spiritually negative act, we become disconnected from our true selves. In this state, our spiritual vessel becomes distorted. When God’s light pours through this distorted vessel, it shatters. As a result, the Divine light is scattered and all of its spiritual power is dissipated.
Teshuvah, then, is about tikkun. It is about repairing our shattered vessel. It is about returning to the sense of inner balance and clarity that will make us fitting pipelines to channel the Divine emanation.
Yet tikkun olam is about more than just repair. Tikkun olam is about spiritual evolution. In order to mend a broken vessel, Rebbe Natan tells us, it is not enough to return to the same spiritual level that we were on before. In order to repair our shattered vessel we need to forge a new link with our soul. The greater yearning that arises as a result of our fall is the spiritual force which facilitates this tikkun. It creates an inner longing that propels us higher into the Kingdom of Heaven, and enables us to bring more Divine light into the world.
Teshuvah radically transforms our consciousness. To do teshuvah means to embrace faith, hope and aspiration and let go of bitterness, fear and doubt. To do tteshuvah is to see light instead of darkness – to view the world through God’s transcendent eyes.
The life of Chhaganlal Yogi, one of the devotees of Sri Ramana Maharshi, is an example of such a spiritual transformation. Before coming to Sri Ramana, Chhaganlal lived in a state of constant doubt and despondency. His very first visit to the Maharshi, however, totally changed his life. Here is his description of what transpired.
“I found my whole outlook entirely changed…I felt that I had lost the chains that bind the eyes of true vision. I became aware that the whole texture of my mind had undergone a change. The colours of the world seemed different, and even the ordinary daylight took on an ethereal aspect. I began to see the foolishness and the futility of turning my gaze only on the dark side of life.” 
Rebbe Natan teaches that the essence of teshuvah is to renew our livingness at every moment. This, he explains, is the meaning of the prayer “Bring us back to You, O Lord, and we shall return; renew our days as of old” (Lam. 5, 21). Through the process of teshuvah we become alive with the sublime awareness of our Eternal Spirit. We are cleansed and renewed by the light of Pure Being. Through the process of teshuvah we return to our natural home of inner peace and perfect wholeness before the sacred Throne of God.
Copyright © 2012, by Yoel Glick
- David Godman, The Power of the Presence, Vol. II, p. 177↵