This point was made several decades ago by none other than Rav Yechezkel Sarna, the head of Chevron Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He was a close disciple of Rav Nosson Zvi Finkel, zt”l, the legendary “old man” of Slobodka. Rav Sarna was an adherent of the Mussar movement, which advocated fear of God as the essential component of the process of teshuvah. But in his writings, Rav Sarna rejected this approach as inappropriate for our times. Cultivating love and joy rather than fear was the alternative he recommended for our generation.
Thinking outside the box calls for a discussion about teshuvah that relates to the way most of us actually live our lives. We live our lives as husbands and wives who are both working; as parents of children who are not naturally obedient – and we are part of the sandwich generation as the adult children of aging parents. We spend most of our day working hard for a living with all the religious challenges that entails. We are doctors, lawyers, accountants, storekeepers and laborers, and we need a teshuvah process that addresses the problems those roles impose upon us.
Moreover, none of us lives as isolated individuals. We are parts of families, of social networks, of communities large and small, of a very heterogeneous nation, of humanity. The process of teshuvah must have impact upon us as units of those greater wholes.
I therefore suggest that we think of the process as a series of concentric circles, which brings us to the second of the two graphic images. In the innermost circle are the most personal issues we must address as we do teshuvah. Here, it is appropriate to speak of the individual. But even here it is inappropriate to focus only on improvements we need to make in our religious practices; we must seek to improve our ethical behavior even in ways that transcend the religious prescriptions of halacha.
Through introspection, we must examine the quality of our religious practices and be sure they are performed with enthusiasm and joy and intention. We cannot stop at the level of mere behavior and lose the opportunities for emotion and feeling and, ultimately, for spiritual meaningfulness.
We must also carefully examine our social, economic, and political practices, which often transcend obvious religious guidelines. In the social sphere, the manner in which we choose our friends and the ways in which we relate to them always require introspection and often demand improvement. The ways in which we spend our leisure time must be open to the kind of self-critical scrutiny that is part of genuine teshuvah. Whether we budget our money so that we live within our means or allow ourselves to get into crippling credit card debt is another subject open for the teshuvah process. Our political views and our political behavior, whether we vote and whom we vote for, are all fair game for a “teshuvah for our time.”
But then we must go beyond that innermost circle and examine our relationships to the outer circles. We must seek and grant forgiveness within our family circle and do all that is necessary to enhance and refine the family crucible. We must review our friendships and acquaintances, and see to it that they are improved.
As we move toward the circles nearer to the periphery, we must explore the nature of the roles we play in our synagogue community, in our neighborhood, and in the Orthodox world in general. Are we carrying our weight in those circles? Are we defining our priorities properly? Are we using the spiritual resources available to us, which often go begging for us to use?