2013-09-04 / Religion Column

Repentance requires tending to the garden of our soul

Community Chaplain

It is not surprising that the theme of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is teshuvah—repentance and renewal. After all, Rosh Hashanah was the first step along the spiritual pathway that guided our ancestors as they celebrated in God’s Holy Temple, the blessings of a successful year. Our great fall festival, Sukkot, marked the end of the agricultural year and, on it, with joy and thanksgiving, our people gathered to acknowledge God’s abiding presence in their lives. The rites and rituals of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur helped them undergo the moral and spiritual cleansing needed to prepare them for their intimate encounter with God on Sukkot. As one year passed, they counted their blessings, offered thanksgiving and prepared for the year to come.

Today, although few of us are farmers, the vision of bringing in the crops, weeding, clearing the fields, preparing the soil, and planning and planting for the seasons to come still stirs our hearts. From Rosh Hashanah, through Yom Kippur and on to Sukkot, we tend to our souls as a gardener tends to the soil. Teshuvah—repentance and renewal—is the spiritual process of counting our blessings, clearing our souls and preparing for future harvests.

The first step in teshuvah is the easiest. As a farmer measures the bushels of grain and the baskets of produce he grew, we review what we have experienced and learned. We give thanks for the strength we had to overcome our challenges and we are grateful for our small, and sometimes great, achievements. While we certainly have not reached all our goals, we see that the year has had its bounteous harvest. Gratitude and thanksgiving rest at the heart of teshuvah.

The next step is the hard work of weeding and clearing the garden. No matter how careful we may have been in tending the garden of our soul, sins, like weeds, continue to grow. With the spiritual harvest in, the time has come to pull out these weeds and clear away the debris. Now we can clearly see how our sins, errors, and mistakes took up so much precious space in our soul’s garden. Teshuvah is the act of forsaking our iniquities.

Yet teshuvah is more than harvesting and weeding. We also need to examine what we have planted and cared for so carefully to see if all the effort was worthwhile. Could we have had a more successful year? Did we plant the right crops? Did we have the proper balance between fruits, vegetables and flowers? Did we use our time and our resources wisely? These basic questions represent our desire to learn and to grow. Teshuvah implies discernment, judgment, and understanding.

But teshuvah, like gardening, requires us to ask even more difficult questions as we plan for the coming year. Gardening often requires pruning, replanting and, sometimes, even discarding beloved plants, bushes, shrubs and trees. Often we spend too much of our time and energy on worthwhile activities that slowly take over too much of our lives. Occasionally, some aspects of our lives, no matter how beautiful and full of meaning and memories, are no longer useful or productive. They may even get in our way. Sadly, we need to cut them down and dig them up. Teshuvah directs us to reorganize our spiritual garden and reprioritize our lives.

Finally, there are times when we must move on and plant new gardens. We need to leave all behind and start again with new beds and freshly turned soil. We have to put aside our past with its pains and pleasures, and begin anew. When we enter into our new lives, we bring only our memories, wisdom, knowledge and hope. As we continue on our life-journey, teshuvah means knowing when to stay, when to leave, what to abandon and what to keep.

As we end one year and begin the next, teshuvah—the renewal made possible by repentance—guides us on our journey. On Rosh Hashanah, we feel humbled by its life renewing potential. On Yom Kippur, we are awestruck by the opportunity it grants us to restart our moral and spiritual lives. On Sukkot, celebrate its power to open our hearts and homes to God’s abiding presence as we begin the plowing and planting for the next harvest of our life. .

Return to top