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The Door's Open, But the Ride It Ain't Free

September 13, 2011 | by Rabbi Chanoch Oppenheim

Four steps to real change.

If the Byrds can use verses from Ecclesiastes in their song, "Turn, Turn, Turn," then a rabbi can discuss Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur using Bruce Springsteen lyrics: "The door's open, but the ride it ain't free."

Many Jews who find themselves in a place of worship during High Holidays bide their time until they can leave. Others make a real effort to have a transformative experience, and enjoy a ride to new heights of self-growth and intimacy with God. If you fall into the first group, this article is for you.

Well-known High Holiday traditions include dipping an apple in honey, blowing a Shofar, and fasting. A crucial overlooked practice is "repentance." Perhaps you recoiled upon reading this word because it conjures up images of a medieval priest exhorting his parishioners. But this practice does apply to Jews, and it can give every kind of Jew an upgrade in life.

The true meaning of the Hebrew word teshuva is "return" though it is commonly translated as "repent." Each Jew can return to his/her "true self." The question is, who is the real you? You are real when you don't give the silent treatment to someone you love. You are real when you speak directly to a person who has angered you instead of speaking behind his/her back. You are real when you do not see yourself as a total failure after your performance falls short of perfection. These scenarios warrant teshuva, a return to the genuine you.

The four-step process of teshuva is available to everyone with one caveat: As the Boss said, "the ride it ain't free." It takes commitment, brutal honesty, and introspection.

Four Steps

Consider a practical example. Someone regularly belittles his spouse/colleague/neighbor/child. He knows it's wrong, but continues to do so.

Step 1: Stop the destructive behavior. If you think, "I really should stop," but justify just belittling others via email, then that’s not serious about change.

Step 2: Feel remorse. If the person ceases belittling behavior but does not think it was wrong, then he/she merely gives lip service to a fleeting thought of decency. Spend time thinking about what it must feel like to be belittled; this will bring about genuine remorse.

Step 3: Verbal confession. Not in an anonymous or face-to-face encounter with a religious leader, but to God. Why is it necessary to make a verbal declaration? Because there is a metaphysical power in audibly expressing your innermost thoughts. Restricted to your mind alone, positive thoughts lack the necessary power. Although we do not see God in front of us, when we confess audibly, we become uncomfortable in confessing our wrongdoings and will feel increasingly foolish repeating our misdeeds again tomorrow and the next week.

At the time of confession, say aloud: "I declare before God, Who knows my innermost thoughts: I have done wrong, I have done X behavior (details, details – generalizations do not count) and deeply regret my actions."

Step 4: Resolve not to repeat the destructive behavior. Say out loud: “I will never do it again.” If you can not do this process, you must admit to yourself that you still have a problem.

This process is not for the light-hearted. It’s for people who want the greatness that comes from a mental/psychological/emotional/spiritual workout. The same way a workout at the gym can be challenging yet pleasurable, so too self-growth is a rigorous process that yields pleasure. As the High Holidays approach, we know that we are not enslaved to the forces that separate us from becoming the "true self."

Set aside one hour from your busy schedule. Go somewhere you can think without distractions – a closed room or an open forest, as long as there’s no phone or Internet access to distract you.

Consider the primary relationships in your life – with others, with God, and with yourself – and try to get some big-picture clarity. Try to isolate the one or two points where you are losing the most ground, and then go through the four steps of teshuva.

Take responsibility for your destructive behaviors. The lies you told yourself in the past about not being able to change will belong to someone you no longer recognize. Transform yourself. Now is time for teshuva, a return to the real you. "The door's open."

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