Elul: T’shuvah, the spiritual practice of return, by Rabbi Marcia Prager

According to Jewish tradition it is customary to blow the Shofar from Rosh Hodesh (the New Moon) of the month of Elul until the day before Rosh Hashana so that the people will be aroused to prayer and t’shuvah. T’shuvah literally means “return.” Spiritually “return” is a process of re-alignment with the Divine Presence within us and around us, and with family and community.

(essay continues after the image)


Amidah Card Bracha 5 Teshuvah


The process of t’shuvah is an ongoing one. Jewish tradition teaches that we should make for ourselves a daily “fixed time” for t’shuvah – a regularized  practice of engaging in the spiritual work of re-alignment. T’shuvah becomes a regular feature of our daily spiritual work-outs, a Jewish “Soul Yoga.” As any yoga practitioner knows, a once-in-a-while workout does not produce a Yogi. So too, without regular spiritual practice, we can’t expect very high results. We live in a culture that places so many demands on us in the material world that it can become  difficult to regularize any spiritual practices at all. From a Jewish point of view this is tragic and dangerous for individuls and society. While from the outside, Jewish tradition may sometimes seem like an array of “rules,” from the inside we know ourselves to be gifted with  inspiring guidance for a life rich in soul-stretching spiritual practices. These interact synergistically to elasticize and tone our capacities to be vessels of Godliness.

The great Christian mystic Meister Eckart taught: “Know that the eye through which you see God is the same eye through which God sees you.”  T’shuvah  asks of us that we take our own eye, which is the eye of God, and search our souls. We are urged to make a regular practice of carving out a special time for hitbodedut (seclusion, alone-ness with self) and t’shuvah (soul searching and re-alignment) during which time we are immersed in holiness with no distractions.

Rabbi Elija deVidas writes:

Try to separate yourself and be alone with God one day each month…strive for a state of devekut  (clinging to God with passionate arousal and longing); review all your behavior, pray and study. Avoid any conversations about business. Try to fully immerse yourself in the mitzvah / spiritual practice of devekut, and the mitzvah of “do not turn to ‘anything-less-than-the-whole’ and make that like your God”.   (Totzaot Hayim )

Make it a custom to spend some time in a state of t’shuvah before any prayer or study, and also before going to sleep. Each of us, in our own private words, can do some rigorous soul-work without any self-righteousness or defensive posturing. This is a time for soul-review and return. Be aware, however, that t’shuvah must not be a descent into self-degradation, self-scorn, or destructive self-criticism.  As a disciple of the great Seer of Lublin taught: “When you pray about t’shuvah,  express your hopes! Come into a state of t’shuvah  in joy and expansiveness of spirit! Not from sadness, stress and feelings of impoverishment. “ (Menorat Zahav)

 Jewish tradition teaches us that our neshamah,  the soul that was created within us, is pure and good like a holy spark. No matter what layers of tarnish life’s hurts and errors may have layered on, t’shuvah can bring us back to our fundamental goodness and godliness.


Rabbi Marcia Prager is dean of the ALEPH ordination programs and author of The Path of Blessing.


Image: from Reb Marcia’s Amidah Meditation cards, available from Amazon.