The Cycles of Teshuvah

Dear Friends,

As I wrote in my first note, one of the larger projects on which I’m working is an expansion of Reb Zalman’s thoughts on t’shuvah, loosely translated either as repentance or return. It is a fundamental teaching of Hassidut that everyone should be engaged in a lifelong process of t’shuvah. What that might mean will be explored in future postings and for now let’s just assume the truth of this principle.

In the booklet called “A Guide for Starting Your New Incarnation” which focused on the t’shuvah of Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur, Reb Zalman talked about four overlapping cycles. Most familiar to us is the annual one, culminating in the confessions made on Yom Kippur. In “Yom Kippur Kattan and the Cycles of T’shuvah,” Reb Zalman focused on the lesser known monthly cycle which finds its expression in the practice of Yom Kippur Kattan on the last day of most months.

In his “Guide,” Reb Zalman said the following about daily t’shuvah:

Every night we say kri’aht sh’ma she’ahl hah-mitah / the recitation of the sh’ma done on the bed. To fulfill the positive mitzvah of saying sh’ma “when you lie down and when you rise up,” many people make this the last thing they do before going to sleep. Since sleep has some similarity to death, and since we want to die saying the sh’ma, this is an appropriate moment for doing a spiritual stock-taking as well, just as we would hope to do on our deathbeds. This way, no day goes by without clearing what you can. It’s like looking at what’s waiting in the basket to be deleted for the day.

I might say that what you do every night is dealing with the nefesh part of soul (the most physical and that which we share with other life forms).

To actualize this idea, the siddurim of the Hassidim and the S’faradim begin the bedtime sh’ma with a t’shuvah focused meditation. Below, I’ve pasted a link to this meditation and an abbreviated form of the bedtime sh’ma which can also be found in the weekday edition of Siddur Kol Koreh. This is as it appears in classical siddurim and, in reviewing it, I would make the translation clearer that we are not limiting our responsibility to other Jews but extending it to all human beings with whom we have relationships.

Interestingly, this meditation was also included in the Harlow machzor of the Conservative Movement to be recited prior to Kol Nidre, but without the phrase “whether in this incarnation or in another” (page 350). The Art Scroll siddur translates this phrase faithfully and adds the note that the transmigration of souls is a basic kabbalistic concept. I think it’s useful to note this, since we so often hear people say that Judaism doesn’t really believe either in an afterlife or in reincarnation. This is largely because the responsibility of defining Judaism after the sho’ah fell to the rationalists of the Western European Jewish movements, which in turn are the antecedents of the contemporary Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative movements in North America. It has taken until now for mystical Judaism to find its voice again and to restore balance to the continuum of Jewish beliefs.


 Al ha-Mitah