This coming Shabbat, which falls in the midst of the Days of Awe, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, is know as Shabbat Shuvah—the Sabbath of Return.
The focus for the day—and for this entire ten day period—is on taking a spiritual accounting of ourselves, making amends to those we have wronged, and thereby returning to our best and truest path.
But how can we know when we have really changed our ways? So often, our efforts are just superficial, short-lived makeovers. What are the marks of genuine, deeper transformation?
Moses Maimonides offers a profoundly wise response. He suggests that we will know that our teshuvah is complete when we return to the same circumstances where we went astray, with the every opportunity to make the same mistake—and yet make a different choice.
There is something in the way this life plays out—call it God or fate or karma or psychology or what you will—that tends to return us, again and again, to the same circumstances where we miss the mark. Some of the surface details may change, but the underlying challenge remains the same. Each of us has her or his work to do, and that work keeps re-appearing in all aspects of our lives. In other words, we cannot outrun our problems. They will almost always pursue us. We can change our jobs, our locations, our relationships—but nothing really gets better until we change ourselves.
So Maimonides reminds us: we will keep finding ourselves in the same situation of our failure, again and again, until we finally figure out how to correct our mistakes. We repeat and repeat and repeat until we figure out how to make teshuvah.
In the words of Jon Kabat-Zinn: “This is the path of working where you find yourself, with what is found here and now. This, then, really is it. . . this place, this relationship, this dilemma, this job. The challenge of mindfulness is to work with the very circumstances that you find yourself in—no matter how unpleasant, how discouraging, how limited, how unending and stuck they may appear to be—and to make sure that you have done everything in your power to use their energies to transform yourself before you decide to cut your losses and move on. It is right here that the real work needs to happen.