Teshuvah: Inspiration and Action
Reviewed Book: Erica Brown, Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe (Jerusalem, Israel, and New York, NY: Maggid Books and OU Press, 2012).
When a reader first picks up a book, the first thing he or she sees is the title. Sometimes, the title of a book can be vague. It may be some phrase that sounds appealing and draws the reader’s attention, but does not give any information on what the book is about. Other titles can be much more illuminating. Not only do they attract the reader, but they also give a hint as to the book’s main message and purpose. The title of Dr. Erica Brown’s new book, Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe, belongs to the second category; it is a precise summary of the book’s content and goals. The “Daily Inspiration” refers to the book’s ten main chapters, each of which is meant to be read one of the ten days between Rosh ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur. “Return” refers to the central message of the book, that of teshuvah, which is also manifested in the theme of each chapter.
Based on the writings of Rabbi Jonah of Gerona, Brown describes teshuvah as a sanctuary, a “space… [to return] to our essential selves.”[i] It is a place where people are able to remove themselves from sin, to muster the power to overcome internal conflict and transform themselves, and to become “one with forces that usually rage within” them.[ii] She emphasizes that the teshuvah process is an internal, emotional one, although it is manifested in changed outer behavior. Brown takes issue with the common English translation of teshuvah as repentance, because it does not necessitate changing future behavior. Instead, she advocates defining teshuvah as recovery, which includes the steps necessary to rebuild the relationship with God back to where it could have been.[iii] Because of this definition, the book often reads as a self-help book, which could draw in some readers who are looking for inspiration to undergo the teshuvah process themselves. The later chapters carry through this message of teshuvah as a recovery process; indeed, in a way, the chapters in the book are like a ten-step program for returning to the essential selves Brown describes.
Each chapter focuses on a specific theme related to teshuvah. These themes are mostly character traits, such as humility and discipline, or mental states, such as faith and joy, which are meant to be worked on for that day. Each chapter goes a step closer in bringing a person to the recovery state of teshuvah. Beyond that, however, they do not specifically connect with each other. Within the main ten chapters Brown only references previous ones occasionally. As such, the chapters are largely independent units, and so the ordering of the chapters is somewhat arbitrary. Some chapters seem to be placed based on the specific calendar day on which they are meant to be read. One such example is the chapter on discipline, which focuses specifically on food and is meant to be read on the fast day of tsom Gedalyah. However, other chapters are not related to a specific day, but seem to be organized by whether they fit better with and should therefore be closer to Rosh ha-Shanah or Yom Kippur.
Each chapter concludes with excerpts from three works: Rambam’s Hilkhot Teshuvah, R. Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto’s Mesilat Yesharim, and R. Abraham Isaac ha-Cohen Kook’s Orot Teshuvah. For each source, the excerpts are organized so that the order they appear in after the chapters is the same as the order in which they appear in the original. For example, each excerpt from Hilkhot Teshuvah comes from a different one of the ten perakim, and for the most part the excerpt from each perek is to be read on its corresponding day of the aseret yemei teshuvah. While the other texts do not have the same one-to-one ratio, earlier parts of the sources are read before the later parts. The excerpts seem to be chosen based on their relevance to the central theme of the perek in the Rambam. Following the excerpts are questions meant to spark thought about the texts being read and their connection to the rest of the chapter, highlighting the points in the chapter which Brown wants to bring out in the sources. However, because of the ordering of the excerpts, it seems at times that the texts are not directly relevant to the questions being asked, so that while both the texts and the questions are valuable on their own, the connection between the two is often a stretch.
The end of each chapter also includes a “Life Homework” section, and its presence makes it clear that Brown’s book is not just meant to be read, but to also be experienced. This section explains how to apply the messages of the book to daily life, giving tasks based on both the larger theme of the chapter and the smaller, more practical sub-points. Some of these assignments are taken from actual activities performed by Brown’s family to internalize some of the messages of the Days of Awe. For example, she mentions a family practice of writing down some specific areas which each individual wants to work on in the next year, and, each year, comparing the new list to lists created in previous years.[iv] By giving examples which have already been put into practice, Brown shows that her suggestions are practical and not merely nice ideas; the reader will see it and think, “If her family could do it, so can I.” Brown’s background in leadership training is demonstrated in these assignments, as she is able to pinpoint precisely what to think about and which actions to take in order to achieve the goal of self-improvement.
Brown’s mastery also comes through in from the wide range of sources she cites throughout the book. She quotes both secular and religious sources, often on the same page. For example, in one paragraph she quotes both R. Kook and the novelist Michael Lavigne.[v] Brown also juxtaposes classic Judaic texts with modern ones, such as when she quotes Eikhah Rabbah followed by Halakhic Man.[vi] This seamless blend of a variety of sources shows how well-versed Brown is, and this well-roundedness gives more legitimacy to what she is saying. It also makes the book more appealing to readers, since it is able to satisfy both those who want more recent, contemporary sources and those who are focused on the need to prove ideas from more traditional Jewish texts.
The book is very short, a mere 165 pages. When divided over the ten days of the aseret yemei teshuvah, this amounts to less than twenty minutes of reading a day. The manageable size should help encourage people to read the book, because it will not seem overwhelming to the casual reader. Also, the topics discussed by Brown are general, wide-ranging concepts. The small size is therefore beneficial because it compels Brown to be specific in her analysis and to give concrete ideas. On the other hand, the connections between different ideas within an essay can sometimes be unclear, since there is not enough space to develop them more fully without compromising on explaining the ideas themselves.
As a result, it is sometimes unclear how Brown gets from one idea to another. Within the essay itself, the ideas seem to flow, but occasionally the reader finishes a chapter and wonders how the end of the discussion connects to the beginning. Each chapter opens with a quote from the “al het” section of viduy (confession), which introduces an essay about the theme of the day. The essays begin with a few pages of close analysis of a source or set of sources such as Tanakh or rabbinic writings, which is used as a springboard for the rest of the discussion. From here, Brown will bring in other sources related to the topic at hand, but frequently ideas connect directly only to the theme and the sources immediately before them, but not to the rest of the sources in the chapter. For example, the chapter on discipline begins by relating the story of Gedalyah ben Ahikam, whose assassination is the impetus for the fast which bears his name. From there, Brown begins to examine fasting in general, which transforms into a discussion on self-discipline, which then further morphs into a discussion about the challenges of eating properly. This chapter then changes topic again to talk about the manna, then willpower, then habits, then R. Dessler on nekudat ha-behirah.[vii] It then concludes with a short paragraph on self-control.[viii] While the ideas flow within the essay, it is easy for the reader to finish the chapter and wonder why R. Dessler’s thesis relates to the assassination of Gedalyah, and the emphasis on food throughout the whole chapter can seem somewhat forced.
Brown’s book is successful in providing many theoretical ideas about the teshuvah process, and suggesting realistic ways to implement them in real life. Readers who are interested in self-improvement books, or who are searching for inspiration for the aseret yemei teshuvah, will find this work to be invaluable. Readers who are not interested in either of these things may not enjoy those aspects of the book as much, yet they may still appreciate the book’s wide range of sources as a facilitator for further study.
Davida Kollmar is a senior at SCW majoring in Physics, and is a staff writer for Kol Hamevaser.
[i] Erica Brown, Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe (Jerusalem, Israel, and New York, NY: Maggid Books and OU Press, 2012), 1.
[iii] Ibid. pp. 8-9.
[iv] Ibid. p. 126.
[v] Ibid. p. 6.
[vi] Ibid. p. 140.
[vii] Ibid. p. 47. R. Dessler’s thesis is that a given person is faced with multiple challenges every day, but the ones with which (s)he struggles are the ones which are on his/her level, not those (s)he has already mastered or is not yet able to combat.
[viii] Ibid. chapter 3.