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Teshuva: Rediscovering Who We Are

By: Mrs. Ilana Gottlieb

As the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, are fast approaching, it is only natural to reflect on the events of the past year. Any honest self-reflection leads to the following questions: What were our accomplishments?  What were our failures? What have we done that made us feel proud – or ashamed?

These questions, and the related process of teshuva, challenge us in a profound way and, therefore, a 40 days time period – starting with Rosh Chodesh Elul and culminating on Yom Kippur – is dedicated to repentance and reflection. In fact, this tradition dates back to the time that Moshe spent on Har Sinai pleading with God to forgive the Jewish people for the Sin of the Golden Calf – he ascended the mountain on Rosh Chodesh Elul and remained there until he descended, 40 days later, on Yom Kippur, with a new set of luchot and the promise of forgiveness for the people of Israel.

It’s interesting to note that the number 40 is very often associated with change and transition:

Noach stayed in the ark while the flood raged for 40 days and nights and emerged into a new and improved world. After the sin of the spies, the Jewish people wandered through the desert for 40 years as one generation slowly died out and a new one was born.  The people of Ninveh, who we read about at on Yom Kippur afternoon, were given 40 days to change their evil ways lest their city be destroyed. And, finally, a mikvah, the source of spiritual purity and transition, needs a minimum of 40 seah of water in order to be suitable for use.

What is the connection between the number 40 and the process of spiritual change?

There is a mystical tradition that every letter in the Hebrew alphabet has two numeric values, a “revealed” as well as a “hidden” value. For example, the letter aleph, when spelled out, is aleph, lamed, feih – the aleph, with a value of 1, is revealed and the lamed and feih, with a value of 110, are hidden.


As with the aleph, the revealed value of almost every other letter in the alphabet is different than the hidden one. The only exception to this pattern is the letter mem, which is actually spelled mem, mem and, therefore, have identical hidden and revealed values of 40.

The deeper message of this mystical anomaly is that the number 40 is associated with change because real and lasting change isn’t about adding something new or different but is about taking what was always there – but hidden – and revealing it. Teshuvah, especially during this 40 day process, is about making out “revealed” lives consistent with our “hidden” potential. In other words, teshuva isn’t about becoming a different person, but rather it is about uncovering the wonderful qualities that we have always possessed but which, over the year, have become clouded and covered; we rediscover our true selves.

The word teshuvah is typically translated as “return” – to God. However, Rav Avraham Yiztchak Kook explains that the real meaning of teshuvah is “bakashat ha-ani ha-atzmi,” a return to our true selves, a return to our innate capacity for greatness and our natural state of purity.

Life is full of pressures – personal, communal, and professional – and these pressures impact the way we live our lives. As a result we often get caught up in trying to become the person that we want others to see. The process of teshuvah reminds us that the real goal of life is just the opposite; it is about fulfilling our unique potential and being consistent with our spiritual essence.

At Midreshet AMIT this process of self-discovery is one of the primary goals that we have for our students throughout the year. Through our intense learning program each student is challenged and inspired to create her own personal connection to the Torah. Exciting tiyulim and shabbatonim throughout the country create a life-long bond between our students and the land and people of Israel. And finally, our daily interaction with the children at AMIT’s Beit Hayeled teaches our students about the power of giving and – in the process – helps them discover their true capacity for helping others.

Best wishes for a happy and sweet New Year.