Rabbi David Zucker, of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, wisely drashes (writes) about the process of teshuvah for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur:
The final book of the Torah, Deuteronomy, begins with Moses urging the people to make a major change in their lives. “Too long,” he says, “have you been living here in the desert. Now it is time to realize your destiny. The Promised Land lies before you. Go and conquer it!” Moses exhorts the people with three verbs, linked together, and spoken quickly: p’nu, s’u, and bo’u – Turn, Travel, Go . . . (Deut 1:7).
For many of us this is good advice. It is natural to become complacent with where we are, or what we are doing (or for that, for what we are not doing). Inertia becomes comfortable. We are reasonably content with our lot. It takes effort to try something new. Yet sometimes we need to get a move on, we need to get out of the rut of our lives and grow. Turn, travel, and go. Whether we are heading in the wrong direction, or not moving at all, change can bring some very positive results.
Change begins with the realization that we should/need to take on a new direction. The next step however is important, it is crucial: we require an attainable and realistic goal. Moses sets this out for the people when he describes the Promised Land. He mentions various sections, different locales, the Negev, the hill country, the shores of the sea, the Great River. Each of us has a different destiny. Yet all of us require something or somewhere for which to strive. For some it is the Negev, for others the hill country, and so forth.
Then the journey begins. Step by step: p’nu, s’u, and bo’u – Turn, Travel, and Go.
To “turn” often is a form of re-turning. We were headed in a positive direction, but then we found ourselves distracted, diverted, or delayed. Now is the time to resume that journey.
To “travel” may have an aspect of travail. Trying new ways, ways that are unfamiliar to us requires effort. We do not always know which is the best path to take.
To “go” from here to there is one way to look at the voyage. Another viewpoint is that from where you will eventually arrive. This is reflected in the translation of the verb that Moses speaks, bo’u, which in its root form (bet-vav-alef) sometimes means “going” and more commonly “coming.” From that latter perspective, you are coming to a certain place.
This Torah portion is typically accompanied by a foreboding prophetic reading (Isaiah 1:1-27) urging the ancient Israelite community of Isaiah’s time to change its direction; it gives warning of the potential consequences for continuing in its dangerous ways. On Tisha b’Av (the mournful 9th of Av commemoration of the Temple’s destruction and Israel’s repeated exile)… we reflect deeply on those tragic historical outcomes.
Then, in a short while within the Jewish calendar, we [are in] the month of Elul, four weeks that precede the High Holy Days. Turning and returning, is a major theme of that time. Teshuvah [repentance] is an important goal. Bearing this in mind, we can connect with that process by urging ourselves to begin today, to p’nu, s’u, and bo’u – Turn, Travel, and Go. Step by step.
Not all of us will make the journey. Some who experience illness or loss feel unwelcome change has already been foisted upon us and has temporarily exhausted our capacity for conscious redirection. Some will be unable or unwilling to change. Those who want or need to remain where they are – be it physically, spiritually, emotionally, or in many other realms – can find encouragement in tradition, for as Ben Zoma explains, “Who are rich? The ones content with their portion” (Mishnah Avot 4.1). Yet, for many of us (and probably most of us), change would be beneficial.
[Deuteronomy reminds us], we would be wise to take an accounting of our lives and where we are. Perhaps we are rightfully content with our lot, but perhaps not…
If change will make our lives better, if change will make the lives of others around us better, this can be a timely, an opportune moment. As Moses invited the People of Israel, so we might invite ourselves to p’nu, s’u, and bo’u – Turn, Travel, and Go.
Want to learn more about teshuvah? Read about this six stage process of turning at the center of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.