Chelm is a fictional town in European Jewish folklore known as a community of holy fools. (Illustration/F. Halperin's "Khakme Khelm," Warsaw, 1926)
Chelm is a fictional town in European Jewish folklore known as a community of holy fools. (Illustration/F. Halperin's "Khakme Khelm," Warsaw, 1926)

It’s hard to look back in regret with a stiff neck

Shabbat Shuvah

Ha’azinu

Deuteronomy 32:1­-52

Hosea 14:2-10; Micah 7:18-20; Joel 2:15-27

Shabbat Shuvah (Shabbat of Returning) falls between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, inspired by the first words of the haftarah (additional reading), Hosea 14:2-10: “Return.”

“Do I have a stiff neck! And this is not a question, it is a declaration of discomfort,” said the Rabbi of Chelm.

“What’s wrong?” said a student.

“It’s impossible! My neck is so stiff I can’t turn left, I can’t turn right, I can’t look up, I can’t look down, I can’t look behind me. The best I can do is just keep going straight ahead. It’s a misery, simply a misery.”

“So what’s so bad about looking just straight ahead?”

“There’s nothing worse than being a stiff-neck person during the month of Elul. And it will be too horrible and more terrible if I am stiff-necked all the way to Shabbat Shuvah. How can I do teshuvah?”

“Isn’t teshuvah repentance, just saying sorry?”

“No. ‘Teshuvah’ is often translated as ‘repentance,’ ‘penitence’ or ‘atonement.’ But these words often confuse the Jewish ear. In Hebrew, ‘teshuvah’ sounds like ‘shuv,’ return. Teshuvah means turning away from the path that takes you away from your best self. Think of atonement as ‘at-one-ment.’ Being at one with oneself is the result of teshuvah, but teshuvah takes effort. The great Rambam (Maimonides) laid out these four steps for teshuvah: Stop. Regret. Verbalize. Make a plan.”

“A stiff-necked person can stop in his or her tracks. But sincere regret requires looking back at where you have been, looking around to see what you have done and looking at the people you have wronged. Only then can you resolve not to commit the error again. Only by atoning for your errors can you restore balance to your relationship with God and your fellow human beings. The completion is called teshuvah gamurah, or a complete return.”

“Oh, wow, that’s why a stiff neck is a bummer. How can you fix it?”

“For my neck, a heating pad is nice; for my heart, during the month of Elul, I read this card every morning. Would you please read it aloud?”

“The most unnoticed of all miracles is the miracle of repentance. It is not the same as rebirth; it is transformation, creation. In the dimension of time there is no going back. But the power of repentance causes time to be created backward and allows re-creation of the past to take place. Through the forgiving hand of God, harm and blemish which we have committed against the world and against ourselves will be extinguished, transformed into salvation.” (Abraham Joshua Heschel, “The Meaning of Repentance,” Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, pp. 69-70)

“Now read the other side.”

“Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz noted that teshuvah for formal sins was not on the Shabbat Shuvah agenda, but the greatest teshuvah, return to awareness of ourselves and God, was the very theme of Shabbat Shuvah. Rav Steinsaltz quoted Rav Zuzya, who noted that all of his morning preparations for the day — finding his socks, shirt, shoes, etc. —missed the main point: to find himself!”

“But how can you lose yourself? Who have you offended?”

“So many. I am the Rabbi of Chelm, the city of foolish people, and the bigger you think you are, the more errors you make. In the Rambam’s own time he incurred the jealousy of many rabbis. One of them, a relative no less, Rabbeinu Yonah, was the author of many works on Mussar, such as the Sharei Teshuvah, Sefer Ha’Yirah and many others. He attacked the Rambam and belittled his writing and denigrated his teaching. Only after the Rambam’s death did he realize the terrible mistake he had made. He decided to go from city to city retracting all that he had previously said against the Rambam. He stopped, he had regret, he wrote, he made a plan. He did not just write about teshuvah, he lived it, and found himself.”

“Was there anyone so stiff-necked that they were unable to change their ways and unable to do teshuvah?”

“According to the Rambam, this is the reason the Egyptians suffered the plagues. The Pharaoh was unable to do teshuvah. However, according to Midrash Yalkut Shimoni Exodus, Pharaoh survived the Red Sea and made his way to Nineveh, Assyria, where he became king — the same king who, when hearing the Prophet Jonah’s message foretelling Nineveh’s destruction, encouraged all his subjects to repent in order to avert the divine decree.”

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan
Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan is chief program officer at HaMaqom|The Place, formerly Lehrhaus Judaica. He can be reached at peretz@hmqm.org.