Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the Ten Days of Repentance which culminate on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. So it is not too early to talk about repentance, or as we refer to it in Hebrew - Teshuvah.
There are two popular misconceptions about Teshuvah and, ironically, they come from opposite sides of the spectrum. The first is I'm too good, i.e. Repentance is for sinners and since I'm no sinner and am basically a good guy and a good Jew, this process is irrelevant to me. No need for it on my agenda.
If I'm ok, I'm exempt from Teshuvah. Right? Wrong! That's the first fallacy. No one is exempt. Teshuvah is not only for blatant sins and misdemeanors; it is also for failing to live up to our potential. Even if we did nothing wrong, but we could have done much more good, Teshuvah is necessary. Even the most righteous of holy Rabbis klop al chet (beat their chests in penitence) - either for their own very subtle failings or for the members of their community whom they have not yet succeeded in transforming into better Jews.
Only those who are 100% perfect are exempt
from Teshuvah. All others must get to work. So who is perfect? In
fact, there is no one as imperfect as he who thinks he is perfect.
Many years ago, I heard a famous Chazan daven on Shabbos Mevorchim Elul. Indeed, the melodies and nusach were evocative of the high holy days. Later, I met a well-known and prominent shul-going businessman. I commented, " Nu, you really felt Elul during the davening, didn't you?" He shrugged his shoulders and said, "Elul is for sinners. I don't need Elul." How wrong he was. Oy! did he need it!
People with over-inflated egos can
sometimes fool themselves into believing everything they think about
The other fallacy belongs to the overly humble. The fellow who puts himself down so low that he really believes he is beyond salvation. I'm too bad for Teshuvah. Too far gone; there's no hope; I'm a lost case. Give up on me Rabbi; I'm too old, too tired, too lazy, too sinful - or just too set in my ways.
The ethical teachers insist that all the above arguments are rooted in the yetzer hara, our inclination for evil. The more we put ourselves down the less sense of hope and optimism we will have and, thus, the less energy we will find to try and change.
But the fact is that there are numerous true stories of some of the worst sinners in history who found G-d, Torah and themselves in an instant and returned with a full heart. The renowned Talmudic sage, Reish Lakish, was previously a robber chieftain. Eliezer ben Durdaya was infamous for his lack of morality (he once boasted that there wasn't a woman of ill repute he hadn't patronized) and yet in a moment of inspiration he returned and was accepted, gaining eternal life then and there. And who in our community today does not know people who have turned around their lives in the most beautiful way.
We are heading into the annual time of opportunity to put ourselves right. During these days G-d is more easily found and we can probably find ourselves, our true, pure, untainted, innermost selves. Please G-d, we will all embrace this mitzvah which applies to every one of us, from the holiest to the most far removed. Teshuvah is a great equalizer. May our Return be sincere, genuine and well-received up where it counts.
May G-d grant us all a Shana Tova - a Good and Sweet Year filled with all the His abundant blessings.