Author Talk with Dr. Erica Brown about "Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe"
Read the full text of Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe, by Dr. Erica Brown
About Dr. Erica Brown:
Dr. Erica Brown is the director of the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership and an associate professor of curriculum and pedagogy at The George Washington University. Erica was a Jerusalem Fellow, is a faculty member of the Wexner Foundation, an Avi Chai Fellow and the recipient of the 2009 Covenant Award for her work in education. She is the author of twelve books on leadership, the Hebrew Bible and spirituality; her newest book is The Book of Esther: Power, Fate and Fragility in Exile (Koren). She has been published in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Tablet, First Things, and The Jewish Review of Books and wrote a monthly column for the New York Jewish Week. She has blogged for Psychology Today, Newsweek/Washington Post’s “On Faith” and JTA and tweeted on one page of Talmud study a day @DrEricaBrown.
Excerpt from the Preface
The pages ahead contain food for thought (even when we’re fasting) for each of these ten days. Each day offers an essay on a biblical or rabbinic theme related to self-improvement and presents “Life Homework,” a behavioral charge to help us exercise that muscle practically. Each chapter ends with text questions on three passages for study that span almost a thousand years of Jewish learning. The first comes from The Laws of Repentance written by Maimonides (1135–1204); the ten chapters in The Laws of Repentance inspired many people to study one chapter a day for these ten days. The second passage is from The Path of the Just by Rabbi Moshe Haim Luzzatto (1707–1746). The third source is The Lights of Repentance, written by Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook (1865–1935). The texts gathered in the study section and throughout embody thousands of years of thinking and dreaming about what it means to become a better person in Jewish tradition.
Excerpt from the Introduction
We commonly translate the word “teshuva” as repentance, from the Latin pentir, to feel sorrow, or paenitere, to be sorry or to regret. The latter is actually closer to our word niĥam, to regret or to experience remorse. We find this exact meaning early in Genesis, when God rethinks the nature of creation before the flood: “And God regretted that He had made man on earth, and His heart was saddened” (6:6). In this one verse, there is raw emotion; the sorrow generates regret. In Greek, this same idea is captured in the word metanoia, a combination of meta – after, and noeo – to think or to perceive. Repentance here is a reflection on the consequences of a bad decision, action, or judgment. We sin. We regret. Herein lies the feeling that underlies repentance, but it is not repentance itself. It is a change of heart or mind that immediately precedes a change of behavior. It is the raising of consciousness of sin and its after-effects. According to Jewish law, genuine teshuva cannot exist without this sentiment, but the feeling alone is not enough. Regret may change the future. It may not. Shuv, on the other hand, is the action that follows the regret; it is the slow process of reverse. Regret teaches us how to return. It is the best trigger to change. Niĥam is regret; shuv is return. Why not capture repentance with a Hebrew word for change or transformation? What are we returning to when we return? I believe the language signifies the most profound possible meaning of repentance in Jewish life. It is not about change alone; it is about returning to the best self that one can be, acknowledging that every person has already achieved transcendence at some point, that we all know who we are when we are our best selves. We know what that looks and feels like. Now we have to recapture it.
Day 8: Joy
One of the ways we capture the joy of this season is through music. Some of us regard the familiar tunes that have guided us in our prayers since childhood as a visit from old friends. The joy of singing in community and filling the sanctuary with haunting, ethereal tunes, some of which are over a thousand years old, carries us to a place of transcendence and loftiness. Even when the words dwell on judgment and consequences, the melodies lift us high above the content, inspiring us to live the lyrics and offering us the joyous possibility that anything can happen. We are united, strong, and beautiful. It is unadulterated spiritual happiness, and it is powerful.
What happens to people who do not believe that repentance is a possibility? They shorten their joy. They cut themselves off from the liberation of the soul. As an illustration, we turn to the first penitent in the Bible: Cain. Cain killed his brother, committing the first murder between the very first brothers, not exactly a propitious beginning for the family dynamic moving forward. Only if we read Cain as an innocent who did not know the full freight of his anger or what the death of his brother really meant can we begin to understand how much Cain was tortured by his sin. Cain did not protest to God that his punishment was too great to bear, as many mistranslations render Genesis 4:13. The word “avon” is familiar in our prayers this season; it means sin, and once Cain understood that his brother would not return, he understood that he had to return. He had to rebuild his relationship with God and himself. He told God: “My sin is too great to bear.” I cannot live with myself.
Day 10: Holiness
We begin with the argument for impossibility. Teshuva undoubtedly is an impossible idea. It asks us to believe without question that people can change. This represents an enormous leap of faith for most. There are people who can believe in an intangible God, but the same individuals cannot believe that they can change themselves. Better yet, there are those who believe that they can change but that no one else can: “He’ll always be the same.” “Once an addict, always an addict.” “She always does that.”

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