Doing Teshuvah in Times of Uncertainty

By Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman

It’s been a difficult month. The joy of summer in Madison – with high vaccination rates and low COVID cases – diminished for many of us as the Delta variant emerged. We wonder whether we should go back to work. We wonder how safe our unvaccinated children will be at school. We wonder how risky it is to sit in synagogue for holiday services.

Even at times of uncertainty, we reflect on the past year. We remember the challenges – the sadness and loneliness, the anger and confusion. We remember how at times our hearts would crack open and our generosity would spill out. We remember when we would turn inwards and become more self-absorbed and selfish than we would like to admit.

There’s a maxim that says, “The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.” It can be helpful guidance, perhaps, if you are friends with someone who consistently lets you down. Even though you hope that the next time she’ll act differently, there’s a good chance that she will disappoint you again. Habits are powerful and not easily broken.

A direct correlation between past and future behavior is a bit too simplistic, however. This maxim does not take into account the complexity of the particular circumstances we find ourselves in. More importantly, it leaves no room for teshuvah, for the possibility of real change, of turning towards our best selves and acting differently in the future.

The great medieval Jewish scholar, Maimonides, asks, “What is teshuvah gemura? What is complete repentance?” He answers that this is when we find ourselves in the same situation as we were in before, and we have the opportunity to repeat the wrongdoing, but we decide not to do it.

It’s that moment when we turn, when we choose differently, when we find the strength to do what we know is right. We act with intention, and we make a commitment to changing ourselves. We abandon the force of habit.

This is the time when we ask ourselves difficult questions: What would it take for us to be there for someone else? To be there for a person asking for food, or for a coworker being treated unfairly, or for a loved one who is ill. When we tell ourselves that we do not have the bandwidth to reach out to someone else, we ask ourselves: Is it that we really do not have the energy, or have we quietly determined that the other person’s feelings are not a priority?

At this time of uncertainty, we confront the reality that we are not helpless. We can change. We do have control over who we are and how we want to live in the world.

Congregation Shaarei Shamayim welcomes the larger Madison Jewish community to join us for our High Holiday services and programs, both online and in person. Visit us at for more information.

On behalf of the congregation, I wish the Madison Jewish community a shanah tovah, a new year filled with sweetness, health, and happiness.

Laurie Zimmerman is the Rabbi at Congregation Shaarei Shamayim.

Disclaimer: The From Our Rabbis feature seeks to provide a platform representing the diversity of our community clergy. The views, information, or opinions expressed in the From Our Rabbis articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the Jewish Federation of Madison.