Yogi Berra was notorious for swinging at pitches well outside the strike zone, sometimes even hitting them. On one less fortunate occasion, he swung wildly at such a pitch and struck out badly. As he entered the dugout, his manager asked, “Yogi, don’t you ever think when you’re up there?” To which Yogi famously replied, “Think?! How can you think and hit at the same time?!”
Like Yogi’s manager, we tend to assume that thinking is helpful whenever we’re determined to accomplish something important. In reality though, thinking can sometimes get in the way.
There are elements of the process of Teshuva that do require thought. Confession, for example, is only as valuable as the intellectual attentiveness that accompanies it. The same can be said for the resolving to do not repeat a prior transgression. If performed thoughtlessly, the resolution is virtually valueless. The opposite is true however, when it comes to the opening step in the Teshuva process, that of regret. As is the case with hitting, you can’t think and regret at the same time.
Regret over having hurt a loved one or anyone, or regret over having fallen short of what we know we’re capable of, is something that has to spontaneously wash over us, catch us by surprise. Trying to think ourselves into regret is like trying to think ourselves into being in love. It won’t work. Regret is a visceral, primal psychological scream. It’s what happens when the mind, the great rationalizer, had let down its guard, and the heart suddenly runs free. The more we think about regretting, the less successful we’ll be at it.
But if Teshuva is premised upon regret, and regret must be outside the realm of conscious decision-making, what’s an Elul Jew to do? Well, we begin by deciding to do less thinking. This is the time of year for looking into the eyes of family members, neighbors, and friends, and instead of thinking, just seeing. We will see in their eyes, the favors we’ve done, the love we’ve shown, and also the disappointment we’ve engendered, and the hurt we’ve caused. Just feel, don’t think. This is also the time of year that we when we daven, we should talk less and listen more. These are the days when God speaks to our hearts, the place where regret can take root before the mind has had the chance to realize what has happened.
Not to fear though. Our minds will soon recognize that the heart is up to something. And that’s when the conscious work of Teshuva can begin.