“What’s teshuvah?” my 3-year-old daughter asked as we were getting dressed for services on the first day of Rosh Hashanah and talking about the holiday.
I explained that during this time of year from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, we can change things about ourselves and how we act in the world. I said, “If you don’t like how something is going, you can turn it around.”
She thought for a moment, then her face lit up and she said, “Like Daniel Tiger says!” Before I could figure out what the heck she was talking about, she sang, “When something seems bad, turn it around and find something good.”
“Yes,” I said. “Like that. That’s what teshuvah means.”
Each episode of “Daniel Tiger,” a cartoon based on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” teaches a life lesson through the characters’ experiences and then hammers it home through a short and catchy musical phrase. The phrases stay with you. Some of them have literally haunted my dreams, but they have also come in handy: “You gotta try new foods because they might taste good,” gets sung about once a day in our house, as does, “When you feel frustrated, take a step back and ask for help.”
This is about as quality as children’s television programming can get, and when my daughter made this connection between a Jewish life lesson and a preschool life lesson, I beamed. (It also helped me feel less guilty about how much TV she watches.)
An hour later, we were getting ready to go to services in the rain, and her brand new extremely sparkly Rosh Hashanah shoes got wet. Just as she started to cry, I sang, “When something seems bad, turn it around and find something good.” We spent the rest of our walk talking about good things about the rain: Without it, there would be no “Singin’ in the Rain,” which is quite possibly her favorite thing in the world. The plants would be thirsty. There would be no rainbows.
Throughout the day, visiting friends, going to the playground, eating dinner, I sang this line at least a dozen times. After dinner, we made popcorn, and honestly, it wasn’t that good, and I thought she was done with it, so I absentmindedly ate the rest. Then she asked for the popcorn and was horrified that it was gone. “When something seems bad, turn it around and find something good.” I made another batch of popcorn, much better than the first. We turned it around.
Over and over again these words resonated. Over and over again they had a meaningful impact on the psyche of a 3-year-old. Over and over again they made teshuvah real for her and for me.
I marveled at the fact that I had never before used this particular Daniel Tiger-ism in our daily interactions. It is so easy and inevitable for a 3-year-old to be derailed by the minutiae of routine inconveniences. This aggravatingly simple ditty gave us a way to refocus our energy on seeing the positive. I also marveled at the fact that, in the course of one day (and not just any day!), singing this song had an immediate impact on our collective perspective.
My next thought was this: Do we have this many opportunities every day to turn things around? I think the answer is yes, and if so, then our obligation to do teshuvah is not only impactful and relevant this time of year but is also ever-present, cumulative, and simple. If you’re driving the wrong direction on the way to work, turn around. If you’re going on the wrong path towards being the person you want to be, change your course.
When you see it through a 3-year-old’s eyes, it’s all obvious. “Aliza, you’re too far away. Come on back.” I say that 100 times a day. Each time when she comes back, she’s doing age-appropriate teshuvah.
Of course, the more difficult part is translating this realization and figuring out what the age-appropriate teshuvah is for me. Or maybe it could be simple for me, too. Maybe the things that I’m doing wrong have such obvious fixes that the people around me can’t believe I haven’t just turned around. I’ve certainly felt that way about other people and their problems. Maybe the real goal of these 10 days is to strip our problems, our inadequacies, and our disappointments down to a 3-year-old’s comprehension level, so that, as adults, we can clearly see the solution.
“When something seems bad, turn it around, and find something good.” I know, life is not actually a 3-year-old’s television show. There are, in fact, some really terrible things going on in the world on both political and personal levels. And yet, if you sing this song to yourself even once a week, even once a year, and it helps you to turn around, then, like my daughter, and like me, you’ve learned something about teshuvah.