Book Review: Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Erica Brown’s Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe aims readers toward heightened self-awareness, through both traditional and self-help approaches. She does this in order to advance our capacity for teshuva — correction of our foibles and realignment of relationships as the pathway to increased happiness.

Similarly to the approach of Rabbi Abraham Twersky, the talented addictions counselor, Brown analogizes teshuva to “recovery.” Each chapter is based on a different verse of al cheyt, the prayer where we knock on the door to our hearts in Gestalt-like fashion, in hopes of awakening awareness and heightened authentic teshuva.

More after the jump.
This delightfully portable volume includes a well-written academic introduction to teshuva, translations of traditional teshuva teachings, and Brown’s own midrashic and interpretive work woven, with quotes from contemporary Jewish scholars, along with points excerpted from her reading in the field of psychology. The book is well-worth purchasing for the powerful compilation of traditional texts. Unfortunately, the self-help component is surprisingly unsophisticated, and in some cases seems likely to backfire, as I will explain later in this review.  

The author elects to join the current trend of sweetened, mussar-like awareness raising, by incorporating within the teshuva ten topics of human development: faith, destiny, discipline, humility, compassion, gratitude, anger, joy, honesty and holiness. She uses these categories to help the reader raise  self-awareness of where they may have room to grow in regard to these attributes. This is one of the volume’s strengths.

An example I especially appreciated was her “Day Two” entry, which begins: “For the sin we have committed before you with a confused heart.” While, as Brown explains, Jewish tradition more often connects this verse on the “confused heart” to doubt of some aspect of Jewish practice or Jewish history, she adds a helpful nuance for our consideration:

How can confusion ever be a sin? It is not intentional. Confusion is not an act; it is a condition brought about by the ambiguities of a situation. But we can perpetuate confusion by not seeking clarity soon enough or not at all. And for that we confess…

Dr. Brown also includes translations of excerpts from Rambam’s Hilkhot Teshuva, R. Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto’s Mesilat Yesharim, and R. Abraham Isaac ha-Cohen Kook’s Oros HaTeshuvah, for each topic. For example, this piece from Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, that ripens powerfully when discussed with a study partner, or in a community (page 143):

Great and sublime is the happiness of repentance. The consuming fire of sin’s pain in itself refines and will result in a superior and radiant purification of character, til the great wealth of repentance to be found in the treasure of life develops and unfolds before him. Humans continue to ascend through repentance, through its bitterness and its pleasantness, through its sorrow and its joy; nothing refines and purifies man, truly uplifting him to the level of man, as does the profound contemplation of repentance, “in the place were the penitents stand even the wholly righteous cannot stand.” (Berakhot 34a)


Teshuva is a foundational mitzvah: a condition of realignment within our behaviors and relationships, in which Jews almost perpetually dwell. “Jews praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur,” 1878 painting by Maurycy Gottlieb.

Brown also cites teachings of leading scholars such as Jonathan Sachs, Adin Steinsaltz, Jonathan Levenson and Joseph Telushkin. Be sure to have a TaNaKh (Jewish translation of the full Jewish canon) at hand, because the narrative sections assume familiarity with the High Holiday season traditions and sacred stories. It would also be helpful if the publishers — OU Press and Maggid Books, a subdivision of Koren Publishers — could put the original, untranslated text segments online, to facilitate study by those of us with sufficient language skills. Hebrew transcends what translations can offer.

One section within each chapter is titled “Life Homework.” Here, unfortunately, Dr. Brown seems out of her element. She falls into what I consider to be a common mussar trap, of mistaking raised awareness and the force of one’s willpower as being sufficient to power sustainable change. The tragic ethical scandals accruing to too many revered pious Jewish (and other) business, educational and spiritual community leaders, would seem to substantially defeat this assumption. Brown cites, for justification, authors Roy Baumeister, John Tierney and Kely McGonigal to the effect that they “believe” that “willpower alone is our greatest human strength”.

Dr. Brown’s book and website bios do not clearly indicate in what subject her doctorate was undertaken. Perhaps education, given that she describes herself on the present front page of her website as learning not through professional training and supervised practice, but rather “by reading. I order a mountain of books on a subject, plow through them and try to organize my thoughts in relation to what others think.”

This approach shows distinctly and problematically in the narrative, which offers a more pop psychology, or self-help orientation, than an appreciation of the deep psycho-dynamic work and spiritual development necessary for effective healing within our relationships with ourselves, our family, our community and God.

Dr. Brown’s exercises are simple, decent things like writing gratitude letters to one’s parents, a teacher, etc. Later, when she suggests writing a letter commending an anger management strategy to one of the reader’s presumably adult children, it is hard to imagine this facilitating teshuva or intimacy as much as building resentment and resistance. In the words of Dr. Robert Anthony: “If you want to make an enemy, try to change someone.”

Support for how to directly seek out those with whom one needs to do teshuva, for meaningful dialogue, insight, cultivation of authentic empathy, and the gradual restoration of trust, is largely overlooked in this book. Almost everything happens in one’s head — rather than in the holy space of interpersonal encounter, termed by Martin Buber “the between.” Despite capably writing out traditional teshuva processes in an academic fashion, Brown seems unaware of that the self is co-constructed within relationships, much more than in one’s head, i.e. via projections onto others and thoughts about what they may feel or think, when asking directly is the only way to know.

Given the plural nature of the al cheyt shechatanu liturgy, the long-missing onus, of communities taking responsibility for missing ethical and mitzvah-centered behavioral marks, would also make a welcome addition within Brown’s approach to High Holiday preparation practices. While she stays within traditional Orthodox liturgy (and translations), many contemporary prayer books already add new al cheyts for the sake of things like caring for the environment, fostering better systems of healthcare, environmental preservation, education, etc.

The chosen topics in this volume are very safe. How about some mitzvah-centered risk-taking, in the way of setting communities onto chanting and reflecting upon the “sin of suppressing communal awareness of internal problems?” And “not teaching and supporting healthy boundaries between staff and students?” And “for the sin of not providing a living wage for all of our employees?” etc.

Also unfortunate is that the author does not point readers toward the array of contemporary literature and professions which offer deeper and more effective levels of teshuva and spiritual development, that are barely alluded to in Brown’s effort. To name a few, I would like to see mentioned there books such as “Sacred Therapy,” written through a Jewish lens by psychotherapist Estelle Frankel, or related articles by Rabbi Anne Brener, Mashpi’ah Carola de Vries Robles, Rabbis Abraham Twerski, Rami Shapiro, and Howard Addison and his partner Dr. Barbara Breitman.

A further problem in this first edition is that some might assume that that Brown is accurately describing Torah stories, while she is sometimes actually giving her own, often unusual and interesting, spin. (This process is known as “making midrash.”) It is also sometimes difficult to appreciate why certain texts and topics are sequenced or emphasized. It seems that parts may have been edited out at the publisher level, for the sake of greater volume brevity, with neither the insertion of alternative segue-ways, nor attention to the presentation’s conceptual flow. The absence of an index, as always, is disappointing, as indices are helpful for returning to key points and quotes.

Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe does commence with a worthy introduction to teshuva, where Dr. Brown collates a number of important primary and secondary sources for us in translation. Helpfully, she introduces the multifaceted steps of a full teshuva process, as found in the teachings of the Catalonian rabbi, Jonah ben Abraham Gerondi. He, who had abetted the burning of the works of the renowned Jewish sage, the Rambam (Maimonides), certainly came to deeply appreciate the angst and stages involved in meaningful teshuva. He even prostrated himself on the Rambam’s grave, as a component to his grief of self-awareness and yearning to achieve the joyful fullness of teshuva — in the very manner recommended in the writings of Maimonides himself!

Teshuva is a foundational mitzvah: a condition of realignment within our behaviors and relationships, in which Jews almost perpetually dwell; and this is by intentional ancestral design of our tradition. While we can turn to our sense of God for support in this process, our tradition teaches that errors with humanity can only be corrected directly through contact with each person, upon their grave, and, in the case of theft, with their heirs. God cannot fix our errors for us, save for our sense of our efforts at the fullness of teshuva being “received.”

Uncovering the “Torah” of healthy relationships is a paramount issue in most lives, and Dr. Erica Brown’s Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe offers helpful frameworks, sources and accessible discussion points for communities, individuals and families desiring self-reflective practices, that may enhance their individual capacity for teshuva.