A person wakes up one morning and suddenly feels sick and tired of his life. What is he doing all this for?

Suddenly, nothing in life seems worthwhile. So much running and pushing, and for what? That feeling of alienation may come out of the blue, or it may creep up on him gradually, eventually breaking through his attempts to mask it.

And it happens even to successful people, perhaps to them in particular — people who seem to lack none of life’s gifts, people who live in beautiful homes with luxury cars parked out in front. People who enjoy the convenience of all the latest gadgets while they savor the experiences of their latest exotic vacation trip. It might happen to a person who wields power and pulls in profits from business enterprises he so skillfully maneuvered. But all this doesn’t form a wall strong enough to hold back that gnawing feeling, that moment of dissatisfaction — sometimes sharp and fleeting, sometimes vague and lingering — that discontent that overshadows and blemishes all the small, sweet pleasures that fill our days and years.

That is the moment that says to us in a stage whisper, “This just isn’t it.” We may not be sure what “it” is, but we’re sure it isn’t this. That moment when something inside, something inexplicable and in fact quite irrational, troubling, intimidating, fraught with vague longings, looks us in the face and tells us our life is pointless, that we’ve been chasing rainbows. This isn’t what we’ve aspired to — not for ourselves as individuals, not for our communities, not for our nation.

This feeling has worn many labels — emptiness, ennui, disenchantment, loss of direction, world-weariness.

But whatever name you choose to put to it, there’s also a positive flip side. It means we’re still functioning as human beings. It’s the moment when a hole is torn in the shroud of superficiality that envelops our lives, and we get a peek at the deeper levels. Material life starts crumbling around the edges, making way for the inner life bubbling up inside us. It’s the moment when we come to the gateway of teshuvah.

How do we feel when we think of teshuvah? Scared? Guilty? Not good enough? Is teshuvah a gloomy process of giving up things we enjoy in order to avoid who knows what horrible decree on Yom HaDin? Some of us may indeed feel this way. But such an attitude about teshuvah is not a Jewish concept.

Teshuvah, in its Jewish meaning, is really a condition of essential joy and simchah. When given full expression, it is a show of deep confidence, a sense of belonging, of true completeness, self-realization, and it’s also — surprisingly enough — a path to experiencing renewed pleasure in all one has, little or much as it may be.

Teshuvah is indeed the “answer” to the question posed in Koheles (6:7): “And is the appetite not yet sated?” It completes the truth of this pasuk. For, as the Midrash says, “This soul knows that all that it has toiled, it toiled for itself. Therefore, it never has its fill of mitzvos and good deeds.” That is, the soul has an insatiable desire for positive spiritual acts. “Rabi Levi said: It is comparable to a man who married a king’s daughter. Even if he feeds her all the delicacies of the world, he has not fulfilled his duty to her. Why? Because she is the daughter of kings. So it is, for all that a man does for his soul, he never totally fulfills his duty — why? Because the soul comes from Above” (Midrash Koheles).

That is to say, the neshamah, that spiritual entity we cannot comprehend, hidden but keenly felt, is full of desire. But unlike the physical body that finds satisfaction in sensory pleasures, the soul’s yearning is for the spiritual. The restlessness that drives us to achieve stems from this spiritual hunger. This yearning underlies the human aspiration for greatness, the urge for conquest (in which the feeling of victory means more than the material gain), the ambition for wealth, power, honor, and glory.

But a strange thing happens every time we reach one of life’s peaks. The allure of a goal, once achieved, quickly dissipates. We’ve hoarded money; gained control over a state or a society; earned status in the world of finance, literature, or art; we’ve been awarded the job we wanted. But the happiness for which we sacrificed so much, which we were so looking forward to, is not one step closer, no matter how far we’ve come. And then comes the search for a new conquest, a higher peak — with the same result. And so it goes, repeating itself until the day comes when we find ourselves in crisis, lamenting that we’re in spiritual bankruptcy. We look at all our achievements and feel we’ve gotten nowhere.

Why is this so? The answer is in the above-quoted Midrash, “Because the soul comes from Above.” Our soul disdains material pleasures, which are limited and finite — “It does not find any joy in all the pleasures of This World” (Mesillas Yesharim, Ch. 1) — no matter how “state of the art,” no matter how many colors are available (the very need for constant upgrades is proof that these pleasures are illusive). Even worldly achievements of a more rarefied nature, such as scientific discoveries or artistic creations, cannot satisfy the neshamah. For the soul’s true nourishment lies in the endless realms of the spiritual.

And in those moments, hours, and days that this hunger asserts itself, we lose the savor of life. We feel we can’t go on this way. A vague longing pulls us to the undefined, the veiled. And deep inside we do know what we want: the infinite, the G-dly, the source from which our soul was wrought.

It is here that teshuvah enters the picture.

It can bring about the change we need. It can quiet that painful yearning. It can provide food for the soul. For teshuvah means an answer, and teshuvah means return. It is a solution found through return — return to the source, not an escape from reality, but that which gives depth to reality. A return that breathes new life into human action that has lost its direction, and enriches it with values that tie all of our deeds to the Source of being, HaKadosh Baruch Hu, and to His commandments, quieting the hunger of our soul with meaning, flavor, and true pleasure.

When that tired-of-living feeling comes and challenges a person, Judaism calls for him to meet the challenge. Grab hold of it, turn it into a creative stimulus, a starting point for a new life. The feeling that “this just isn’t it” should be taken seriously, for at that point a person already begins to see himself, his achievements, and the world around him from a new perspective. In that feeling lies the seed of teshuvah.

This internal shift is a hint to a person, the first inkling of the happiness that awaits him up the road.

This is Elul. This is the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah. These are the days that stand at the gate of every new year, the days of our annual checkup.

They signal us to stop, to take hold of that sense of dissatisfaction, and by its light (or shadow), examine our lives. This is the time to return to selfhood, to embark on a journey inward, and there, to discover forgotten things, truths gone rusty. To quench the thirst of the soul and thus breathe life into the year that lies just ahead. (Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 722)