Just a Thought: On ‘teshuva’

Mistranslated as “repentance,” teshuva really means “return” – a return to God and, more importantly, a return to the person we are meant to be.

September 18, 2014 15:00
4 minute read.

To appreciate ‘teshuva,’ one should remember that there is ample opportunity to repair a relationship with God.. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

The notion of teshuva is one of the most fascinating concepts in Judaism.

Mistranslated as “repentance,” teshuva really means “return” – a return to God and, more importantly, a return to the person we are meant to be.

The basic premise of teshuva is that there is no sin, no transgression, no act, which cannot be forgiven. Even the word “forgiven” does not do justice to the concept. The sages explain that if one regrets their sin, confesses (to God, not to a rabbi or any other human), and promises to try their best to not repeat the sin, then God makes it that the sin never happened! This is not forgiveness, it is too paltry a word to describe this phenomenon; this is a complete wiping of the slate. When one person hurts another person, they may be forgiven, but the trespass is not forgotten. In the case of teshuva, the sin is washed away.

To embark upon a path of teshuva requires an incredible leap of faith. You are not just believing that there is a God whom you sinned against, but that you have the power to change it.

So counter-intuitive is teshuva, the rabbis explained it was one of the things that were created even before the world was created.

I never understood that point until I made the connection as to how unreasonable teshuva is. What the rabbis were teaching was that teshuva has no place in the reality of the world as we know it. Since it cannot rightly exist in the world, God had to create it even before the world existed; He had to grandfather it in for it to exist, otherwise it had no right to be here. After all, teshuva is the only thing a person can do that has an effect not just on their future, but on their past! Still, as preposterous as it is to believe in teshuva, it is even more foolish to believe that something should be considered a sin and not believe we can do teshuva for it. The same God who commanded the mitzvot also commanded the efficacy of teshuva. To believe you have sinned is to accept the premise that God commanded something, but to then reject teshuva is irrational.

You can accept one of two premises:

(a) Either there is no God, and no sin.

(b) There is a God, and teshuva is available.

We sin yet again when we accept God’s commandments, but question the ability of teshuva to rectify our past.

Often, we are prevented from doing teshuva because we are so mired in our own sins as to think teshuva is impossible. We think it is too late; that the relationship is broken beyond repair. What God teaches us is that this is flawed human thinking.

The Haftara we read before Yom Kippur reminds us of this: “‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,’ declares the Lord. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).

In other words, even though it doesn’t make sense to you that you can do teshuva, do it anyway! Another impediment to teshuva is that we often think Judaism is an all-or-nothing religion. While we are not allowed to pick and choose which mitzvot we observe, we are allowed to say “Not yet!” When someone asks if your are shomer Shabbat or if you keep kosher, instead of saying “No!” you can say “Not yet!” The word “yet” is pregnant with possibilities; it is the promise of a different and better tomorrow. It says that you are not rejecting a commandment, but rather are looking to make room for it in your life. Judaism is a technology that gives us 613 possibilities to form a relationship with God and our fellow man. Rabbinic Judaism serves as the “system updates” needed from time to time to keep the program going. Each mitzva gives us the possibility to connect with Him.

Therefore, if one is not ready for an all-embracing teshuva, one can do teshuva on their specific lapse and leave the other issues on the side for a later negotiation with God.

I had a rebbe once in high school who counseled us not to let our activities Saturday night affect us going to minyan Sunday morning.

Often, we wake up the next morning, filled with regret for the sins of the previous day and think it would be hypocritical to approach God in prayer. We feel as if God does not want to hear from us. What those verses in Isaiah teach us is that is not the case. Whether we were at a melaveh malka, or we were with Malka, let’s not let what we did last night prevent us from having a relationship with God today! Over 20 years have gone by since I heard that idea, and it is one that has personally stood me in good stead. The relationship we are to have with God is a dynamic working relationship and, like all relationships, has its ebb and flow. Sometimes we feel in sync with God, and other times we feel distant. This time of year is an opportunity to jump-start the relationship.

Indeed, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik once explained that the High Holy Days are a time when God knocks on our door. It is incumbent upon us to do the mitzva of hachnasat orhim, and invite God in, giving Him the hospitality He deserves.

The writer is a doctoral candidate in Jewish philosophy and currently teaches in many post-high-school yeshivot and midrashot.

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