The Power of Teshuvah
Rabbi Avraham Sutton
In the first psalm, King David wrote:
A simple translation of this famous verse would yield: A man may know, without a shadow of a doubt, that he has sinned and is diverted from his life’s goal, having betrayed all his values. He even knows why - but is not ready to say so openly or to hear it from others... He lies awake at night and thinks about it; his soul cries out in the darkness; but in the light of day, in the eyes of otherss, he seems happy and content. In order to hide the truth that is eating away inside of him, he continues to sin, picks up speed and rushes madly towards the brink of the abyss (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, in Peli, On Repentance, p. 103). The sinner, say the Sages of the Kabbalah, does not have an integrated personality. The sinner’s personality is a schizophrenic personality. Diffuse, alienated and blown to and fro by each gust of wind; one part of him may be found in one realm while another part of him is in another realm altogether. The sinner behaves in an inconsistent manner. The curse of “and the Lord shall scatter you among the nations” refers not only to a nation, but also to the individual sinner. His capabilities, his spiritual powers, his emotions and his thoughts are without internal cohesion; he has no single axis around which his personality revolves. For such a person, repentance leads to “the ingathering of the exiles,” meaning the unification and concentration of the personality which has been shattered to smithereens as a consequence of sin (ibid. p. 329). The ancient rabbis spoke about chet as “a spirit of folly” [ruach shtut] which enters a person and blinds him to the real consequences of his actions (Sotah 3a). When we first make a mistake, therefore, before it becomes ingrained, it is necessary to correct it immediately, to banish the spirit of folly and come back to our senses. When this is not done, a certain distortion sets in. Our perception becomes twisted. We no longer view reality as it is, but begin to rationalize our vice and think of it as a virtue. We are then more susceptible to sinning intentionally in order to satisfy our lust. At one point, because the psychic pain is too great, we repress any sense of regret. We become expert in rationalizing to the extent that nothing bothers us any more. Examples of this downward spiraling process are alcohol and drug (including tobacco) addiction, overeating, petty theft, constant irritability, etc. etc. One who says, “I will give in and sin (Chet) now and repent afterwards... I will give in and sin now and repent afterwards...” will be prevented [from heaven] from repenting (Mishnah Yoma 8:9). Why does the Mishnah repeat twice, “I will give in...” “I will give in...”? This is to indicate that when a man transgresses once and then repeats it, it becomes like something permissible... (Talmud Yoma 87a). At this point a person can still break the cycle of sin. He can return in Teshuvah (repentance). As above, he can even come out of the experience with a net gain: Having tasted the sweetness of sin and its sting, he will be wiser than if he hadn’t. If, however, he does not break the cycle, but continues to shield himself from the truth, he will fall further into Pesha [committing crimes which cause him to become coarse and insensitive and therefore unworthy of Hashem’s forgiveness], Resha [becoming twisted inside; getting caught in the trap of his own wickedness], and Ra, complete, unmitigated evil. One of the fundamental teachings of Judaism is that when any person repents, his sins are forgiven. The Torah thus states, “If you return to Hashem your God and listen to His voice... Hashem will then accept your repentance and have compassion on you” (Deuteronomy 30:2-3). As we find in the case of the people of
Niniveh, the doors of Teshuvah are open to every human being, Jew and Gentile alike (Jonah 3:10). Teshuvah is effective for any sin, no matter how serious, and our sages teach us, “Nothing can stand in the way of Teshuvah” (Jerusalem Talmud, Pe’ah 1:1). It helps no matter how often a sin may have been repeated. It is equally effective for an entire lifestyle as it is for individual sins. Even if a person has lived an absolutely evil life, denying and blaspheming God, he can still be forgiven. God thus told His prophet, “The evil of the wicked man shall not trip him up on the day he turns away from his wicked way” (Ezekiel 33:12). Since God created man as a fallible creature with free choice and free will, it is all but inevitable that man should sin. It is thus written, “There is no man who does not sin” (I Kings 8:46; Ecclesiastes 7:20). If there were no means of erasing sin, man’s guilt would accumulate until he would cry out with the anguish of Cain, “My sin is too great to bear!” (Genesis 4:13). For this reason, God gave man Teshuvah as a means of eradicating his sins (see Kaplan, Handbook of Jewish Thought, Volume II, pp. 204-206). © Rabbi Avraham Sutton
לא הלך כעצת רשעים
ובדך חטאים לא עמד
Happy is the man who has not followed after the advice of wicked men, who has not stood on the path of immoral men, and who has not dwelt with scoffers.
And a fuller translation (paying attention to some of the nuances of the original):
Happy is the man [who sees through the facade of this world], who has not been [seduced into] following after the advice of resha’im (wicked men), who has [even when he stumbles] not stood to linger on the path of chata’im (immoral men), and who has not made his permanent dwelling with letzim (scoffers).
“Happy is the man [who sees through the facade of this world]...” Ashrei means happy or fortunate, but also shares the same root as the word Shur, to see, to perceive. Ashrei thus connotes that sense of happiness that comes from being able to see through the superficial, temporal aspects of our lives and touch eternity. Compare with Bilaam’s prophetic statement concerning Israel’s Redemption: “Ashurenu ve’lo karov - I perceive it, but not in the near future” (Numbers 24:17).
1:1 - “who has not been [seduced into] following after... who has [even when he stumbles] not stood to linger on the path... and who has not made his permanent dwelling with...” Rashi (R Shlomo ben Yitzchak, 1040-1105) points to the descending order in which the verbs appear: Halach, walking or following after, can lead to Amad, standing or lingering, which in turn can lead to Yashav, sitting or dwelling. Happy is the person who has not gotten caught in this downward spiral.
1:1 - “who has not been [seduced into] following after the advice of resha’im (wicked men), who has [even when he stumbles] not stood to linger on the path of chata’im (immoral men), and who has not made his permanent dwelling with letzim (scoffers).” According to R. Moshe Almosino, resha’im, chata’im and letzim correspond to thought, action and speech: “Not following after the advice of resha’im implies guarding ourselves from evil thoughts; not lingering on the path of chata’im implies guarding ourselves from evil actions; not dwelling with letzim implies not speaking evil.” Derech chata’im means literally “path of sins,” but refers to the path of men who commit sins of immorality (Sforno); see also below Psalm 104:35 where we cite the Talmud’s distinction between chata’im and chot’im (sins and sinners) (Berachot 10a).
What is the definition of Rasha (רשע Rasha, singular; רשעים Resha’im, plural), usually translated “an evil or wicked man”? Look at the letter-structure of the word Rasha [רשע] - Resh, Shin, Ayin. The first and last letters, Resh and Ayin, spell Ra [רע], Evil. The Shin in the middle is an abbreviation of the word Ish [איש], Man. The Shin in Rasha [רשע] is the Ish-man [איש] who is caught in Ra [רע], evil (see below, Psalm 10:1, 10:15, where this is clearly alluded to).
In this sense, the English term “wicked” is perfect for it carries the connotation of twistedness, as in the twisted “wick” of a candle. A wicked person is really someone who has become twisted and enmeshed in being wicked, i.e. he not only perpetrates wicked acts, he has become twisted and wicked himself.
The English word Evil is itself interesting. It contains the same letters as the word veil. As we shall see repeatedly, it is the nature of evil to veil itself and make people think that it is just another face of good. Any way we look at it, becoming wicked or evil is very serious, and it has serious consequences for this person’s soul. That is why Jewish law is careful not to label a person or a nation “evil” unless they have gone beyond the point of no return, or (when the term rasha is used in a relative sense) in order to warn them of the consequences of what they are doing before they go too far and become irretrievably caught up in their own wickedness and can’t get out.
In a sense, labeling someone makes it even harder for people to change their ways. It is one thing to have done something wrong, or to have perpetrated an evil act, once, twice, or even many times. For this, one must be brought to justice. It is something else to be labeled evil, a menace to society. The implication is that rehabilitation is impossible. The process has gone beyond the point of return. The truth is, according to G-d’s Law, this is never the case. No criminal is beyond hope. Even when a duly ordained court of law considers a man unredeemable, there is still a chance. But this is only when he wants to atone for his sins and is overwhelmed by the enormity of what he has done. All of this has tremendous implications for parents, educators, and courts. It is also the principle that lies behind the Torah’s prohibition against slander and lashon hara (literally, evil tongue)... (See Zohar 2:122a, “Whoever labels his fellow ‘wicked’ will himself go down to Gehinam...”) Since the Torah views each human being as having been created “in the image of G-d,” i.e. with infinite potential, we must be very careful to distinguish between who/what a person is, and what he or she has done/is doing.
At any rate, this entire process (from making a mistake, doing wrong, going off track, tasting the sweet taste of sin, to becoming wicked) doesn’t happen overnight. A person who does wrong does not automatically become wicked. There are stages, and the process can be reversed at any point along the line. This is important to know. It is also important to point out that when the Bible labels a person, it means it on a number of levels. That is, even among Resha’im there are levels. Even the worst human being, one bent on pursuing and doing evil, on rebelling against all that is good and decent, is ultimately just a vehicle for what we call the force of evil. In other words, the voice of evil that whispers into such a person’s ears (from beneath the threshold of consciousness) is not really their own voice! Once they are apprised of this, they can begin to reclaim their own selfhood, and not be undermined each time by being made to think, “You’re no good! You! You have no chance. Try as you may, there’s no hope for you!” This, of course, is the infamous voice of the Shadow, the Satan, the force of Evil.
In folklore, we read of such a force in “Faustus” and “Daniel Webster and the Devil.” It usually comes to a person who is weak-willed and promises them great power if they will only “sign their soul over to him.” Blinded by the desire for power, they sign, not realizing the implications until it is too late. For consigning their souls to evil, they may attain temporal power, but they stand to be destroyed with evil in the end.
Here a distinction is made between those who become agents of evil, to fool others, and those who are fooled. To the extent that one is aware of and accepts the fact that he is serving evil, he is more culpable. Less culpable (although just as despicable) are those who think they are doing good by serving evil. Less culpable are those who are not aware of the evil intentions of their masters. In fact, when the time comes, and evil will be exposed for what it really is and always has been (an empty, parasitic force with no life of its own, and certainly no power), these will be the first to mutiny and rebel. Next, those who thought they were doing good by serving evil will rebel. Finally, those who thought they understood what they were doing will wake up and want to throw off the yoke of evil. They will see for themselves that evil has no life or power of its own. It made them think that it was all-powerful, but it really had and has nothing of its own. Evil literally lived off the energy they give it. Their problem is (when they finally decide that they want to wake up and throw off the yoke of their evil master) that it might be too late to save themselves. In one sense, we are told that it is never too late. Sincere regret, a regret that wells up from the depths of our being, can save us at the last minute, and give us the superhuman power we need to slay our opponent with the last breath of our lives, even when all seemed lost. Still, the possibility exists that it will be too late to save themselves. They can, however, make the ultimate sacrifice - to give up their own lives and to be destroyed with the very power of evil that they empowered, in order to save others. When these “agents” finally do rebel against their evil master, they will do more harm to him than the tzadikim who were not taken in by his ruse. King David and King Solomon will have a lot more to say about this! (see below....)
In the meantime, it is important to point out that most of our actions lie somewhere in the middle between ultimate good and ultimate evil. By virtue of the fact that we are placed in a world in which G-d is so hidden, it is almost certain that most of us will do things that are wrong at one time or another. King Solomon spoke about this when he declared, “There is no man on earth who is so righteous that he does only good and never sins” (Ecclesiastes 7:20; I Kings 8:46). But, as we have said, having done something wrong is a far cry from being or becoming an evil person. What happens after we do something wrong is the key. What happens to a person who finds out that he has done something wrong? What goes on inside? What leads a person or a nation into getting enmeshed in evil to the point of becoming its agent - of becoming an embodiment of evil? And once a person or a nation falls so low, is there any chance of getting back on track again? Might the possibility even exist that there is a net gain to having sinned? Isn’t this a dangerous possibility to consider?
Falling Deeper and Deeper into Sin
The Torah uses three primary terms to define “sin”: Chet [חטא], Avon [עוון] and Pesha [פשע] (see Exodus 34:7). On Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) the High Priest would pray for atonement for his people by admitting, “Your people Israel have erred (chet), deliberately disobeyed (avon), and obstinately violated (pesha).” In our psalm, chata’im, letzim and resha’im correspond to these three levels of sin.
The cycle begins with Chet, unintentional sin or error. The word chet carries an additional connotation. This is brought out in the verse describing the fighting men of the tribe of Benjamin: “There were seven hundred chosen men, lefthanded, every one of whom could sling stones at a hair, and not miss” (Judges 20:16). “And not miss” is velo yachti in Hebrew. This is the source for the Hebrew expression, le’hachti et ha’matarah, literally, “to miss the mark” or “to veer off course.” We learn from this that chet involves some lack, deficiency, flaw or imperfection within us that makes us miss the mark and stray from the straight path. Admitting our chet is therefore a fundamental prerequisite of true repentance because it refers to something extremely basic and essential at the root of all sin.
We are all prone to make mistakes, to miss the mark, and fall off course. But Earthlife is a school in which, if we only learn from our mistakes, the net gain can offset the loss. The main thing is to get back on track. Only when we fail to learn from our mistakes do we tend to get tangled in the nets of rationalization. Either we minimize the gravity of a misdeed and thereby assuage our conscience that, after all, we haven’t done such a great evil, or conversely, we may feel that we cannot resist the temptation, that it is too great, that we are incapable of overcoming such a formidable test.
This rationalization process is itself a sin. It could correspond to the Hebrew term for transgression, Averah [עברה]. Averah is related to LaAvor [לעבור], “to cross over.” By “transgressing an Averah,” one “oversteps one’s bounds” and “crosses the line” between Chet [unintentional error] and intentional sin [Avon]. This is perhaps why Averah [עברה] and Avon [עוון] are related phonetically to Iver-Blindness [עוור], Ivut-Distortion [עוות], Avel-Perverseness [עוול].
Traditionally, Avon is defined as a deliberate sin performed with the intention of satisfying a lust. Avon is considered “intentional” because deep down a person knows when he is rationalizing, and he is held accountable for it. If Chet is “straying from the straight path,” Avon is “avoiding and denying reality,” and ultimately “fleeing from the truth.” The modern term for Avon is Cognitive Dissonance - a sort of “static” produced in a person’s psyche when he confronts information telling him he is wrong. Anything conveying the message that one is wrong is irritating, and is met by discomfort; it poses a threat to one’s self-esteem, a blow to his ego. When any of us are caught in the Transgression > Blindness > Distortion > Perversion > Intentional Sin syndrome, he will do anything to flee reality, to deny its existence and avoid seeing things the way they are.
In all these cases, a spirit of folly, i.e. a certain kind of perceptual distortion sets in and becomes part of us. It causes us to perceive things which are evil as good, and vice versa. When this spirit is not evicted forthright, and the sin is repeated, twice, three times, and more, it seems like the most natural thing in the world. There is no greater distortion than this.
The Downward Spiral of Sin
Chet [חטא] - error; mistake; wrongdoing; straying; veering off track; failing; falling
Averah [עברה] - Avon [עוון] - to sin deliberately; to sin with the intention of satisfying a lust; to transgress willfully; to act perversely; to rationalize, hide, distort, pervert the truth of one’s wrongdoing, knowing that it is wrong, and yet making excuses that it isn’t really so bad, or that one is incapable of overcoming the impulse to do wrong.
Pesha [פשע] - Resha [רשע] - Ra [רע] - iniquity, outright rebellion, obstinate violation, hardened crime, trapped in wickedness, unmitigated evil
The Torah Empowers Man
Is there a way back? Can we retrace our steps and regain what we have lost on an even higher level?
We begin with the premise, strongly upheld in the Torah, that every human being is born with free will to do good or bad. In most cases, we judge something good or evil according to its consequences. Without an objective moral standard, however, individual human beings - and mankind in general - are at a loss as to how to truly judge their own actions. The truth is that man does possess an inborn moral nature. His ethical conscience revolts against injustice. In the same vein, man is inherently religious and carries within himself a spark of Divinity which arouses compassion towards all creatures and which can never be totally extinguished nor compromised, even by the use of brute force and mental coercion. His sacrifice and dedication to a morality that stands above his own personal interests, to the point of sacrifice of life itself, may be seen as proof of a deep, inborn moral conscience.
But man is equally selfish. And this selfishness is equally inherent in his nature. As we have seen, we are easily swayed by personal interests into rationalizing our behavior. The mechanism of cognitive dissonance allows us to understand how man’s concept of moral validity is determined by his goals, rather than the other way around. That is, his philosophical thinking, rather than being as objective as is believed, can become the tool of his desires, tools employed not only to realize his lusts but also to justify them and transform them (in his own eyes) into virtues (see Eisenberg, Survival: Israel and Mankind, Feldheim Publishers, pp. 48-49).
Thus, according to the Torah, human beings are born potentially good. If this potential is developed, its power is awesome. As above, a single individual can change the course of history. Jewish law thus declares that one individual can sway the scales of humanity to the side of merit (Rosh Hashanah 17a; Maimonides, Laws of Repentance 3:1). If this potential is not developed, or if it is developed negatively, as is usually the case, the consequences are disastrous. The Torah therefore speaks to man’s potential, to what he is already innately capable of doing and says, “God has given you the opportunity to build on the deepest powers of your soul, to add strength to and refine these powers.” Why is this necessary? Because, as King David is teaching us, the odds against man developing his potential to be Godlike are overwhelmingly against him. This in itself might seem unfair were it not for the fact that we, as human beings, experience the greatest sense of pleasure from our own accomplishments. This is all the more true when our accomplishments result from overcoming difficult obstacles. We can then look back at all the obstacles that blocked our way and see that they too were part of our becoming who we are today. (See Ethics of the Fathers 5:23, “According the effort is the reward.”).
Thus, in addition to building on man’s innate desire to do good, the Torah directs him how to sublimate and refine those very aspects of his personality which are adverse or antithetical to doing good. His inborn sense of morality is not, however, negated. On the contrary, he realizes that he is being commanded by the very Creator who implanted his pure soul within him. But he also knows that without referring all morality back to its transcendent Source, he is incapable on the basis of his conscience alone to decide exactly what to do in every possible life situation. He may be well meaning, but without the Torah of Hashem to guide him, he is subject to a myriad of rationalizations based on his own limited subjectivity. Without man’s answerability to G-d, as well as responsibility to himself and his fellow creatures for his actions, morality would be a castle built on shifting sands. The Torah’s commandments therefore require a certain amount of creaturely humility and the realization that man cannot establish an objective morality on the basis of his own good intentions or his superior reasoning. History has surely borne this out (ibid. p. 87).
The Road Back
One of the most powerful concepts in the Torah is the concept of Teshuvah. Teshuvah means “return.” It is often translated “repentance,” for it includes a profound sense of remorse, sorrow and genuine regret that a person feels after realizing that he or she has done wrong and wants to make amends. Teshuvah thus involves a conscious decision to dissociate oneself from those things which brought us low and precipitated our erring and losing our way. It also involves a desire to retrieve and reclaim our basic dignity as free willed human beings not driven by our baser compulsions. Through Teshuvah, we return to our selves. We also return to our Higher Selves, to potentials within ourselves that we didn’t know existed. Indeed, through sincere Teshuvah, we attain a higher level of closeness to Hashem than we had before we sinned. But this important rule requires explanation.
The Torah gives critical importance to the concept of Vidui in the Teshuvah process. Vidui [וידוי], usually translated “confession,” is from the reflexive verb form LeHitvadot [להתודות], and means literally, “to admit [the truth] to oneself.” King David thus said, “[At last] I admitted my chet to You, no longer concealing my avon. I said: ‘I will confess [אודה] my pesha to Hashem,’ and You, You have forgiven the wrong [avon] of my sin [chet], selah” (Psalm 32:5).
According to the sages (see especially Rambam, Laws of Repentance 1:1), in order to fulfill the Torah’s command of Vidui, we must articulate to ourselves in words (not just in thought) what we have done wrong, regret having sinned and resolve not to fall again. In a sense, Vidui is the mechanism which allows us to attain perfect repentance. This mechanism works in the following manner:
We often feel that something is wrong with our lives. Perhaps we cannot put our finger on it, but something is definitely wrong. In modern terminology, this could be called “a free-floating anxiety-state.” Our emotions are blocked and we are unable to function fully. Now, if someone will tell us that we are suffering because we sinned, we will probably tell them to butt off (leave us alone). We might even show anger at such audacity. On top of this, we might go to synagogue and have to pray that day (including the Vidui prayer which is a detailing of all the things we supposedly did wrong). All this has no effect, however, because our inner lives are completely divorced from what we are saying.
So where do we go? First of all, we have to understand that we are born with tremendous energy to grow and accomplish. We are born with the potential for attaining closeness to our own souls and to the One who made us. But we get blocked. Through our upbringing and through our own actions, this vital energy is dissipated. By the time we really could use it to grow and develop our greatest potentials, it seems that it is inaccessible. It’s gone. Where did it go?
In the majority of cases, it has gotten stuck in various mistaken attitudes, habits, compulsions and “hang-ups” which we know are detrimental but cannot seem to get rid of. On the contrary, instead of improving ourselves and changing whatever needs to be changed, we identify with our hang ups and tend to rationalize that we are really okay. We will even go so far as to defend those very things in ourselves which are preventing us from growing and improving our relationships with others. We become so entangled in this mess that our whole inner life (or what is left of it) becomes one big escape from reality in which our vital energy is constantly dissipated in trying to justify what we do and “feel” okay. In other words, our ability to judge ourselves clearly and honestly is completely distorted. Again, we become victims of “cognitive dissonance” (that old mechanism inside us which allows us to reject, avoid and explain away any information which may contradict or upset our present self-image).
What we must do is retrieve this vital energy (which is given to us when we are born and to some extent is renewed - in diminishing proportion - every year on Rosh Hashanah, every Shabbat, every morning, every hour, and every moment). This is accomplished by admitting to ourselves that something is wrong and that we want to take responsibility for what we have done so that we can free ourselves of any compulsions that we may have gotten stuck in. We start by making a distinction between who we really are and what we have done. We dissociate ourselves from what we did in order to realign ourselves with what we are. We regret what we did wrong. This step is called Akirat HaRatzon, “uprooting the will” with which we did wrong, in order to reclaim this same will for real growth (Mesilat Yesharim, Chapter 4). Dissociating or disengaging from what we did wrong involves saying: “That is not me. If I knew then what I know now, I would never have done that. I am me and those actions are not me.”
Since, on our own, we find it difficult to be objective about what we have done, and we seem to prefer to suffer with unproductive feelings of guilt, and at the same time rationalize that it wasn’t so bad after all, etc., the Torah comes along and says, “One who goes to great lengths to detail his Vidui before Hashem is considered praiseworthy” (Rambam, ibid.). This means that in articulating what we did wrong with words, we can use words to make distinctions instead of blanket statements like “I’m no good,” or its opposite, “I’m really okay.” We can use words to recall details, to clarify what we are really feeling, to get back in touch with who we really are. We can use words to speak to Hashem, to ask Him to heal us of old wounds, to free us from our own mechanisms, to accept us, to love us, to enlighten us, to bring us close to Him. Only then can we clean our systems and get on with what has to be done. Far from being just a “guilt-trip,” the act of Vidui is an owning up to what we have done and a sincere desire to correct our past, learn from it and even be a better person than we could have been before.
Confession (Vidui) is a private affair. It can only take place lifnei Hashem, literally “before God.” Rambam (Laws of Repentance 2:5) makes this clear when he writes, “But sins between man and God should not be made public, and a person is considered brazen-faced if he does so. Rather, he should repent before Hashem, blessed be He, declaring his sins before Him and confessing them.” Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik speaks about this:
Judaism views man as standing before God always - it does not accept a division between two worlds, one in which man stands before God and the other in which man flees from Him. Man is always standing before God - whether he be in the study-hall, the office, the synagogue, or in the bedroom. At all times, wherever he may be, man is standing before Him, before the Holy One, blessed be He. And yet, when man sins, he creates a distance between himself and God. To sin means to remove oneself from the presence of the Master of the Universe. “I was standing before You and sin came and estranged me from You, and I no longer feel that I am before You.” The whole essence of the precept of repentance is longing, yearning, pining to return once again to being “before You.” [When a person confesses, he is therefore saying:] “Free me from the tangling web of my sins and allow me to return and stand before You. Restore me to where I was before” (Peli, On Repentance, p. 92).
Confession forces us to awaken to the reality of Hashem’s Existence right now, in the present, then in the past, and then in the future. For only when the reality of His Eternal Presence literally overwhelms us right now, at this very moment, can we begin to admit to ourselves that whatever wrong we committed in the past also did not take place in a vacuum. God was with us even when we were not aware of His Presence. (And God does not only pay attention to what we did wrong. He knows all about us, the good as well as the bad. A large part of Teshuvah thus involves acknowledging our good points and building on them.) Finally, confession includes the realization that, from this moment on, our entire future, everything we do, will forever be before Hashem. Death itself cannot separate us from our God. On the contrary, death will no longer be seen as an end but as a continuation of our lives in eternity. Instead of shrinking from the awesome realization of Hashem’s Presence, we are cleansed by it.
This introduces the concept of awakening to G-d’s Presence in our lives in the past, the present and the future. Teshuvah-Return can take place at three different moments: 1) Usually we think of returning in teshuvah after we have done something wrong. Certainly, in view of the fact that the numbing effect of sin has already set in, this is already a great attainment. If a person can be honest enough to admit he did wrong even after the deed has been perpetrated, this is indeed praiseworthy. But this is only the first level, similar to chasing after a thief after initially having fallen prey to his crafty tricks. If we can still manage to catch him as he runs down the street, we are quite lucky. 2) We can return in teshuvah at the very moment we are doing something wrong. This is extremely difficult. This is the second level, similar to coming to our senses while admiring ourselves in a mirror in a suit that is not ours. This “mirror” is none other than our own distorted image of ourselves, our ability to rationalize our every action. It allows us to think that we are fine even as we are doing wrong (such is the power of rationalization) and yet, with G-d’s help, still coming to our senses before the thief actually steals all our precious possessions. 3) We can return in teshuvah before we do wrong. That is, we can catch ourselves when the wrong we are about to do is still a thought or a word. This is not as difficult as it sounds. With practice, i.e. the more we become familiar with the way our thinking process works, we can actually catch ourselves before we think or say something wrong.
What advantage is there to all this? The advantage is incredible, priceless. In order to understand just how priceless it is, we need only ask what actually does happen when we do wrong? We get robbed. The very energy with which we were born and which we are to use in order to grow to our full stature gets stolen - usually before we are even aware of its value and its availability to us. Teshuvah is the way Hashem gave us to reclaim that precious energy. Once we return in teshuvah for mistakes we made in the past, we become more sensitive to the mistakes we are making in the present. We then can become so sensitive that we can stop ourselves from doing something wrong the second it reaches our consciousness. In doing this kind of teshuvah, we begin to reclaim all the energy we need to live fuller, more empowered lives. As a nation, we also reconnect to the power of our ancestors. We begin to fulfill our mission. Teshuvah is the beginning of all this and more.
Basic Laws of Teshuvah
Rambam mentioned that realizing how we are “before Hashem” at all times is an essential part of Teshuvah. This phrase has another important meaning. It is reminiscent of the Mishnah (Yoma 85b) which says: “Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah explained the verse: ‘On this day [Yom Kippur] He [G-d] will grant you atonement, so that you will be cleansed. Before Hashem you will be cleansed of all your unintentional sins’ (Leviticus 16:30). The words ‘before Hashem’ teach us that Yom Kippur atones for sins between man and God. It does not atone for sins between man and man, however, until a person appeases his friend [by making amends and asking his forgiveness].”
When a person sins against God alone, God alone can forgive him. But when one sins against another human being, he must first make the necessary restitution and gain forgiveness from the one he has wronged (Rosh Hashanah 17b). Neither repentance, nor Yom Kippur, nor death itself, can wipe out a sin until forgiveness has been earnestly sought from the one against whom it was committed.
Every sin against man is also a sin against God. However, even the sin against God is not forgiven until forgiveness has been obtained for having sinned against our fellow man. Therefore, although we are required to confess such sins before God, our confession is not valid until restitution has been made and the victim’s forgiveness obtained.
If we have hurt another in any way, we must seek forgiveness even though we have made monetary restitution for the injury. Similarly, if we rob another, besides making restitution, we must also seek forgiveness for the anguish caused by the robbery. Of course, in a case of purely monetary damage, where there was no intent to hurt the victim, monetary restitution is a complete atonement.
In order to repent, we must make complete restitution for any theft or damage. If the injured person is not to be found, however, we need not seek him out, but can leave the restitution money with a competent rabbinical court and thus obtain complete atonement.
For repentance to be complete, we must cleanse ourselves of the taint of any illegal gain, even where restitution is not required by law. Therefore, if we have stolen from or hurt a number of persons, and do not know which, we must make restitution to all in order to repent completely. Similarly, we must make good all loss, as well as any pain and shame that may have resulted from our action. We must also make restitution for all profits or any other benefits we may have accumulated as a result of the act. Even if stolen land has been in one’s family for many generations, one is considered responsible, and is required to return it (see Kaplan, ibid, pp. 254-255).
The Net Gain of Sin?
We emphasized above that Teshuvah brings a person closer to Hashem than before he sinned. This is not usually attained in one step, certainly not by most of us. The Talmud (Yoma 86b) therefore makes a distinction between two types or levels of Teshuvah: “Teshuvah from fear” and “Teshuvah from love.” According to the Talmud, “Teshuvah from fear” neutralizes intentional sins (avon) and turns them into unintentional mistakes (chet).
But this is just the beginning. It is like a reprieve to allow us to get back on our feet. Once we have begun to reestablish our original closeness with our Creator, we are to refine ourselves even more and transform ourselves, not only by dissociating ourselves from that which is wrong, but by positively involving ourselves with the performance of mitzvot and good deeds. This is the next stage of “Teshuvah from love,” the positive effects of which will bring us even closer to Hashem than before. Through Teshuvah from love our former misdeeds are not only neutralized, but also are considered meritorious acts (because they actually prepared the way for our coming closer to Him than before we sinned). Thus, according to the Talmud, “Teshuvah from love transforms our intentional sins into merits.”
For what is love but the desire to bond with the one we love. Bonding itself involves dissolving whatever boundaries exist between the lover and the beloved. Bonding in love means becoming one with the beloved. This is alluded to in the numerical value of the words for “love” and “oneness.” Ahavah-love and Echad-one both equal 13.
Love is also the desire to do something, anything, for the Beloved, even give one’s life. This is consistent with the root meaning of the word AHaVaH [אהבה]. Its two root letters are HaV [הב], which mean “giving.” When the deep power of love that lies dormant in the human heart is focused on God, the most natural reaction is to want to give back to Him that which is most precious to us...
When love is allowed to well forth from the depths of our beings for the One who made us, we become transformed. The heart opens to embrace life in its fullness. We begin to extract the deeper lessons of our lives because we now accept who we are and who we have been, both of which are preparatory for moving toward who we are capable of being.
We accept and embrace the totality of who we are. Love not only binds us to the Beloved but also allows us to love ourselves. We reclaim the parts of ourselves that we hated, the Rasha, the Choteh and the Letz. They can no longer operate “independently” to undermine us. They are embraced and transformed. We learn from our mistakes. More, we grow from our mistakes. We grow so much that, in heaven, it is considered as if our former misdeeds actually led to true refinement and closeness to Hashem. This is the power of Teshuvah from love.
Similar to a school, our lives here on earth will be seen as moving from lower grades to higher grades in which mistakes were part of the learning process, and, because we lacked understanding, we will not be held accountable for having done wrong. But this is only when we have truly repented from the depths of our hearts, from true love, and not only from any fear of punishment or revenge.
Similar to the Talmud’s distinction between Teshuvah from fear and Teshuvah from love, Rabbi Soloveitchik distinguishes between “Teshuvah of Expiation” and “Teshuvah of Redemption.” Through the Teshuvah of Expiation, God pardons our sin and erases it from the books. But Teshuvah of Redemption does not involve breaking with the past. It does not entail annihilating evil, but rather rectifying it and elevating it.
Sin is thus not to be forgotten, blotted out. On the contrary, sin has to be remembered. It is the memory of sin that releases the power within the inner depths of the soul of the penitent to do greater good than ever before. The energy of sin can be used to bring one to new heights (Peli, ibid. pp. 274ff.).
This is why, Rabbi Soloveitchik explains, David, the spiritual author of Psalms, is called “the man who raised high the yoke of Teshuvah” (Mo’ed Katan 16b). David is the soul of Israel, and as such he is to serve as an example to every individual soul that is or was or ever will be born as. For although he himself sinned, he repented. He took sin, and out of it constructed the yoke of Teshuvah. The Five Books of Psalms, corresponding to the Five Books of the Torah, is the Book of Teshuvah of Redemption.
Through Teshuvah, we not only reverse the downward spiral. Through Teshuvah, we come face to face with ourselves. We come into contact with the healing waters of God’s (and, consequently, our own) Mechilah (pardon), Selichah (forgiveness) and Kapparah (Atonement).
In a sense, Mechilah (pardon), Selichah (forgiveness) and Kapparah (Atonement) are the ultimate cleansing agents for the spiritual blemish left by Chet, Avon and Pesha. They do not necessarily exist in a one-to-one relationship with each other. We do not, for instance, ask Mechilah-pardon specifically for our Chet or Avon, or Selichah-forgiveness for our Avon or Pesha, or Kapparah-atonement for our Chet, Avon or Pesha. They exist rather in a dynamical relationship with each other.
This is brought out in the following prayer that appears before the section of Korbanot (Sacrifices) in the Siddur:
May it be Your Will, Hashem our God and God of our ancestors, to have compassion on us, pardon [mechilah] us for all our mistakes [chet], cleanse us [kapparah] of all our sins [avon], and forgive us [selichah] for all our crimes [pesha]...
It is brought out similarly in the Sefardic Tachanun service. Pay attention to how all six terms are used, not interchangeably, but dynamically:
May it be Your Will, Hashem our God and God of our ancestors, to pardon us [mechilah] for all our misdeeds [chet], to cleanse us [kapparah] from all our sins [avon], and to pardon [mechilah] and forgive us [selichah] for all the times we consciously rebelled against You [pesha]. Forgive [selichah] our sins [avon] and errors [chet] and make us Your eternal inheritance! Forgive us [selichah], our Father, for we have erred [chet]! Pardon us [mechilah], our King, for we have rebelled [pesha]! For You, O God, are good and forgiving; You extend Your abundant lovingkindness to all who call upon You. Hashem, for the sake of Your Merciful Name, please forgive [selichah] whatever I have done wrong [chet] for it is more than I can endure...
In the above prayers, we have:
Mechilah-pardon paired off with Chet-error
Kapparah-atonement paired off with Avon-intentional transgression
Selichah-forgiveness paired off with Pesha-rebellion
Mechilah-pardon and Selichah-forgiveness paired off with Pesha-rebellion
Selichah-forgiveness paired off with Avon-transgression and Chet-error
Selichah-forgiveneness paired off with Chet-error
Mechilah-pardon paired off with Pesha-rebellion
Selichah-forgiveness paired off with Chet-error
Mechilah-pardon is the weakest of these three. When a criminal offender is pardoned, it is an act of mercy. We have removed the stigma to some extent, but not enough to relate to this person as we did before he committed the crime.
Selichah is slightly stronger. When we forgive someone for having wronged us, we “make up” with them, re-establishing the relationship “the way things were.” Kapparah is strongest. Kapparah is atonement (at-one-ment). In Hebrew, the root KaPaR means “to cleanse.”
This is comparable to a person eating a meal at a joyous occasion. At one point, a piece of food falls and stains his shirt. He dampens his napkin with a bit of water and attempts to remove the spot. Although the spot is somewhat visible, he has no choice but to continue wearing the shirt. It isn’t the same as before, but he has little choice, so he continues wearing it. This is parallel to Mechilah.
At home, he washes the shirt and hopes for the best. To his disappointment, the spot is still slightly visible. Again, he can wear it, and it is clean, but it isn’t as clean as it was before the stain. This is parallel to Selichah.
He sends the shirt to the cleaners, with instructions to remove the spot with some special cleaning solvent. To his relief, the shirt is clean. He can now wear it as if nothing happened. This is parallel to Kapparah, except that in spiritual terms Kapparah-cleansing brings about a situation in which a greater closeness is established than before the sin.
The Dynamics of Sin and Teshuvah
Rabbi Soloveitchik’s treatment of the subject of Teshuvah is extremely important reading for anyone who wishes to understand the deep dynamics of Teshuvah. He sheds the light of Torah on some of the deepest secrets of human nature:
The question whether repentance implies continuity or severance, whether it sustains the past or utterly nullifies it, depends upon the nature of repentance. There is repentance which does allow for continuity and which accords recognition to the past, and there is also repentance whose goal is the utter annihilation of the evil in the soul of man.
No matter how old he is and what stage he has reached in life, a Jew begins to long again for the Master of the universe [at one point]... [In] longing for the Master of the universe, a man is drawn to Him and rushes towards Him with all his strength. He [even] runs faster than he used to run before he strayed afar. The intensity of the longing that bursts forth after having been pent up for so long impels him forward. For example, if I were actually to see my father, would I not run after him as fast as light itself? So too, the sinner who has repented runs after the Creator with all his might and strength, in a storm and in torment, his whole being is sucked in and drawn upwards toward the Infinite.
This impulsion of longing raises the individual who has repented to a level above that of the thoroughly righteous man. He has not forgotten his sin - he must not forget it. Sin is the generating force, the springboard that pushes him higher and higher. For such a person, repentance does not mean a clean break with the past, but rather continuity; for him, the Holy One, blessed be He, does not “overlook sin,” but “bears sin and iniquity.”
On Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) we are not bidden to tear out the pages from the Book of Life or from the history of man. Man is not required to cover up and conceal the bad years, the years of sin. Rather, he has the capacity to sanctify and purify them. Do we not pray to God: “Pardon our iniquities [avon] on this Day of Atonement; blot out [mecheh] and remove [ha’aver] our crimes [pesha] from Your sight, as it is said, ‘Surely it is I alone who [can] blot out [mocheh] your crimes [pesha], for My sake, and I will no longer remember your sins [chet]’ (Isaiah 43:25).” We thus begin with a prayer for annihilating evil, for blotting out iniquities and remembering them no more. But further on, a second idea is expressed in this very same prayer, the idea that repentance in which sin is annihilated is not enough: “And it is said, ‘For [the virtue of] this very day shall acquit you [kapparah], to purify you [taharah] of all your sins [chet]; before Hashem, be you cleansed [kapparah]!’ (Leviticus 16:30). That is, being uplifted and exalted precisely after having sinned!... This then was the prayer, the command of the High Priest: “Before God, be you cleansed!” It was as if he had declared: Be not satisfied with God “overlooking your sin” (mechilah). Cast your eyes upward towards “He who bears sin and iniquity.”
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A simple translation of this famous verse would yield:
A man may know, without a shadow of a doubt, that he has sinned and is diverted from his life’s goal, having betrayed all his values. He even knows why - but is not ready to say so openly or to hear it from others... He lies awake at night and thinks about it; his soul cries out in the darkness; but in the light of day, in the eyes of otherss, he seems happy and content. In order to hide the truth that is eating away inside of him, he continues to sin, picks up speed and rushes madly towards the brink of the abyss
(Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, in Peli, On Repentance, p. 103).
The sinner, say the Sages of the Kabbalah, does not have an integrated personality. The sinner’s personality is a schizophrenic personality. Diffuse, alienated and blown to and fro by each gust of wind; one part of him may be found in one realm while another part of him is in another realm altogether. The sinner behaves in an inconsistent manner. The curse of “and the Lord shall scatter you among the nations” refers not only to a nation, but also to the individual sinner. His capabilities, his spiritual powers, his emotions and his thoughts are without internal cohesion; he has no single axis around which his personality revolves. For such a person, repentance leads to “the ingathering of the exiles,” meaning the unification and concentration of the personality which has been shattered to smithereens as a consequence of sin
(ibid. p. 329).
The ancient rabbis spoke about chet as “a spirit of folly” [ruach shtut] which enters a person and blinds him to the real consequences of his actions (Sotah 3a). When we first make a mistake, therefore, before it becomes ingrained, it is necessary to correct it immediately, to banish the spirit of folly and come back to our senses. When this is not done, a certain distortion sets in. Our perception becomes twisted. We no longer view reality as it is, but begin to rationalize our vice and think of it as a virtue. We are then more susceptible to sinning intentionally in order to satisfy our lust. At one point, because the psychic pain is too great, we repress any sense of regret. We become expert in rationalizing to the extent that nothing bothers us any more. Examples of this downward spiraling process are alcohol and drug (including tobacco) addiction, overeating, petty theft, constant irritability, etc. etc.
One who says, “I will give in and sin (Chet) now and repent afterwards... I will give in and sin now and repent afterwards...” will be prevented [from heaven] from repenting
(Mishnah Yoma 8:9).
Why does the Mishnah repeat twice, “I will give in...” “I will give in...”? This is to indicate that when a man transgresses once and then repeats it, it becomes like something permissible...
(Talmud Yoma 87a).
At this point a person can still break the cycle of sin. He can return in Teshuvah (repentance). As above, he can even come out of the experience with a net gain: Having tasted the sweetness of sin and its sting, he will be wiser than if he hadn’t. If, however, he does not break the cycle, but continues to shield himself from the truth, he will fall further into Pesha [committing crimes which cause him to become coarse and insensitive and therefore unworthy of Hashem’s forgiveness], Resha [becoming twisted inside; getting caught in the trap of his own wickedness], and Ra, complete, unmitigated evil.
One of the fundamental teachings of Judaism is that when any person repents, his sins are forgiven. The Torah thus states, “If you return to Hashem your God and listen to His voice... Hashem will then accept your repentance and have compassion on you” (Deuteronomy 30:2-3). As we find in the case of the people of Niniveh, the doors of Teshuvah are open to every human being, Jew and Gentile alike
Teshuvah is effective for any sin, no matter how serious, and our sages teach us, “Nothing can stand in the way of Teshuvah” (Jerusalem Talmud, Pe’ah 1:1). It helps no matter how often a sin may have been repeated. It is equally effective for an entire lifestyle as it is for individual sins. Even if a person has lived an absolutely evil life, denying and blaspheming God, he can still be forgiven. God thus told His prophet, “The evil of the wicked man shall not trip him up on the day he turns away from his wicked way”
Since God created man as a fallible creature with free choice and free will, it is all but inevitable that man should sin. It is thus written, “There is no man who does not sin” (I Kings 8:46; Ecclesiastes 7:20). If there were no means of erasing sin, man’s guilt would accumulate until he would cry out with the anguish of Cain, “My sin is too great to bear!” (Genesis 4:13). For this reason, God gave man Teshuvah as a means of eradicating his sins (see Kaplan, Handbook of Jewish Thought, Volume II, pp. 204-206).
© Rabbi Avraham Sutton