Ari Goldberg

Teshuva is the Hebrew word for repentance. But repentance is not Teshuva’s full meaning. Derived from the verb ‘return’ it can mean "going back to one’s point of origin," "turning unto oneself" or "returning to the straight path." Another meaning is ‘to reply to a call that comes from without." The Halahic concept of Teshuva embraces all of these ideas: by turning unto himself, through introspecting about his transgressions, a Jew re-turns his life toward G-d, (our point of origin), a change affected through his return to Halacha (literally, the pathway). In this way, one responds to the question G-d confronts us with throughout the Yamim Noraim (High Holidays): Ayeka? (Where are you?).


No question could be weightier. G-d needs us to be present for him. Torah and Mitzvot, were bestowed on Am Israel, notes Rav Kook, to draw us nearer to G-d so we could become conduits of his will and together participate in a global Teshuva process, culminating in the Mashiah. Whenever one acts with his Kavana (intent) directed toward G-d, their covanental relationship strengthens. Whenever one transgresses Halacha, he distances himself from the source of his being. It is this distancing of the self from G-d which Rabbi Adin Steinzaltz identifies as the essence of Avera (sin).


Responding Hineni! (I’m here G-d!), is always possible because Teshuva is always a Jew’s potential. True, factors like a person’s heredity and socialization may negatively influence his behaviour, but a wholehearted will to Teshuva, says Rav Kook, will, ultimately, empower a person to transcend the confines of his personality. Its nature-surpassing character point’s to Teshuva’s existence as a separate reality, created even before the world itself. Here principles that normally regulate life, such as causality, are inoperative. Through sincere repentance the negative effects of one's transgressions can be escaped  and "intentional sins (can be) transformed into meritorious deeds."


Rabbi Resh Lakish, the teacher of the second concept, understood it from firsthand experience. Prior to his Teshuva, Lakish had been a professional gladiator. In the arena, his aggressive drive was daily directed toward killing or maiming adversaries. Post-Teshuva, he directed the same drive toward the study of Torah, ultimately becoming a leading sage of the Tannaitic era. That the basest part of Lakish’s nature could becomes the holiest, speaks to Judaism’s understanding of transgressions as being, in esscence, what Rabbi Soloveitchik calls, "spiritual springboards for inspiration and evaluation." Teshuva’s aim is the redirection of a person, not his recreation and "the overcoming of the past by the future," not the past's erasure.


Vidduy (public, verbal confession) is the first step. This ruling, found in Maimonides’ Mishnah Torah, is derived partly from a statement of the Prophet Hosea: "Take words and return to your G-d." Within the Mussar movement (devoted toJewish ethics) Vidduy become an essential exercise.. Every Rosh Hodesh (new month), each  Mussarist would create an inventory, noting his every remembered sin, no matter how seemingly unimportant. This document would then be recited in the presence of the Mussarist's Rabbi or peers. Since everyone, no matter how righteous, commits a multitude of sins annually, this exercise, would serve to remind each Mussarist of the need for upmost Kavanah in his every action. It would demonstrate also, that authentic Teshuva is an unending, lifelong quest.


For Maimonides, a person’s Teshuva is consummated by his deeds. Having sought and received forgiveness from G-d or man, as needed, a penitent’s final challenge is to endure a situation where he faces a  temptation to recommit a former sin but, this time, avoids succumbing to it. Through the experience of this triumph, says Rabbi Bunam of Pzsyah, G-d informs a person that his sin has been pardoned.


Once a person has experienced sufficient anxiety over his transgressions to do Teshuva, he need not continue feeling dejected. Better, says the Talmud, to be motivated in Teshuva by a love of G-d than by a fear of his judgement. Just as a once disobedient son is unafraid to return to his father, the Talmud continues, so too should Am Israel be unafraid of returning to our "father in heaven," who love is likewise unconditional. Though we may choose to turn away from him, writes Rav Kook, he yet remains close at hand, waiting patiently for us to re-turn toward him, desiring not retribution but renewal. "My children, says G-d, what is it that I demand of you: Seek me and live! (Amos 5:4)