The Meaning of Teshuvah
Teshuvah occupies a central place in Judaism and has many facets. As individuals differ from one another, so too do their modes of teshuvah, in both motive and form of expression. Broadly defined, teshuvah is more than just repentance from sin; it is a spiritual reawakening, a desire to strengthen the connection between oneself and the sacred. The effectiveness of teshuvah is thus frequently a function of one’s sense of distance from the sacred. The greater the distance, the greater the potential movement
toward renewed connectedness. As one Jewish sage put it, A rope that is cut and retied is doubly strong at the point where it was severed.
This movement of the soul toward renewed connectedness can also come about in one who has never sinned yet who feels called upon to draw closer to holiness. For at the root of the notion of teshuvah lies
the concept of return (shivah) – return, not only to the past (one’s own, or one’s ancestors’), but to the Divine source of all being: "You shall return [shavta] to the Lord your God.”
All forms of teshuvah, however diverse and complex, have a common core: the belief that human beings have it in their power to effect inward change. Many factors conspire to distance one from the Creator, education and habit among them; habit, in turn, has many causes.
The rule that "transgression begets transgression” reflects not only an assumption about the transcendent foundations of human life, but also a sober view of reality. There is a causal connection: one cannot extricate oneself all at once from both the inward and outward consequences of one’s actions. For this reason, one transgression creates a situation in which a second seems logical, natural, virtually inevitable. A way of life remote from religious observance not only makes such observance difficult, but also by its own inner logic makes it progressively more difficult.
Yet, despite these behavioral laws, there remains teshuvah: the ever-present possibility of changing one’s life and the very direction of one’s life. According to the Talmudic sages, this possibility of altering
reality after the fact, which is one of the mysteries of all being, was created before the world itself. Before the laws of nature came into existence – "before the mountains were born,” as the Divine poet put it – a
principle even more fundamental and more exalted was proclaimed:
that change – teshuvah – is possible. Many books and articles have been written about teshuvah, providing detailed analyses of the various stages of the process from start to finish. Yet, for all this elaboration, a few fundamental principles underlie all forms and levels of teshuvah, whether its starting point be exalted or lowly, whether it aims at a high level of spiritual perfection or at more modest objectives. In fact, two essentials are found in every kind of teshuvah: the renunciation of a regretted past and the adoption of a better path to be followed henceforth. Put concretely, teshuvah is simply a turning, be it a complete, abrupt change of direction or a series of smaller turns, not all of equal significance. Implicit in our petitions for teshuvah and forgiveness, repeated by all in our thrice-daily services, is the possibility of some kind of turning. As a rule, the more settled and tranquil a person’s life, the less sharp a turn he is likely to make. Yet, often we surprise ourselves, and it is not unusual to realize only with the
wisdom of hindsight what our true turning points have been. There are, as we have said, two factors that make the turning possible:
the realization that the past, whatever it may have been, is imperfect and in need of correction; and the decision to change direction, to go a different way in the future. The nature, exact description, and possible consequences of this turning are discussed in the literature of teshuvah.
The recognition of the need to turn comes about in different ways. Sometimes one is overcome by a sense of sinfulness, of blemish, of defilement, which results in a powerful desire for escape and purification. But the desire to turn can also take more subtle forms, feelings of imperfection or unrealized potential, which spur a search for something better. As a rule, the greater the initial feeling of past inadequacy, the sharper the turn is likely to be, sometimes to the point of extremism and total inversion. When the sense of discomfort or incompleteness is more subdued, the resulting turn will generally be more moderate, both in its speed and its sharpness. But, whatever the primary feeling regarding the past, the desire to do teshuvah always springs from some sense of unease or disquiet. The great obstacle in the way of teshuvah, an obstacle confronting all of us, wicked and righteous alike, is self-satisfaction, the smug conviction that "I’m okay, you’re okay,” that whatever flaws one may have are the inevitable lot of human beings. Such spiritual and moral complacency has no necessary relation to one’s objective condition. One may be seen by others as a sinner and a criminal, without being at all aware of one’s failings. Such a person will never attain teshuvah. Similarly, one may come to do teshuvah through an awareness of imperfections in himself that are not at all evident to others. This great stumbling block has been referred to by one sage as "obtuseness of the heart.” Obtuseness of the mind is easily recognized as an impairment of cognitive functioning; that of the heart is more insidious, a condition of blocked moral and emotional awareness. Without this prodding awareness, however slight, without some feeling of inadequacy, no amount of intellectual sagacity can change a person’s behavior. In many cases, teshuvah itself, once underway, gathers steam and produces an "opening of the heart,” in which the initial block against the consciousness of one’s failings is fully overcome. For the very first crack of awareness leads to a wider, deeper opening, and thus to a stronger response. These observations hold true for all kinds of people, from those whose lives have always been far removed from the realm of the sacred and who feel no lack in that area, to those who lead pious lives which they are so satisfied with that they cannot see how far they are from perfection. The initial perception and awakening is, in effect, the first and most inclusive "confession.” When a vague feeling of discomfort turns to clear recognition that something is wrong, and when that recognition is expressed in words spoken either to oneself, to God, or to another person, the first step in the process of turning has been taken, the part that relates to one’s previous life and character.
The second ingredient in teshuvah is referred to as kabbalah le’atid – resolve. This step is, in a sense, essentially a continuation of the first, and its force, direction, and coherence are largely determined by
the clarity and strength of the initial recognition concerning the past. To feel discomfort and explain it away with a shrug, or any number of verbal equivalents, may not lead to even the decision to change, let alone change itself. On the other hand, genuine regret for one’s misdeeds and recognition of one’s failings do not necessarily lead to the desired outcome either; instead, they can cause a deepening sense of despair and a fatalistic resignation. Rather than promoting positive change, such despondency, regarded in our tradition as one of the most serious afflictions of the soul, can cause one to sink even further. A person may come to feel so degraded, morally, religiously, or otherwise, that he decides to blot out altogether from his consciousness the source of his degradation.
Such repression usually occurs when one takes up a life of instinctual pleasures or any of various pursuits designed to dull the senses, temporarily or permanently. It is a flight from depression. Alcohol, drugs, sex, and various forms of "entertainment” may obliterate feelings of discomfort or dissatisfaction, but nothing is solved. Rather, there is a distorted sense of relief from pain and the delusion that one can carry on as before. Thus remorse alone, however decisive it may be initially, must be accompanied by something else: belief in the possibility of change. In this sense, the principle of teshuvah – that no matter what the starting point, no matter how far gone the sinner, penitence is possible – is itself an important source of reawakening and hope. Knowing that the door is always open and that there is a way through it, knowing that there is no irredeemable situation, can itself serve as a goad to teshuvah.
It is important to remember that resolutions are not always carried out. Great obstacles lie hidden along the way. Routine and habit, which often create a person’s predicament to begin with, do not disappear
simply because that person has made up his mind to change. Even though it may not immediately be carried out, the decision is in itself an essential step. As long as it is not mere talk or self-deception (one
can deceive oneself as readily as one can others), every positive decision, however small, is important. Indeed, in some cases a person’s great turn may appear to be made suddenly, at a sharp angle and at high speed. But usually such a turn is preceded by many less dramatic, less mature steps, small decisions that do not bear fruit, wishes never carried out. When the time comes, all these small moves coalesce into a single movement.
Teshuvah, then, is a universe unto itself, encompassing two apparent opposites: It is, on the one hand, an exceedingly lengthy path with no clear end. Whatever one’s starting point, each subsequent moment
of change throughout life becomes part of the unfolding of that initial inner resolve to make the turn. On the other hand, teshuvah can be seen as a flash of regret and resolution, a sudden insight that change and improvement are needed. These two aspects of teshuvah are not contradictory but complementary. When teshuvah is seen as a process of complete self-transformation, nothing could be more difficult; yet nothing could be easier than the momentary resolve that sets the process going.
The ba’al teshuvah is thus like a person on a journey who at some point decides to change direction. From that point on, his steps will be carrying him toward a different destination. The turn itself is accomplished in a second. Yet the new path, like the one abandoned, is long and arduous.