The process of Teshuvah/Repentance was regarded so highly by the rabbis of the midrashic tradition (400-1200 CE) that they characterized it as one of the seven wonders that preceded the creation of the universe itself (Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 39b).
Teshuvah is a progressive force in human life that challenges us to break from our negative and destructive habitual patterns, behaviors and addictions that cause inner and social turmoil, dysfunction, disunity, and disharmony.
Effecting Teshuvah (a central theme in this month of Elul preceding the High Holidays), as essential as it is to the advancement of our lives and the restoration of our relationships, to our personal and interpersonal growth, and to change, is neither simple nor quickly accomplished. Teshuvah requires much time, strong intention, and consistent effort, as well as the virtues of patience, perseverance, humility, and courage. It even requires our willingness to experience suffering and despair because when we acknowledge and understand on a deep level what we did to ourselves and to others and why we behaved so destructively, we confront ourselves and our deepest motivations (see my last blog on The Rider and the Elephant). If we succeed, however, we can eventually restore what was broken in our lives, return us to those we love and care most about, renew our connection with Jewish tradition and the Jewish people, enable us to more fully intuit Oneness amongst humankind and in the natural world, and by doing all of that be renewed and refreshed, and feel more joyful, optimistic, and hopeful about ourselves, our community, our people, and the world.
“Teshuvah is a manifestation of the divine in each human being… Teshuvah means “turning about,” “turning to,” “response” [based on the Hebrew root – shin-vav-bet – return to God, to Judaism, return to community, return to family, return to “self”… Teshuvah reaches beyond personal configurations – it is possible for someone to return who “was never there” – with no memories of a Jewish way of life…Judaism isn’t personal but a historical heritage… Teshuvah is a return to one’s own paradigm, to the prototype of the Jewish person…The act of Teshuvah is a severance of the chain of cause and effect in which one wrong follows inevitably upon another…The thrust of Teshuvah is to break through the ordinary limits of the self…The significance of the past can only be changed at a higher level of Teshuvah – called Tikun – Tikun Hanefesh – Tikun Olam (lit. repair of one’s life and repair of the world)…The highest level of Teshuvah is reached when the change and correction penetrate the very essence of the sins once committed and create the condition in which a person’s transgressions become one’s merits.” -Gleaned from “Repentance” by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz (1937-2020)
“One of the foundations of penitence, in human thought, is a person’s recognition of responsibility for one’s actions, which derives from a belief in humankind’s free will. This is also the substance of the confession that is part of the commandment of penitence, in which the person acknowledges that no other cause is to be blamed for one’s misdeed and its consequences but the person alone.” -Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935)
“For transgressions between one person and another, such as injury, cursing, stealing, and similar offenses, a person is never forgiven until that person gives the other what is owed, and pacifies that other person.” –Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (1138-1204), Mishnah Torah, Laws of Repentance 2:2
“What is complete Teshuvah? When one comes upon a situation in which one once transgressed, and it is possible to do so again, but the person refrains and doesn’t transgress on account of one’s repentance.” -Maimonides, Ibid 2:1
“Rabbi Eliezer said, “Repent one day before your death.” His disciples asked him, “Does then one know on what day we will die?” “All the more reason one should repent today, lest we die tomorrow.” -Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 53a (6th century CE)
“One’s perspective is enlarged through penitence…All that seemed deficient, all that seemed ugly in the past, turns out to be full of majesty and grandeur as a phase of the greatness achieved through the progress of penitence… Moreover, it is necessary to identify the good that is embodied in the depth of evil and to strengthen it – with the very force wherewith one recoils from evil. Thus will penitence serve as a force for good that literally transforms all the wrongdoings into virtues.” -Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook
“Open the door of repentance only the width of the eye of a needle and God will open it wide enough for carriages and wagons to pass through.” -Song of Songs Rabbah 5 (7th century CE)
“Rabbi Abbahu said, “In the place where penitents stand, even the wholly righteous cannot stand.” -Babylonian Talmud, B’rachot 34b