Weekly Messages From Rabbi Avi Harari

Teshuvah: ‘Returning’ or ‘Turning’?

A Message from Rabbi Avi Harari

Thoughts on Teshuvah 2017


HaRambam wrote:

If a man says to a woman: “Be engaged to me on condition that I am righteous (saddik),” even if he is absolutely wicked (rasha) she is engaged, for he may have had thoughts of repentance in his heart. (Hil. Ishut 8:5)

Scholars have long questioned this ruling. They brought proof from HaRambam’s own description of teshuvah as an elaborate process entailing the cessation of sin, verbal confession, regret and future resolution (Hil. Teshuvah 2:2) that mere thoughts cannot constitute repentance. How, then, did he rule that a person may be deemed a saddik by the sole means of an internal commitment to repent?

The classic approach to resolving this query consists of distinguishing between “atonement” and the halakhic status of saddik. Whereas one can only erase their past sins via the detailed system of repentance, they can nonetheless achieve the status of saddik by simply resorting to repent.[1] The logic of this approach is underscored by David Lambert’s observation that the biblical meaning of the word shuv (of teshuvah) is not “to return,” but rather “a dramatic change in direction.” The core of repentance, then, lies not in the result of arriving back, but rather in the actual process of motion – the turning.[2]Establishing oneself as “righteous” requires only the most fundamental aspect of repentance – the decision to change direction.

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This understanding of teshuvah shifts its perception from a process fundamentally focused upon atonement of sin to the single decision to change. Indeed, David Konstan contrasted our “conciliation” with others and the “forgiveness” that we request in teshuvah. While I can appropriately placate a colleague by giving them a present and asking them to forget the wrong that I have done, beseeching “forgiveness” consists of repudiating the act of wrongdoing together with the values that permitted it. It is the step toward showing that you are not simply the “same person” who did wrong.[3]

R. Yisshak Hutner z”l extended this concept by describing repentance as an altogether “new creation.” He wrote:

…A new world, a world of teshuvah, comes into being at the very moment of sin… The power of teshuvah is not a continuation of those forces which are active from the beginning of creation, but rather a novel point of creation.[4]
Seen from this perspective, teshuvah is not about “repaving” the cracked roads we have walked upon, but a sharp turn in the direction of new ones. R. Shimon Gershon Rosenberg z”l similarly explained that teshuvah is “an examination, a disruption of the accepted axioms of our existence.” The penitent is thereby focused on the primarily authentic levels of religiosity, which seem to have vanished before the ordinary “man of faith,” who grasps only the more particular and complex aspects of God.[5]
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HaRambam portrayed the drastically altered relationship of the penitent and God:
Repentance brings near those who are far away. Yesterday this person was hated by God, disgusting, estranged, an abomination. Today he is beloved, desirable, close, a friend. (Hil. Teshuvah 7:6)
This dramatic shift in one’s relationship with God is not the result of an elaborate process of atoning for sin. Ironically, while a sinless person can step before God and still hold nothing in common with Him, an “absolutely wicked” individual can enjoy this relationship with Him. It is, instead, the outcome of the sole determination to turn to Him.
Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Avi Harari

[1] See, e.g., R. Moshe Mi-Trani’s Kiryat Sefer (Laws of Repentance 1:1), and R. Yosef Babad’s Minhat Hinukh (Missvah 364).
[2] David A. Lambert, How Repentance Became Biblical: Judaism, Christianity, & the Interpretation of Scripture (New York, NY, 2016), pg. 73.
[3] David Konstan, Before Forgiveness: The Origins of a Moral Idea (New York, NY, 2010), pg. 99.
[4] R. Yisshak Hutner, Pahad Yisshak: Yom Kippur (Brooklyn, NY, 2004), pg. 40-41. R. Pinchas Stolper translated this particular essay into Enlgish in his Living Beyond Time: Mystery and Meaning of the Jewish Festivals (Brooklyn, NY, 2003), pg. 124-35.
[5] Rav Shagar, The Human and the Infinite: Discourses on the Meaning of Penitence (Efrat, IS, 2004), pg. 43.