"Rebbe, I am a sinner. I would like to return, to do teshuvah!"
Rabbi Israel of Ryzhin looked at the man before him. He did not understand what the man wanted. "So why don't you do teshuvah?"
"Rebbe, I do not know how!"
R. Israel retorted: "How did you know to sin?"
The remorseful sinner answered simply. "I acted, and then I realized that I had sinned."
"Well," said the Rebbe, "the same applies to teshuvah, repent and the rest will follow of itself!"
Torah: The Ground Rules
Revelation is the foundation of religion. Revelation constitutes the basic premises of religion:
(a) There is the Revealer. G‑d exists. He is real.
(b) G‑d speaks to man. G‑d not only exists, He also cares. He is a personal G‑d.
There is hashgachah (Divine Providence). Because G‑d cares, like a loving and concerned parent cares for his child, He reveals to us what we should know about reality. He guides us and teaches us the way wherein we are to walk and the acts that we must do.
This is Torah, the "Tree of Life to those who hold fast to it." G‑d's word, the Revelation, is called Torah. For Torah means instruction: It instructs and reveals that which was hidden, unknown. It teaches man to walk in the right path. It counsels him how to return to his Master. Revelation, the Torah in all its immensity of 248 commandments and 365 prohibitions, is realistic. It is not alien to man and physical reality. It is not superimposed from without.
It is not hidden from you nor far off. It is not in the heavens that you should say: Who shall go up for us to the heavens? Neither is it beyond the sea that you should say, Who shall go over the sea for us? It is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart that you may do it (Deuteronomy 30:11-14).
Torah is not attached to the world. It precedes and transcends the world. It is the blueprint for Creation. "The Holy One, blessed be He, looked into the Torah and created the world" (Zohar II:161a).
The universe, man, all that exists, was created, fashioned and made on the basis of, and suited to, the contents and requirements of Torah. This allows for the possibility, and thus the demand, that man- every one of us - can live up to the obligations and ideals of Torah. (As our sages tell us "The Holy One, blessed be He, does not impose burdensome precepts upon His creatures; He comes to man according to his own strength .. according to the ability of each individual").
We are bound up with Torah in a reciprocal relationship. As Torah is the blueprint for the universe, the universe reflects all components of Torah. And as it is with the macrocosm, so it is with the microcosm, with man. The human body and the human soul reflect the 613 precepts: 248 organs corresponding to the 248 commandments; 365 veins corresponding to the 365 prohibitions.
Observance of the positive precepts animates the relative organs, attaches them to Divinity and elicits for them Divine illumination, vitality and energy. Observance of the prohibitions protects the relative veins and vessels against contamination, against influences alien to their nature and purpose.
The Nature of Sin
Revelation, Torah, the life based upon it, constitutes morality, virtue, goodness.
What constitutes sin?
On the simple level, sin means breaking the law, violating the Torah by acts of omission or commission. Our duties are spelled out clearly. The law is defined. To ignore the letter or the spirit of the law, let alone to contravene it, that is sin.
On a deeper level, the meaning of sin is indicated in its Hebrew terminology. The general term for it is aveirah. It is of the root avar - to pass or cross over, to pass beyond. Aveirah means a trespass, a transgression, a stepping across the limits and boundaries of propriety to the "other side."
More specific words are chet, aavon, pesha. Chet is of a root meaning to miss, to bear a loss. Aavon is of a root meaning to bend, twist, pervert. Pesha is of a root meaning to rebel. Technically, legalistically, chet refers to inadvertent sins; aavon to conscious misdeeds; and pesha to malicious acts of rebellion.
Sin, thus, is a move away from Divinity, away from truth. "Your sins separate you from your G‑d" (Isaiah 59:2) who is truly "your life." It separates us from Torah, our lifeline, that which attaches us to the source of our life and all blessings.
To neglect the commandments is to deprive ourselves of the illumination and vitality which their observance draws upon us, to forfeit an opportunity, to render ourselves deficient: chata'im, at a loss. To violate the prohibitions is to defile the body, to blemish the soul, to cause evil to become attached.
Sin offers man temporary gains, but it is altogether irrational, self-defeating. Attractive and sweet at the outset, but bitter in the end. Thus, "The Holy One, blessed be He, and the Torah are astounded: How is it possible that a person will sin?!" (Zohar III:13b and 16a)
Thus our Sages teach "No person will commit a sin unless a spirit of folly has entered into him." Sin is an act of ignorance or foolishness. Invariably it can be traced to lack of knowledge, to negligence or carelessness. If premeditated, let alone an act of willful rebellion, it is outright stupidity. Either way, it is rooted in heedlessness, in shortsightedness, in failure to think. It follows upon a blinding obsession with the here and now, egocentricity, self-righteousness.
The Principle of Teshuvah
The folly of sin derives from man's physical nature.
What is man? A composite of body and soul.
The soul is spiritual. By its very nature it reaches out to, and strives for, spirituality.
The body is material, and thus attracted to the allurements of its own elements, of matter.
Yet these two are combined. The soul is removed from its "supernal peak" to be vested in the lowly body.
This "descent" is for the purpose of an "ascent": to elevate and sublimate the physicality of the body and the matter to which it is related in its lifetime. There is tension between body and soul, between matter (and the natural or animalistic life-force that animates and sustains it), and the neshamah, the sublime soul and spirit of man. But they are not irreconcilable.
The body per se is neither evil nor impure. It is potentiality: not-yet-holy, even as it is not-yet-profane. Man's actions, the actions and behavior of the body-soul compound, determine its fall into the chambers of defilement or its ascent to be absorbed in holiness.
To succeed in elevating and sublimating the body and its share in this world is an elevation for the soul as well. It is precisely the exposure to temptation, the risks of worldliness, the possibility of alternatives and the incumbent free will of man, that allow for achievement, for ultimate self-realization.
"The body of man is a wick, and the light (soul) is kindled above it......"The light on a man's head must have oil, that is, good deeds" (Zohar III:187a).
The wick by itself is useless if not lit. The flame cannot burn in a vacuum; it cannot produce light nor cling to the wick without oil. Torah and mitzvot, good deeds, unite the wick and the flame, the body and the soul, to actualize inherent potentiality, to produce a meaningful entity.
The neshamah, the soul, a spark of G‑dliness within us, fills us with practically unlimited potential. Man is granted the power to make of himself whatever he likes, in effect to determine his destiny.
The veracity of mundane temptation, however, is no less real. "Sin crouches at the door" (Genesis 4:7). Torah confronts this fact: "There is no man so righteous on earth that he does good and never sins" (Ecclesiastes 7:20).
If sin was final, the history of mankind would have begun and ended with Adam. The Creator took this into account. The original intent was to create the world on the basis of strict justice. As G‑d foresaw that such a world could not endure, He caused the attribute of mercy to precede the attribute of justice and allied them.
"When the Holy One, blessed be He, created the world, He consulted the Torah about creating man. She said to Him: 'The man You want to create will sin before You, he will provoke You to anger. If you will deal with him commensurate to his deeds, neither the world nor man will be able to exist before you!' G‑d then replied to the Torah: 'Is it for nothing that I am called the Compassionate and Gracious G‑d, long-suffering?'"
Thus, before creating the world, the Holy One, blessed be He, created teshuvah (repentance), and said to it: "I am about to create man in the world, but on condition that when they turn to you because of their sins, you shall be ready to erase their sins and to atone for them!"
Teshuvah thus is forever close at hand, and when man returns from his sins, this teshuvah returns to the Holy One, blessed be He, and He atones for all - all judgments are suppressed and sweetened, and man is purified from his sins. How is he purified from his sins? By ascending with this teshuvah in proper manner. Rabbi Isaac said: When he returns before the Supreme King and prays from the depths of his heart, as it is written: "From the depths I call unto You, oh G‑d!"
Torah, the rules and regulations for life, preceded the world and served as its blueprint. These rules demand strict adherence. "But for the Torah, heaven and earth cannot endure, as it is said: 'If not for My covenant by day and by night, I had not appointed the ordinances of heaven and earth.'"
Sin means to defeat the purpose of Creation, to deprive creation of all meaning. This must result in the world's reversion to nothingness. Thus the need for the attribute of mercy, of compassion.
Mercy means to recognize the legitimacy of justice, yet to show compassion, to forgive nonetheless. Mercy means to recognize the valid demands of the law, but also to temper these demands by considering the fact that "the drive of man's heart is evil yet from his youth." It offers another chance.
This is the principle of teshuvah.
The Power of Teshuvah
As for the wicked man, if he should return from all his sins that he committed and guard all my decrees, and do justice and righteousness, he shall surely live, he shall not die. All his transgressions which he committed will not be remembered against him....Do I then desire the death of the wicked, says G‑d, the Eternal G‑d, is it not rather his return from his ways, that he may live?
"Teshuvah is a principle indispensable to religion, indispensable to the existence of individuals believing in the Torah. For it is impossible for man not to sin and err - either by erroneously adopting an opinion or moral quality which in truth is not commendable, or else by being overcome by passion and anger. If man were to believe that this fracture can never be remedied, he would persist in his error and perhaps even add to his disobedience.
"The belief in teshuvah, however, leads him to improvement, to come to a state that is better, nearer to perfection, than that which obtained before he sinned. That is why the Torah prescribes many actions that are meant to establish this correct and very useful principle of teshuvah" (Moreh Nevuchim, III:36).
Without teshuvah the world could not endure. Without teshuvah man could not but despair, crushed by the burden of his errors. Torah is the foundation of the universe, it assures and sustains its existence. Teshuvah insures its survival.
The power of teshuvah is overawing. There is absolutely nothing that stands in the way of teshuvah. The thread of teshuvah is woven throughout the whole tapestry of Torah, of our tradition. It is not simply a mitzvah, one of 613 channels to tie us to G‑d. It is a general, all-comprehensive principle, the backbone of religion.
There is no sin that cannot be mended and remedied by teshuvah. Teshuvah removes a burdensome past and opens the door to a new future. It means renewal, rebirth. The ba'al teshuvah becomes a different, new, person. It is much more than correction, more than rectification. Teshuvah elevates to a status even higher than the one prior to all sin. Even the perfectly righteous are surpassed by the ba'al teshuvah.
Sin is time-consuming. It is an evolutionary process. Man does not fall at once, suddenly. He is trapped by one wrong act or attitude, often seemingly innocuous, which leads to another. When failing to recognize and stop this process, a chain reaction is set into motion and leads to the mire of evil.
Teshuvah, however, even in the worst of cases, is immediate. "Ba'alei teshuvah are meritorious. For in the span of... one instant they draw close to the Holy One, blessed be He, more so than the perfectly righteous who draw near..... over the span of many years!" (Zohar I:126a-b).
As teshuvah is not part of a gradual process and development, it is not subject to any order, to the "bureaucracy" of a normative procedure. It is a jump, a leap. A momentary decision to tear oneself away. One turn. One thought. And thus it affects even law, justice. The Talmud rules that when someone betrothes a woman on condition that "I am a tzaddik, a righteous person without sin," the betrothal is valid and binding even if he was known to be absolutely wicked. How so? Because at that very moment of proposal he may have meditated teshuvah in his mind!
The single thought, the momentary meditation of teshuvah, is sufficient to move man from the greatest depths to the greatest heights.
Just one thought, indeed; for the essence of teshuvah is in the mind, in the heart. It is a mental decision, an act of consciousness, awareness, commitment.
The Nature of Teshuvah
Where does the enormous potency of teshuvah come from? How can it erase the past, change the present, mold the future - recreate, as it were?
The power of teshuvah derives from its transcendent nature. Like Torah, teshuvah preceded the Creation. It is not part of the world, of Creation, of a creative process. It is beyond time, beyond space, rooted in infinity. In the sphere of infinity, past and present fade into oblivion.
Teshuvah is in the heart, in the mind. One thought of teshuvah is enough. For thought, the mind, is not restricted by the limitations of the body. The mind can traverse the universe in seconds. And the mind - machshavah, thought - is man, the essence of man. Man is where his thoughts are.
Fasting, self-mortification, may be means through which man expresses remorse. They may be acts of purification, of self-cleansing. But they do not constitute teshuvah. Teshuvat hamishkal, penance commensurate to the sin, "to balance the scales," is important. So is teshuvat hageder, the voluntary erection of protective "fences" to avoid trespassing. Empirical reality may dictate such modes of behavior corresponding to certain forms of weakness. However, these deal with symptoms only. They relate to specific acts that constitute the external manifestation of sin. They do not touch sin itself. They do not tackle the root and source from which sin grows. That root and source is in the mind, in the heart: ignorance, carelessness, neglect, wrong attitudes, egocentricity, self-justification.
Just as sin is rooted in man's will and mind, so must teshuvah be rooted in man's will and mind. "He who sets his heart on becoming purified (from ritual defilement) becomes pure as soon as he has immersed himself (in the waters of a mikveh), though nothing new has befallen his body. So, too, it is with one who sets his heart on cleansing himself from the impurities that beset man's soul - namely, wrongful thoughts and false convictions: as soon as he consents in his heart to withdraw from those counsels and brings his soul into the waters of reason, he is pure" (Maimonides).
The tragedy of sin is not so much the transgression itself, to succumb to temptation, for "there is no man on earth... that he never sins." The real tragedy, the ultimate sin, is the failure to judge oneself, the failure to do teshuvah, "he has left off to contemplate to do good....does not abhor evil."
Better one self-reproach in the heart of man than numerous lashings. As the bacteria, poisonous and infectious, are eliminated, their symptoms and outgrowths will disappear as well. And as sins cease, sinners will be no more. Thus teshuvah, the teshuvah that deals with the essence of sin, brings healing into the world.
This is not to understate the external symptoms of sin. For with every transgression "man acquires a kateigar, a prosecutor, against himself." The act of sin assumes reality. It clings to man, it attaches itself to him - leading him further astray in this world only to accuse him later in the hereafter.
On the other hand, everything in Creation is categorized in terms of matter and form (body and soul). The act of sin, its external manifestation, is the matter (the body) of sin, which creates the kateigar. The underlying thought, the intent, the will or passion that generated the transgression, is the form (the soul) that animates and sustains that body.
Self-mortification attacks that body and may destroy that matter. But only a change of heart, conscious remorse, is able to confront its form, its soul. Only the elimination of the thought, intent and desire that caused the sin, will eliminate the soul of the kateigar. And when deprived of its soul, the kateigar ceases to exist.
Thus "rend your heart and not your garments, and return unto G‑d, your G‑d, for He is gracious and compassionate, long-suffering and abounding in kindness....." When rending the heart in teshuvah there is no need to rend one's garments.
The Disposition of the Ba'al Teshuvah
Teshuvah is essentially in the heart, in the mind. It is related to the faculty of binah, understanding.
There cannot be teshuvah without a consciousness of reality: understanding what is required. Recognition of one's status. Introspection. Searing soul-searching. Honest self-evaluation that opens the eyes of the mind and causes a profound sense of embarrassment: How could I have acted so foolishly? How could I have been so blind and dumb in the face of the Al-mighty, the Omnipresent "Who in His goodness renews each day, continuously, the work of Creation?" How could I forsake the Ultimate, the Absolute, for some transient illusion? As the prophet laments: "My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken Me, the Fountain of Living Waters, to hew for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns that hold no water!"
Teshuvah is directly related to bushah - shame, embarrassment. The Hebrew word teshuvah contains the letters of boshet; transposing the letters of shuvah (return), offers the word bushah (shame). For bushah is an indication of teshuva.
Bushah, a sense of shame, flows from an illuminating grasp of reality. It is the proof of true regret over, and of a break with, the past. It is identical with teshuvah. To achieve that level is assurance of forgiveness: He who commits a sin and is ashamed of it all his sins are forgiven him!
It takes understanding to do teshuvah: "His heart shall understand, and he will return, and it shall be healed for him." That is why first we pray: "...bestow upon us wisdom, understanding and knowledge," and only then: "bring us back to You in complete teshuvah."
Wisdom, understanding, knowledge, are prerequisites for teshuvah. It takes knowledge to separate right from wrong. Only the wise know to distinguish between holy and profane, between pure and impure. Thus teshuvah is identical with binah.
The ba'al teshuvah becomes aware that sin is a partition between G‑d and man. Sin disturbs the balance of the universe, sundering its unity. "He who transgresses the precepts of the Torah causes a defect, as it were, above; a defect below; a defect in himself; a defect to all worlds."
The word teshuvah can be read as tashuv-hey - returning, restoring the hey. For when man sins he causes the letter hey to be removed from the Divine Name. The Divine Name, the manifestation of G‑dliness, is no longer whole. The hey has been severed, leaving the other three letters to spell hoy, the Biblical exclamation for woe.
"Woe to them that call evil good, and good evil... woe to them that they are wise in their own eyes..." (Isaiah 5:20).
In turn, "he who does teshuvah causes the hey to be restored... and the redemption depends on this." Teshuvah restores the hey, recompletes the Holy Name, re-establishes unity, frees the soul. "Teshuvah corrects everything - it rectifies above, rectifies below, rectifies the penitent, rectifies the whole universe."
The bushah of teshuvah relates only initially to the past. It develops further into an awareness of personal insignificance in the presence of Divine Majesty. On this higher level it signifies bitul ha-yesh (total self-negation). It diverts one's sights from concern with self to concern with the Ultimate. Thus it ignites a consuming desire to be restored to and absorbed in the Divine Presence: "My soul thirsts for G‑d, for the living G‑d - when shall I come and be seen in the Presence of G‑d..." "Oh G‑d, You are my G‑d, I seek You earnestly. My soul thirsts for You, my flesh longs for You, in a dry and wary land without water... or Your loving-kindness is better than life..."
This longing of the ba'al teshuvah is more intense than that of the tzaddik, the saint who never sinned. Having been removed from G‑dliness, the ba'al teshuvah wants to make up for lost time, for lost opportunities. The energy and passion once expended on nonsense and improprieties are now directed, in ever-increasing measure, towards good. He reaches out with all strength, and thus prompted, leaps to levels unattainable by the tzaddik.
His former transgressions, now responsible for his efforts and achievements, are thus sublimated. His descent, in effect, generated his ascent. The former sins are thus converted into veritable merits.
The status requiring teshuvah is coupled with grief, heart-breaking remorse. The possibility of teshuvah generates hope, faith, confidence: "The heart being firm and certain in G‑d that He desires to show kindness, and is gracious and compassionate, generously forgiving the instant one pleads for His forgiveness and atonement. Not the faintest vestige of doubt dilutes this absolute conviction."
Teshuvah is thus marked by great joy as well. Joy is not only a motivating force for the act of teshuvah, but also a necessary result of it. For every step away from sin is a step closer to virtue. Every move away from the darkness of evil is a move closer to the light of goodness, coming ever closer to G‑d. This fact must fill the heart with joy, a true and encompassing joy and happiness, even as the lost child rejoices in having found the way home.
Indeed, this deep sense of joy, filling one's whole being, is the very test and proof of sincere teshuvah.
The Universality of Teshuvah
The conventional translation for teshuvah is repentance. This, however, is but one aspect, the aspect related to error, to sins of omission or commission. The literal and real translation is "return."
Return implies a two-fold movement. There is a source of origin from which one moved away and to which one wants to return.
The descent of the soul into this world is a move away. Regardless of the lofty purposes to be achieved, the sublime goals to be attained, the fact remains that it is an exile. For the soul in its pristine state is bound up and absorbed in its source, in the very "bond of life with G‑d." From this Place of Glory, the manifest Presence of G‑d, the soul is vested in a physical body, related to matter, exposed to and involved with the very antitheses of spirituality, of holiness.
To retain that original identity, to regain that original bond, that is the ultimate meaning of teshuvah. "And the spirit returns unto G‑d who gave it."
Teshuvah tata'a, the lower level of teshuvah, is rectification, an erasure of the past. On a higher level, teshuvah is "coming home," a reunion. The child separated and lost, driven to return with a consuming passion, pleads: "It is Your countenance, G‑d, that I seek! Do not conceal Your countenance from me!" The innermost point of the heart longs for Divinity so intensely that "his soul is bonded to the love of G‑d, continuously enraptured by it like the love-sick whose mind is never free from his passion... and as Solomon expressed allegorically: 'For I am sick with love.'"
This higher sense of teshuvah - teshuvah ila'a, supreme teshuvah -relates to the tzaddik, the faultless, as well.
The Torah is given to all of Israel, to every Jew. Nothing in Torah is superfluous. Nothing in Torah is the exclusive heritage of some only. Everything in Torah speaks to every individual, relates to every one. It is only by way of the whole Torah that anyone can become a whole person. Every mitzvah serves its purpose. Every instruction is directly relevant to the macrocosm of the universe and the microcosm of every man.
Teshuvah is an integral part of Torah. It manifests itself in numerous precepts and instructions. "Every one of the prophets charged the people concerning teshuvah." Teshuvah thus must relate to the righteous, to the saint, no less than to the sinner. Alternatively, the righteous would be missing out on a significant part of Torah. Teshuvah ila'a thus relates to the tzaddik as well.
Teshuvah ila'a reaches where a normative ascent, a behavior that is faultless yet gradual and normative, cannot reach. It moves man to jump, to leap, blinding him to everything but his objective, disregarding all and any obstacles in the pursuit and attainment of the ultimate goal. In this context the tzaddik, too, becomes a ba'al teshuvah, "one possessed of teshuvah," a personification of teshuvah.
Teshuvah ila'a does not mean a withdrawal of man from the world. It reveals G‑d in the world: omnipresence in the most literal sense, an encompassing awareness and a penetrating consciousness ofthe reality and presence of G‑d. "To cleave unto Him, for He is your life"; "there is nothing else beside Him." There is a total negation of ego, a total submersion of personal will in the Supreme Will. Not two entities brought together, but absorption and union to the point of unity.
"This mitzvah which I command you this day is not beyond your reach nor is it far off..." Generally, this verse refers to the entire Torah. In context with the preceding passage it is also interpreted to refer specifically to the principle of teshuvah. "Even if your outcasts be in the outermost parts of Heaven" and you are under the power of the nations, you can yet return unto G‑d and do "according to all that I command you this day." For teshuvah "is not beyond reach nor is it far off," but "it is exceedingly near to you, in your mouth and in your heart to do it."
"One hour of bliss in the World to Come is better than all the life of this world." Yet "one hour of teshuvah and good deeds in this world is better than all the life in the World to Come"
"Well," said the Rebbe, "do teshuvah, and the rest will follow of itself!"