The word Teshuvah is usually translated as repentance. In fact, there is a well known prayer recited on the High Holy Days that Teshuvah, Tefillah, and Tzedakah, translated as “Repentance,” “Prayer,” and “Charity” can avert the evil decree.
This translation is not entirely accurate. Teshuvah is better translated as “return” and signifies a return to the original state.
Classically, Teshuvah is comprised of three ingredients: regret of misdeed, decision to change, and verbal expression of one’s sins. Technically, whenever one sins, one is mandated to do Teshuvah. However, the Ten Days of Teshuvah between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are specifically designated for Teshuvah, when the gates of prayer and repentance are more open than at any other time during the cyclical Jewish year.
Kabbalistically, Teshuvah takes on more of a cosmic dynamic.
The word Teshuvah in Hebrew may be read “tashuv hey,” literally “returning the letter Hey.” The last letter Hey of the Tetragrammeton refers to Malchut. Malchut is synonymous with Shechinah, which is how G‑d manifests Himself as a sovereign within the creation.
The Hebrew word for Jerusalem, the holy capital, is Yerushalayim. This word is in fact a composite of two words: Yirah Shalem, meaning “a perfect state of awe.” When the Jewish nation stands totally cognizant of that the Shechinah rests in Jerusalem. This was the state in Temple times. However, when the Jewish people sinned as a result of insensitivity to the G‑dliness, the sin precipitated a removal of the Shechinah and the subsequent destruction of Jerusalem. The name of G‑d was “fractured” and the final hey went into exile. Teshuvah is the process whereby the name of G‑d is again complete and once again the Shechinah rests in Jerusalem within the rebuilt Temple. The physical building or destruction of Jerusalem correlates completely with the spiritual state of Yerushalayim (perfect awe). They will once again be sensitized to the state of perfect awe, and “on that day G‑d will be One and His name will be One.”
Every individual must do Teshuvah. The Talmud states that one should spend all one’s days doing Teshuvah. The Zohar goes even further and states that Mashiach will come so that Tzaddikim will do Teshuvah. This statement begs the question: Why would a Tzaddik, who has mastered his Evil Inclination, need to do Teshuvah?
There is a difference between a Tzaddik and a Baal Teshuvah.
A Tzaddik has never erred; he constantly fulfills the will of G‑d. The Baal Teshuvah has strayed. He then feels bitterly disappointed about his distance from G‑d, and he yearns for proximity. His upward striving is much more powerful than that of the Tzaddik. Though his descent into sin was externally due to his Evil Inclination, in truth the inner intent was a descent for the purpose of ascent. When a person does Teshuvah out of true love for G‑d, his sins are transformed into merits.
The descent of sin becomes the springboard which catapults the Baal Teshuvah from darkness to the heights of spirituality. The Tzaddik lacks the strength of yearning of the Baal Teshuvah. When Mashiach comes, even the Tzaddik will see that even though he never intentionally sinned, his service was somewhat lacking in fervor and he too will have the yearning of the Baal Teshuvah.
The revelation of Mashiach is dependent on our actions in the time of Exile. Maimonides rules that Teshuvah is a prerequisite to redemption. In his words, “the Torah has promises that at the end of their exile they will do Teshuvah and will be immediately redeemed.” In our generation this means that amidst the chaotic world in which we live, with all its distractions, we must resensitize ourselves and the world around us to the Shechinah. This is what the Lubavitcher Rebbe called “Living with Mashiach.” Even though we may live in the modern world, with all its comforts and conveniences, we should feel broken-hearted that G‑dliness is not openly revealed. All our mundane activity should be permeated with the desire to know G‑d in all Him ways. In fact, on a certain level, the transformation of mundane activity and its permeation with Divine purpose is the highest level of Teshuvah. It is the clearest indication that G‑dliness has not been relegated to obvious moments of religious involvement, but rather the connection with the Divine spans all echelons and areas of life, even the most mundane.
It needs to be reiterated that Teshuvah today must be accompanied with tremendous joy. The Evil Inclination’s greatest weapon is depression, for once the state of helplessness and hopelessness grips a person’s soul, and it is very difficult to find the tremendous energy required for introspection and self-improvement. Even if one has clearly transgressed gravely, a prolonged or excessive degree of sadness is not healthy for the souls of most people in our generation. Teshuvah must be done with great Simchah—enthusiastically and with “joy” and feeling. The greatest gift that G‑d can give a person is the opportunity to be elevated from the mire of sin to the pristine and eternal connection.