The Hebrew word teshuvah is typically translated as repentance, suggesting that its objective is to feel regret, guilt, and shame. In truth, the goal of teshuvah is anything but.

Teshuvah means to return.1 But return where? The Sages have taught over the millennia that the essence of each person is his or her soul. According to Chassidic philosophy, the soul is literally “a part of G‑d on high”2 and is therefore incorruptible and can never truly be blemished by sin. Therefore, when we sin, we are merely losing our way and forgetting who we really are—much like being overtaken by “a temporary state of insanity.”3 As Maimonides writes,4 every Jew, at their deepest level, ultimately “wants to fulfill all of G‑d’s instructions and distance themselves from any sin, if not for their negative inclination that overcomes them.”

According to Jewish thought, then, the journey of teshuvah is not about “turning over a new leaf” or being “born again”; rather, it is simply finding our way back to the land of our soul.5

What is true of the individual is also true of the Jewish people as a collective; we may distance ourselves, but we are never completely divorced from G‑d.

Concerning this, R. Abba bar Zavda teaches in the Talmud6 that: “Even when the Jewish people sin, they are still called ‘Israel.’” In G‑d’s own words: “It is impossible to replace them with any other nation.”7

The covenantal bond between G‑d and Israel may be tested and strained, but it can never broken; they are always inextricably bound at their core.

This redemptive approach to spiritual rehabilitation stems from Judaism’s overwhelmingly positive view of the human being, who is, according to the Torah, created in the image of G‑d.8 Every person possesses a core of inherent goodness whose integrity cannot be compromised. While outwardly, one’s actions may not always reflect this inner goodness and G‑dliness, people always have the ability to shed their superficial facade and do teshuvah—returning to their truest, deepest selves.

Certainly, this does not give us license to disown responsibility for any of our past sins and harmful actions. On the contrary, the process of teshuvah is a proactive acknowledgment of wrongdoing, but it is one that emerges from a profound realization of who we are at our core, which, in turn, elicits a deeply felt sense of remorse for having acted so out of character.

Teshuvah is therefore a spiritual repudiation of philosopher Will Durant’s statement: “We are what we repeatedly do.” Judaism teaches us otherwise. We are not our sins or our mistakes. We are all inherently good, holy, righteous souls that sometimes lose our way but can always make the choice to reconnect to our essence.

Teshuvah is this choice.

Rather than focusing our attention exclusively on the specific action or habit that we want to change and obsessing about what it says about us as people,9 teshuvah means reconnecting to our core nature, which is G‑dly and good.

Teshuvah, thus, effectively recalibrates our self-image and gives us the strength and confidence to act in alignment with that spiritual essence, which is the cornerstone of our being.

While regret is undoubtedly a necessary component of teshuvah, it is only a detail, not its primary focus or goal.

Rather than putting down the person we think we have become and seeing ourselves as defined by the bad choices we’ve made, teshuvah is the process of regaining our senses, remembering who we are at our root, and recasting our behavior to reflect that Divine image.

The Big Idea

Teshuvah is not about becoming the new you, but the real you.

It Happened Once

The famed medieval Spanish Kabbalist and Biblical commentator, R. Moshe ben Nachman, known as Nachmanides or Ramban, had a disciple named Avner. Following a crisis of faith, Avner rejected his Jewish faith, left the community behind, and became a government official.

One Yom Kippur, Avner sent guards to summon his former teacher to appear before him. Spitefully, he then proceeded to slaughter, roast, and eat a pig in front of Ramban.

Ramban asked him, “What brought you to this point? What caused you to reject the holy ways of your ancestors?!”

“You did, Rabbi!” Avner retorted venomously. “Your teachings were exaggerated and had no basis in reality. You once taught us that in the brief Torah portion of Haazinu, a mere fifty-two verses, the Torah encodes the entire history of the Jewish people until the coming of Mashiach.

“That is just ridiculous!” scoffed Avner. “How could three thousand years of history and millions of names be condensed into just six hundred fourteen words?”

“But it’s true,” replied Ramban, holding his ground.

“Then show me my name and my fate,” Avner challenged incredulously.

Ramban fell into a state of meditation and prayed silently to G‑d to reveal this secret. After a few minutes, he said, “Your name, Avner, can be found in the third letter of each word in verse 26: AmaRti (reish) AfEihem (alef) AshBita (bet) Mei’eNosh (nun) ZichRam (reish).”

The verse reads: I [G‑d] said in my heart that I would scatter them, causing their memory to cease from mankind, referring to those who had rejected the spiritual and moral way of life.

Avner’s face turned pale as heavy tears began to fall.

“Is there any hope for me?” he sobbed. “What can I possibly do to rectify my unthinkable sins?”

“The verse itself has provided the rectification,” said Ramban. “It says that G‑d will scatter them until their memory is erased. You, too, must scatter those distracting, alien thoughts and impulses that have held you captive for too long, until they are forgotten. Relocate to a new environment, free from your former associations and addictions, and, in this way, you can return to your essence anew and be remembered for good among your people.”

At a Chasidic gathering in 1982,10 the Lubavitcher Rebbe shared that as a child he was taught this story by his teacher. The traditional point stressed by his teacher was the uniqueness of Parshat Haazinu and the infinite nature of the Torah. How, indeed, could the Torah contain such esoteric codes and secrets?

“However,” the Rebbe added, “there is another layer of depth to the story that has been overlooked. If you notice, the words quoted by Ramban begin not with an alef, for Avner, but with a reish (AmaRti). The letter reish is often used as a prefix for Reb, an honorific term. Therefore, his name as quoted in this verse is Reb Avner, revealing how he is actually seen in G‑d’s eyes through the lens of the Torah—as a spiritual being deserving of respect and reverence.”

This self-revelation, like a lightning flash, instantly brought Reb Avner back into alignment with his higher nature. In fact, the moment he was exposed to the error of his ways, a spirit of teshuvah was immediately awakened within him. After having left his faith, even going so far as to mock and taunt its devout leaders on its holiest day, the vision of his soul that was reflected back from within the Torah instantly aroused a yearning within him to return to his roots.