The conventional translation of teshuvah is “repentance.” A more literal meaning of the word, however, is “return.” Repentance is a concept understood by Western society. Teshuvah, “return,” is a uniquely Jewish term.

The difference between the two is more than semantic. Teshuvah reflects a radically different approach in our relationship with G‑d. Repentance implies a reversal of one’s conduct - a recognition of past shortcomings, and a firm resolution to change in the future. It is the awareness of our imperfections that impels us to reorient.

“Return” emphasizes the fundamental spiritual potential that we each possess. Every one of us possesses a soul which is an actual part of G‑d. This infinite G‑dly spark represents the core of our beings, who we really are.

Evil and sin are superficial elements, incidental factors that prevent our true selves from being expressed. Teshuvah, “return,” means reestablishing an awareness of this G‑dly core, and making it the dominant influence in our lives.

Seen in this light, what is motivating us to teshuvah is not our inadequacies, but rather our positive inner core. Teshuvah is a natural expression of the positive spiritual potential which we all possess.

And this leads to a further point. Repentance is usually associated with sadness. For it is feelings of regret and remorse that play a leading role in motivating a person to change his conduct. Teshuvah, by contrast, is characterized by joy.

Through teshuvah, a person renews his connection with G‑d, and reawakens his own spiritual potential. These are reasons for happiness. Indeed, if this happiness is lacking, this is a sign that more effort is necessary before a person’s striving to teshuvah has become consummated.

Defining teshuvah as “return” also broadens the scope of its applicability. There are many who may feel too estranged from G‑d to be prompted to repent. But defining teshuvah as accessing a spiritual potential that exists with each one of us makes this mode of Divine service relevant to each person from the most alienated to the most righteous. For the Divine potential which we possess is infinite. Every person can do teshuvah. No matter how low he has descended, there is nothing that can prevent him from reversing his conduct, and establishing a bond with G‑d.