Essay: What is Teshuva (repentance) and How Does It Work in Judaism?
As we approach the Jewish New Year there is an effort to at least attempt to enter Rosh Hashanah clean from sin. Unfortunately, we have made bad choices, we have done wrong in our lives. How are we to start a fresh year with joy and confidence if we are carrying all the baggage of mistakes we have made. It can be depressing thinking about bad choices we have made. They all have consequences and we may regret what we have done. But regret does not fix the harms we have caused. Regret can have a debilitating effect if it holds us back from achieving our goals as we wallow in self pity.
Fortunately, there is a concept of Teshuva, repentance, in Judaism. The word repentance generally refers to a person to has decided to commit their life to God (see Wikipedia on repentance). But what of someone who already has committed their life to God and is trying to do their best to make the best moral choices in their life but has made mistakes? Is there a mechanism for that person to somehow come back to God? Aren’t they already committed to God? What more can they do?
In Judaism there is such a mechanism. That is what we call Teshuva. Anyone can do teshuva and everyone should be doing teshuva all the time. Any time we make the wrong choice we have created separation between ourselves and God who is Perfection. Our lack of perfection stands in the way of being with God and Perfection. The further we are from perfection, the further we are from God. Teshuva gets us closer to perfection.
But how? Once we have acted and done wrong the deed is done. Can teshuva make it disappear? Is it magic?
Compounding the problem is the idea that God is the Ultimate Judge. That means that if an act is “bad” it deserves immediate consequences. There is no judge, no jury, no lawyers, no plea bargain deals, Ultimate Judgment means that every act has an exact and precise Divine Reaction. That is how the physical world works as well. If ones steals something, the item is stolen immediately. There is no grace period or gray area. If one kills someone, the person is dead. If one cheats on their wife, they have cheated. In the physical world, our actions have immediate, real reactions. That is what is meant by “judgment” (poor translation of the hebrew word din). There is an immediate reaction to our actions from God as well. The distance created by our lack of perfection is instantaneous. How do we repent from acts that are done? If someone is dead because of our action, no amount of sorrow or regret will bring the person back. Same with infidelity. How can teshuva fix the immediate reactions of our actions?
This leaves us with an additional question: While it is true that God acts with judgment, God also acts with mercy (rachamim) how does mercy reconcile with judgment if judgment means that every action has an immediate physical and spiritual reaction?
The Ramchal in Mesillas Yesharim provides a wonderful explanation. First, he explains that the mercy of God is that while every action does have an immediate spiritual consequence, that consequence can be suspended for a period of time giving the person time to repent.
But what of the repentance? How does that work? He says that every action really has two parts. The first part is the formation of intent. The idea and the desire to act are the first part of every action. Then we act; that is the second part. The action causes the immediate result. Physical and spiritual. Each action is “owned” by its actor. So when one makes a wrong choice the act is connected to them. The action is the end of a chain that hooks up to the actor. The hook on the end of the chain that is connected to the actor is the desire for the result. So a flow chart would look like this:
The result is only connected to the actor through the desire. Teshuva is the process of “undoing” the desire for the action and its result. True repentance occurs when the actor wishes with all their heart that they had never acted the way they did. When the person truly regrets their choice the desire part of the action can be unhooked from the actor! If there is no hook connectig the action to the actor (the desire) then the actor and the action are no longer associated with one another. That is teshuva. Repentance is disassociating the action from the actor by removing the desire to act. Of course, in order for the desire to be disassociated from the actor the actor must everything in their power to fix the horrible results of their action. But once that is done, repentance can be achieved and the action can be clipped away from the actor.
Certainly, the deed is done. What’s done is done. We cannot change the past. But we can change our association with the past.
This kind of repentance leaves no room for baggage and guilt. It is a clean break from the past and allows us to move forward to a future of better choices.
It is the perfect way to begin a new year.
(To hear some of these concepts in an audio class click here: Mesillas Yesharim 03/15/09)