In the last chapter of the talmudic tractate Yoma, our sages of old debated the merits of repentance and its limitations. What can teshuva change and what can it not change? In one particularly moving passage, different rabbis put forward noble statements about why teshuva is an incredible gift, usually based on a close reading of a biblical verse.
Rabbi Hama bar Hanina began the great debate, held in Socratic style. “Great is repentance,” he believed, “for it brings healing to the world, as it is said: ‘I will heal their backsliding. I will love them freely’ (Hosea 14:5).” Through the act of teshuva, God is able to hold us up to our own best standard. When we find ourselves sliding back into a place we never wanted to go, we remind ourselves that we can change and that the change will bring inner healing to ourselves and the world. God loves us freely and unconditionally, but it is harder to feel that love when there is too much distance. Close the gap.
Rabbi Levi observed: “Great is repentance, for it reaches up to the Throne of Glory, as it is said: ‘Return O Israel, unto the Lord, your God, for you have stumbled in your sin’ (Hosea 14:2).” Rabbi Levi took the verse literally. We return to the Lord. When we return, we create access to God. The remoteness that results from sin is abolished, leaving only intimacy with God. Reach higher.
Resh Lakish said, “Great is repentance, for because of it premeditated sins are accounted as mere errors, as it is said: ‘Return O Israel, unto the Lord, your God, for you have stumbled in your sin.’” Resh Lakish took the same verse as his esteemed colleague but interpreted the latter part rather than the former. Sinning is an act of stumbling. When we try to make up for the faltering path that sin leads us down, our sins are mistakes rather than intentional acts of self-destruction. Pick yourself up.
Rabbi Samuel bar Nahmani said in the name of Rabbi Jonathan: “Great is repentance, because it prolongs the years of a person, as it is said: ‘And when the wicked turns from his wickedness…he shall live’ (Ezekiel 33:19).” Teshuva is an elixir of life. When people commit to change, they give themselves a new life and find possibilities that they formerly believed were closed to them. Open the door.
Rabbi Meir used to say: “Great is repentance, since even if only one person repents, the sins of the world are forgiven, as it is said: ‘I will heal their backsliding, I will love them freely for My anger is turned away from him’ (Hosea 14:5).” Rabbi Meir read this verse carefully and noticed the odd change from the third person plural to the third person singular. “Their” is replaced in the end by “him.” Rabbi Meir understood that this implied that God forgives the entire nation when even one person does teshuva. As preposterous as it sounds, Rabbi Kook turned this passage’s meaning on its head in The Lights of Repentance. God, he believed, would not forgive an entire universe if only one person changed his decadent or immoral ways. Rather, Rabbi Kook read this passage very personally: if one person repents then the whole world changes in his eyes. It is not that the world improves; it is that the person who changes adopts a new attitude and perspective. Objects of scorn and derision become less abhorrent. People and places associated with negativity take on a more positive spin. When we change, the world looks different to us. Look at the world anew.
If we close our eyes, we can almost imagine a study hall brimming with inspiring debate. No one is exclusively right in this debate, but no one is wrong either. The merits of any mitzva are subjective to the performer of that commandment. Each sage quoted in the Talmud felt an affinity for the mandate to repent, and each saw in the act of repentance a distinct advantage. The layering of each answer has a multiplier effect, helping us appreciate in all of its various ways the positive impact of authentic change.
As you look back on the past ten days, you may find yourself at the center of this ancient conversation. As each day progressed, you may have distilled your experience through Rabbi Hama bar Hanina’s lens. Teshuva is healing. You may have interpreted the verse in Hosea like Rabbi Levi; repentance helped you return to God or to a self you liked better than the self you were before the season began. Resh Lakish may have helped you look back on your own transgressions with mercy and compassion, helping you move them from intention to regrettable mistakes that can be repaired. You may feel more alive and thank Rabbi Samuel bar Nahmani for his insight. You may engage in silent dialogue with Rabbi Meir and consider the ways that the world surrounding you has changed in these past ten days, not because it has changed but because you have.
Conversations like this one invite us into their pages. Stepping in, I invite you to write your own conclusion to this talmudic argument.
“Great is repentance, because…”
When you finish the sentence in your own words, you will be able to see just how much teshuva as an act of return takes place every day, not merely on one day or in one month or over a few holidays. We return and then we return again. We have to keep returning because we change, and the world around us changes. In a universe without stasis, we cannot be caught standing still. The majestic endeavor of discovering human purpose beckons each and every day. And every day, we are invited to respond to that call. Hineni. I am here and fully present.