“For the sin we committed before You by being stubborn.”
Rabbi Jonah of Gerona (d. 1263) called repentance a sanctuary, a place to escape the intensity of sin. It is also the place to embrace the strength needed to fight our hardest inner battles and our stubborn resistance to change. By calling repentance a sanctuary, Rabbi Jonah in Sha’arei Teshuva (The Gates of Repentance) transformed an act into a space we can step into and know that we are home, and we are safe. We have returned to our essential selves, the people we like best. We are at one with forces that usually rage within us, pulling us between good and evil, generosity and self-absorption, selflessness and narcissism.
Almost eight hundred years later, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, too, described the sanctuary of teshuva and how it envelops us on these holiest of days:
Jews do confess, but confession is a private matter between the individual and the Almighty. In my opinion, this is because of the Jew’s typical modesty and shyness. The noblest and most exalted feelings that the Jew experiences must remain like the Ark of the Covenant, concealed behind the curtain. “And the curtain shall separate for you between the holy and the Holy of Holies” (Exodus 26:33). The sanctuary of the human person is his emotional life, not his logical life. The Ark is with us in each person’s emotional life, concealed behind the curtain.1Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, from his lecture “The Abridged Havinenu Prayer” at the Rabbinic Council of America Midwinter Conference (Feb. 7, 1968); retold in Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, The Rav: The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (New York: Ktav, 1999), 2:167.
Sometimes this Ark is so concealed that it is not always easy to locate our sanctuary of repentance. Even though we may be painfully aware of the need to change, we may lack the tools, the resilience, or the commitment to take on the demons of a difficult past or the challenges that come with the future. Rabbi Jonah was deeply concerned with those who put off the process of change and improvement, believing that such individuals only intensify their own problems: “Deferment of repentance is found only among the ignorant, who lie asleep and do not commune with their hearts, and who possess neither the knowledge nor the understanding to hasten to save themselves.”2Rabbi Jonah, The Gates of Repentance, trans. Shraga Silverstein (Jerusalem: Feldheim Publishers, 1967), 5. Those who know how to repent are those who can commune with their hearts, who can recognize with exquisite sensitivity where they are falling short of the mark. The rest of us lie asleep even when we are awake. We fail to save ourselves.
Rabbi Jonah offers us more than inspirational messages. To be effective, teshuva must move us all the way from regret to a place of profound change. The change must make us so distant from where we once were that we are actually able to instruct and guide others to avoid what was once a major source of personal temptation or spiritual weakness in ourselves. It is as if we were to look at an old photograph of ourselves. We recognize the image and the likeness but also know that we are not that same person anymore. Rabbi Jonah presents the anatomy of an apology as an outline for transformation in his table of contents, offering twenty steps that contribute to the process of true change.
Engaging in self-abasement
Embracing humility in deed
Conquering physical desire
Improving deeds in relation to the sin
Searching one’s ways
Recognizing the magnitude of sin
Understanding the severity of lesser sins
Correcting the misdeed
Pursuing acts of loving-kindness and truth
Being aware of the constant presence of sin
Forsaking the sin when temptation calls again
Turning others away from sin
This list presents both the range of emotions that it takes to enter the sanctuary of repentance and the behavior that must emerge from these emotions. Sin, even of a minor ilk, must become magnified in our eyes so that we understand its cost and its consequences. The movement from sadness to sorrow to shame must be experienced, and that is only possible if we sit with our sins, analyzing their full impact – instead of briefly visiting them and then quickly squirreling them away. Humility is essential for a complete understanding of sin’s influence. Without it, we may just write off the dimensions of a problem, not discovering its deeper causes and its far-reaching tentacles. The very last sentence in The Gates of Repentance is a verse from Psalms that captures the corrosive impact of sin: “The magnitude of sin is too heavy for me” (65:4). Sin weighs us down. It blocks us from moral advancement, chaining us to a stubborn soul, a recalcitrant heart.
Rabbi Jonah knew the process of teshuva intimately because he himself needed it. In 1233, Rabbi Jonah instigated a book-burning of Maimonides’ most controversial work, The Guide of the Perplexed, in France. The Aristotelian overtones of the book felt foreign to many rabbis, and they worried about the impact this would have on the faith of their flocks. When twenty-four cartloads of handwritten volumes of the Talmud were put on trial in 1240 and then burned publicly in Paris two years later, Rabbi Jonah regretted his involvement in the initial book-burning. Rabbi Jonah seemed unable to forgive himself for condemning a great Jewish scholar, perhaps believing that this paved the way for future ecclesiastically driven book-burnings and anti-Semitic acts.
As penance, legend has it, Rabbi Jonah cited Maimonides in every one of his teachings and planned to enact an ancient Jewish custom: he intended to go to Maimonides’ grave in Tiberias and bring a quorum to beg for Maimonides’ forgiveness. He had already publicly acknowledged the error of his ways in his synagogue. He could not write about teshuva without practicing it. He could not describe and chastise the willful ignorance of those who did not improve themselves when he himself felt guilty of betrayal. He set off on the trip but was detained along the way and died of a rare illness in 1263; some attribute his illness to the fateful day that he assigned Maimonides’ work to the flames. He knew he had to make amends, yet Rabbi Jonah never carried out the ritual to externalize the anguish he carried inside by making his apology in the presence of the offended and the community. Like so many of us, he knew what he had to do to right his error, but he only embarked on the journey. He did not complete it.
There are many activities we do this season to externalize sin so that we can be emboldened enough to conquer it. In the ancient days of the Bible, Yom Kippur was a time when two goats were designated by lottery to bear the sins of the people. One was to be sacrificed to achieve expiation and the other was, according to rabbinic tradition, to be dashed off a cliff, carrying to its death the weight of our collective transgressions. The ceremony must have been freighted with a degree of momentousness and nervous anticipation:
Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins, putting them on the head of the goat; and it shall be sent off to the wilderness through a designated man. Thus the goat shall carry on it all their iniquities to an inaccessible region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness. (Leviticus 16:21–22)
Although in talmudic interpretations the goat met its death, in the biblical text the goat was merely shunted to an inaccessible region, a stunning metaphor for the abandonment of sin. We cannot kill the past; we can only hope that it travels to an inaccessible place where it no longer tempts, marks, or harms us.
The modern equivalent is the tashlikh ceremony where we ritually rid ourselves of sin by giving it to innocent fish. Alternatively, we may swing a chicken around our heads or palm our sins onto coins in its place. Some years ago, I found sin towelettes and a line of soaps designed to scrub us clean of all iniquity, following the reasoning at the end of the Leviticus chapter about the two goats: “This day of atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all your sins; you shall be clean before the Lord” (Leviticus 16:30). This verse suggested to the halakhic mind that the day of Yom Kippur itself has cleansing powers. Today you can even purchase pre-written apology notes where you check off the boxes that list your crimes and misdemeanors, conveniently providing the language of contrition if words are hard to conjure. I know all about the notes because I got one last year from a family member. In many ways, however, our attempts to externalize and remove sin have become shallow practices that distract us from the harder work of change. Teshuva-lite does not transform anyone; it only creates a ritual patina that may or may not stimulate repentance. Teshuva is not that easy.
In the introduction to his commentary on the Rosh HaShana Maĥzor, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that teshuva means that our past does not dictate our future.3Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Koren Rosh HaShana Maĥzor (Jerusalem: Koren, 2011), xxvii. Rabbi Jonah believed that, too, and actively worked to overcome a wrong he had done in the past. That requires strength of character, as all authentic change does, and Rabbi Sacks elaborates on how important this drive is, especially during this season:
Our determination to grow as human beings – our commitment to a more faithful, sensitive, decent life in the year to come – gives us the courage and honesty to face our past and admit its shortcomings. Our teshuva and God’s forgiveness together mean that we are not prisoners of the past, held captive by it. In Judaism sin is what we do, not what we are.4Ibid. Italics are mine.
When sin is reduced to an act or a behavior rather than a state of being, repentance becomes instantly more manageable. Teshuva is not a journey in this framework. Ultimately, it is a destination. It is about reaching an outcome, even if the result sometimes eludes us – often more so the nearer we come to it. We are almost there. We have almost forgiven ourselves or asked the forgiveness of others. We have tried to close the chasm that exists between our Creator and ourselves. We come close. But then we regress. We walk backwards.
We discover that the process of change is not linear. Nor is it simple. It feels harder than anything we have ever done before. The enigma that repentance can feel both easy and difficult at times may be understood through the dichotomy that Rabbi Kook uses in The Lights of Repentance regarding specific and general teshuva. When it comes to specific transgressions, we can usually tackle them head-on. We know what the problem is, and we strive to find a solution and implement it. Teshuva, in this equation, is a relatively clear act of problem-solving. General teshuva, for Rabbi Kook, is more elusive. We cannot pinpoint any specific errors but live with a general feeling, like a spiritual malaise, that we are remote from God and that we are not acting as ourselves. Repenting for this type of problem is harder because it does not have the same clear-cut quality as specific repentance.
Perhaps because it is harder than anything else, teshuva, for Rabbi Kook, contains the possibility of dramatization. He wrote that “the inner pain of repentance is a great theme for the poets of sorrow to strike up upon their harps and for artists of tragedy – to thereby reveal their talent.”5Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, The Lights of Repentance, trans. Alter B.Z. Metzger (New York: Yeshiva University Press, 1978), 52. Repentance is the great dramatic narrative besetting all relationships. In that spirit, Michael Lavigne opens his novel, Not Me, with a contemporary father and son estrangement story. Michael, a middle-aged stand-up comedian, was in a marriage that crumbled, taking with it his one son. Michael’s father, Heschel Rosenheim, is an aging Holocaust survivor who was once an upstanding member of the Jewish community but is now in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease. But Michael discovers that his father was never a Holocaust survivor; he was actually an SS officer who, to save his own life at the time of liberation, tattooed numbers onto his arm, traveled to Israel, and, ironically, ended up defending the country. On his deathbed, with his last breath Michael’s father cries out, “Forgive me! God in heaven forgive me.”6Michael Lavigne, Not Me (New York: Random House, 2007), 277. As Michael looks at his lifeless father, he is filled with pity. He sees no expected darkness, only light. Michael then makes some of his own observations about teshuva:
I found it so hard to believe any of it really happened. How could a person change from one thing to its direct opposite, as if becoming someone else is as easy as changing your tie? And yet, what if it were true? What if he had been in the SS and on kibbutz and served in the Palmach and was a hero of the War of Independence and through pain and loss finally achieved some sort of capacity for love?
I remembered how once he tried to explain to me the meaning of repentance. I was playing with the fringes of his long, elegant tallis. He smiled down at me.
“In Hebrew,” he said, “it means turning. Better, it means returning. It means to come back, Mikey, to come back to your true self.” And then he laughed and pinched my nose. “And what could be easier than that?”
“So why do we have to do it every year?”
“Because, my dear little one, there is no one true self. And that is why repentance can never end.”7Ibid., 278.
Teshuva is a never-ending process because we are always changing and the context of our universe is always shifting. This does not mean that there is no stable or true self – to disagree with Heschel Rosenheim; we know when we are being true to ourselves. We need multiple opportunities for teshuva because our mistakes and errors change over time, and our circumstances are fluid. The self is not static and unchanging, even if our essential personalities may be well established. Events change us. Relationships change us. Decisions change us. Life changes us. Therefore, there can never be an end to the process of teshuva.
In an exercise in which participants in a leadership class were asked to describe themselves in six words, most selected six adjectives and read them like a laundry-list of personality traits. Only one person in the group strung six words into a sentence: “Always do the right thing. Period.” That decision to do the right thing – period – is how we interact with a world that keeps throwing challenges at us when we have a strong moral core. We can lose our way and be distant from God, from others, and from ourselves – but we can recover.
We commonly translate the word “teshuva” as repentance, from the Latin pentir, to feel sorrow, or paenitere, to be sorry or to regret. The latter is actually closer to our word niĥam, to regret or to experience remorse. We find this exact meaning early in Genesis, when God rethinks the nature of creation before the flood: “And God regretted that He had made man on earth, and His heart was saddened” (6:6). In this one verse, there is raw emotion; the sorrow generates regret. In Greek, this same idea is captured in the word metanoia, a combination of meta – after, and noeo – to think or to perceive. Repentance here is a reflection on the consequences of a bad decision, action, or judgment. We sin. We regret. Herein lies the feeling that underlies repentance, but it is not repentance itself. It is a change of heart or mind that immediately precedes a change of behavior. It is the raising of consciousness of sin and its after-effects. According to Jewish law, genuine teshuva cannot exist without this sentiment, but the feeling alone is not enough. Regret may change the future. It may not.
Shuv, on the other hand, is the action that follows the regret; it is the slow process of reverse. Regret teaches us how to return. It is the best trigger to change. Niĥam is regret; shuv is return. Why not capture repentance with a Hebrew word for change or transformation? What are we returning to when we return? I believe the language signifies the most profound possible meaning of repentance in Jewish life. It is not about change alone; it is about returning to the best self that one can be, acknowledging that every person has already achieved transcendence at some point, that we all know who we are when we are our best selves. We know what that looks and feels like. Now we have to recapture it.
For this reason, perhaps a change of English translation can shift the way we understand what we are doing when we repent and why. Lashuv means to return, but it can also mean to recover. We find this meaning, for example, in a variation of the word in I Samuel when David challenged a group of warring Amalekites. The enemy had killed the men of a city and then kidnapped its women and children, stealing possessions liberally. David was at the height of his power at the time and did not take this military escalation lightly. He attacked the Amalekites, showing his military prowess, and recovered every single item that was forcibly taken: “Nothing of theirs was missing – young or old, sons or daughters, spoil or anything else that had been carried off – David recovered [heishiv] everything” (30:19). As if every item taken were in some impressive inventory, David could have checked it all off at the end of the skirmish. Everything was back in its proper place, recovered and returned to its rightful owner.
Recovery is a powerful English word, capturing the emotion of returning in its grandest sense. When we ache with regret and distance from those we love, a paltry sorry alone will not recover what we have lost. In our relationships, we can say sorry and even mean it, but the road to the full recovery of a formerly warm state of affection and admiration can still be difficult to locate. We may see the sanctuary of repentance before us but not be able to find the door. We may have said the words of repentance but not bought in fully to all of its emotional demands. We may have regretted but not recovered, apologized but not actualized a new and improved relationship. Repentance requires that we love no less, and possibly more, than we did before the distance set in. It is not the sorry that is critical in this definition of teshuva, but rather the words and the deeds after the sorry, the positive commitment to intimacy we deliberatively create instead of allowing a bad mood to set in for the long haul. This is unlike the cold, formalized language of contrition that has little impact on thawing the remoteness that settles in between two people who want to make up but cannot get past their private wounds. They say the words to each other, but the feelings are still icy. The words come out all wrong. We’ve all been there before. Maybe we’re there now.
The same King David who recovered property that was taken and returned it had a harder time mustering recovery in his relationship with his son Avshalom, as told in II Samuel. Avshalom nursed hatred for his half-brother Amnon for the rape of his sister Tamar. Two years after the rape, Avshalom killed Amnon in revenge and then fled in fear. David and his royal court mourned Amnon. Through this difficult mourning period, Avshalom stayed away from his father for three years. The relationship was frozen with grief and loss. “But King David was pining away for Avshalom, for the king had gotten over Amnon’s death” (13:39). As time passed and healed one wound, another was reopened. David longed to recover his relationship with his estranged son Avshalom, but he could not bring himself to forgive him or configure a noble way to create an encounter. Yoav, David’s nephew and a captain of his army, saw through the pain and devised a ruse to bring father and son together. He found a woman in Tekoa, dressed her in the robes of mourning, and asked her to visit the king with a request. This unnamed woman on a mission of mercy fell prostrate before the king and cried out to him. David wanted to know how to help. She told her tale of woe. Her husband died, and her two sons came to blows. One killed the other, and now the clan wanted the remaining son to be put to death, wiping out her only heir. Her son was all she had left in her diminished universe; she wanted his life to be spared. The king agreed.
If the king was not able to see through the case and into the mirror, the woman from Tekoa made the message explicit, asking the king if she could utter yet another word. She told the king with words of existential despair that he was mistaken not to bring back his own banished son: “We must all die; we are like water that is poured on the ground and cannot be gathered up” (14:14). Mistakes happen. Life is short. Forgiveness endures. Love is possible. It is time to put the past behind.
The king asked the stranger before him if she had been sent by Yoav. The woman from Tekoa told the truth. Yoav had indeed put her up to this, but only because Yoav saw that the king needed to make peace with his son but could not find a way to do so while maintaining his pride and dignity. We often want to resolve a conflict but are not willing enough to squelch a bloated ego and say sorry. David needed the relationship to recover. Yoav found a way; the king commanded Yoav to bring Avshalom home.
Sadly, the story does not end here. Even once Avshalom was brought directly to his home, King David would not see him for two years. For two years, the two souls hovered in Jerusalem without a sighting. Avshalom lost his patience, burned one of Yoav’s fields to get his attention, and then complained that his father David refused to see him. If he was guilty, he was prepared to die, but he wanted to know his crime. Yoav reported this to the king and then summoned Avshalom to the palace. “He came to the king and flung himself to the ground before the king. And the king kissed Avshalom” (14:33).
We find ourselves in this moment of tenderness with a father and his estranged son. We feel the ground beneath Avshalom when he threw himself to the floor and the intimacy of David’s kiss when Avshalom picked himself up. We recognize the pain intermingled with joy offered by a moment of recovery.
Yet strained relationships take a lot more than a kiss to heal. So much time had elapsed – five years – that the tension between father and son never fully recovered. Perhaps the work needed for recovery was never complete. Avshalom, in the next chapters of II Samuel, began to threaten the throne and set himself up as an alternate ruler. While there may have been regret and an apology – we do not know what was said – it was evidently not enough.
David’s story reminds us that if we believe teshuva can be achieved in one day of intense prayer, we will never really understand what teshuva truly demands of us: full and total recovery. In the biblical story it takes years and is still not fully achieved. Recovery is a process, not a singular act. It requires tenderness, commitment, and patience. Yom Kippur may represent the beginning of the process, but it is rarely its end.
I write this on the day after Yom Kippur, the most solemn day of the Jewish calendar, thinking of Yom Kippur a year from now. Yom Kippur lingers. It lingers in my mind, prompting heightened consciousness of wrongdoing, an attenuated sense of rectitude and gratitude. Ah, the gift of being alive. Of living another year. Of having the spiritual stamina to make it to the end of Ne’ila, the day’s closing prayer.
Yom Kippur also lingers in my body, which takes a few days to recover from the shock and physicality of fasting. There are two fasts in Jewish law in the same week, and I always marvel at how I can fast for two out of seven days and still manage to gain weight. Fasting makes material demands of us, as it should. R. Elazar, in the Talmud, remarked that fasting is greater than charity, and explained himself: fasting is accomplished through one’s person while charity is only accomplished through one’s possessions.8Berakhot 32b. Fasting is meant to linger.
But Yom Kippur also lingers in my heart, warping it with the intensity of my mortality. It is the day that helps me frequent death. Not a year passes when I do not say its central prayer, Unetaneh Tokef, as tears flow fast and furiously down my face and drop unglamorously from the tip of my nose into my prayerbook. “Who will die a timely death and who will die an untimely death. Who by fire and who by water….” I am absolutely dumbstruck by the haphazard and drunken way that the Angel of Death has extracted people from my congregation: this one’s wife to cancer, this one’s daughter to suicide, that one’s father in an accident. And I don’t cry only because I am afraid of judgment (although, no doubt, I should). I cry because I am frightened to death of death and its seeming randomness and my incapacity to ever see a larger master plan. I am terrified of the possibility that I will not live long enough to see grandchildren, to travel, to grow old with my husband. I will die and others will live in the shadow of my death, like the magician pulling the tablecloth but leaving all of the teacups trembling in their places. I am frightened by all the hurt that death creates in its wake, by the thought that my death will cause pain to others. More: I am afraid to lose someone I love. Did I dare utter that, form words that may, God forbid, precipitate that reality?
Yom Kippur is supposed to be a miniature death. We enter the universe of death as the sun sets and the fast begins. We confess on our deathbeds; we confess one day a year. We wear white shrouds in the coffin; we wear white one day a year. We do not need shoes for our ultimate journey; we don’t wear them one day a year. We cannot participate in the acts that make us alive before we breathe our last; we refrain from our most human, material needs one day a year. On Yom Kippur we imitate death so that we may truly live.
And precisely because we wait for the heavy shoe of tragedy to drop and spoil and soil the abundant goodness we have unfairly come to expect as our due do we leave Yom Kippur more alive than we have ever been. We know that all the majesty of our lives will be taken away one day and that makes every moment we are here more worthwhile. As I pray on Yom Kippur, I am aware of my absolute smallness in a universe I will never understand. I wonder at the odd paradox of how prayer crushes the ego in its grab for transcendence. Stoop low. Push higher. There is an elegance to humility, the slow punch of its descents and ascents.
On Rosh HaShana we acknowledge God’s majesty and authority in the universe. We realize that we must abandon the illusion that we have ultimate control; we must soften the tight grip we falsely believe we have over the future. On Yom Kippur we mimic death, the ultimate statement that we have no control over our mortality. The confrontation with death prompts us to reconsider what we’ve been living for. We spend the days in between in a state of vulnerability; on the day after Yom Kippur we take greater control of ourselves and what we need to achieve. We lose control to gain control.
We have these ten days – the Asseret Yemei Teshuva – to pray, to cry, to improve, to change, to forgive, to apologize, to become what we’ve always meant to become, to return, to come home, to build the sanctuary that is repentance. We have these ten days to recover, to revisit our best selves, to become whole again. And each day that we fail in this task, we must pick ourselves up again with the reminder: “Once more with feeling.” There is always tomorrow.
Think of one relationship you are in that needs recovery. Imagine the relationship’s most tender moments and the time when the person meant a great deal to you, and ask yourself why. What would it take to return to that place of affection or admiration? What is getting in the way? How are you getting in the way?
It is at this time of year that our greatest personal insecurities typically surface. We feel remote from ourselves. Instead of pushing these powerful insecurities away, invite some of them into heightened view. Consider a time when you felt really good about the person you were. What would it take to return to that place of affection or admiration? What is getting in the way? How are you getting in the way of your best self?
Having imagined what recovery might look like with another human being and with yourself, now imagine a time when your relationship with God was at a high point, a spiritual apex. What would it take to return to that place of affection or admiration? What is getting in the way? How are you getting in the way?