Four Approaches to Teshuva
Rabbi Avi Bart is a shaliach of the Straus-Amiel Emissary Training Institute serving as the Assistant Rabbi of Blake Street Synagogue in Melbourne, Australia
Eyes closed, face buried in your machzor; you stand in shul. Swaying gently in rhythm with the haunting melody of ונתנה תוקף ‘Let us voice the power of this day’s sanctity’. Along with the Chazzan, you chant these ancient words וקול דממה דקה ישמע ובשופר גדול יתקע ‘A great shofar sounds, and a still small voice is heard’. You shudder as you read כבקרת רועה עדרו מעביר צאנו תחת שבטו, recognizing that today we are all sheep passing beneath our Shepherd’s staff. As the Tefilla continues, its imagery is clear before your eyes: Hashem as judge and you as defendant. You reflect on your year – the person you are, the person you are becoming, and the person you want to be. The Tefilla builds, you feel its power rising within you. Like a wave breaking on a beach, its swell crescendos and breaks as the entire shul cries out in unison ותשובה ותפילה וצדקה מעבירין את רע הגזרה ‘But repentance, prayer and charity avert the evil decree’.
Teshuva is a central theme of the High Holy Days. But what specifically is Teshuva? Though Teshuva is such a well-known concept, evoking intuitive responses from all of us, it is interesting that the definition of Teshuva is contested within Jewish sources. Each of these alternative conceptions of Teshuva provides a different frame not only for Teshuva in a narrow sense, but for the entire goal and purpose of the Yamim Noraim in a broader sense. Following are four conceptions of Teshuva that resonate with and inspire me (and hopefully you too).
Teshuva as Repentance (Rambam)
In his Mishneh Torah (Laws of Repentance Chapter 2: 1-2), the Rambam outlines what has become a very traditional framing of Teshuva. After sinning, a sinner should distance himself mentally, verbally, and physically from his wrongful actions. Teshuva involves articulating the sin, being remorseful about the past, and resolving to do better in the future. As such, the marker of ‘complete repentance’ in a reformed sinner is one who has an opportunity to repeat the same sin but, due to the process of Teshuva, can overcome the desire to sin.
To me, the Rambam’s conception forms the cornerstone of Teshuva and the key themes of the Yamim Noraim. Over this past year, and all the preceding years, we have fallen short. Be it in our interpersonal relationships, spiritual connections, or work, each of us have instances where we should have acted differently. The Yamim Noraim are the time to acknowledge that ‘There is no completely righteous person on earth who does what is best and doesn’t err’ (Ecc. 7:20). We should all take the opportunity the Yamim Noraim provide us to perform a personal critical accounting and resolve to repent for our shortcomings.
Teshuva as Self-Improvement (Alter Rebbe)
For the Alter Rebbe of Lubavitch, the first Rebbe of the Chabad Chassidic dynasty, Teshuva is better understood by considering its etymological root שוב – meaning ‘return’. For the Alter Rebbe, Teshuva means to refine our thoughts, speech, and actions as to ‘return’ our pristine souls masked in their worldly existence ever closer to their source – Hashem (Iggeret HaTeshuva 1). That is, Teshuva asks us not only to repent for our sins, but also to live our lives on a constant trajectory of spiritual growth and self-improvement. In this framing, the purview of Teshuva extends into all aspects of our lives, not just the parts in which we have obviously ‘sinned’. Teshuva urges us to consistently do more and strive to be the best versions of ourselves.
Teshuva as Seeking Hashem (Rebbe Nachman)1
The Torah of Rebbe Nachman, the founder of the Breslov Chassidic movement, is known for its raw honesty, emotional depth, and psychological insight. Rebbe Nachman recognizes the doubts, despair, and even sense of Divine abandonment that someone may feel in response to their repeated failings. For Rebbe Nachman, Teshuva starts with acknowledging that everything, including this person’s struggle, is rooted in Hashem – the source of all creation (Likkutei Moharan Part II 12:1). With this knowledge, Teshuva is then the act of seeking out the Divine from within our darkest places. Drawing on a phrase from the Kedusha איה מקום כבודו ‘Where is the place of His glory?’ Rebbe Nachman creatively punctuates: ‘Where’ – the very act of asking where is Hashem during this difficult moment? – is itself the place of His glory. Searching for Hashem in our personal difficulties redeems those difficulties and helps us repair ourselves and our world despite the challenges.
Teshuva as Self-Acceptance (Rav Shagar)
Aligned with his post-modernist leanings, Rav Shagar’s notion of Teshuva emerges from skepticism about the extent to which people can change (My Soul Will Return). Acknowledging the breadth and depth of forces influencing our decision-making, Rav Shagar posits that people in fact have very little ability to truly change. For Rav Shagar the central question of Teshuva is not “can I change my life,” but rather, “can I accept the way I am”.
Each of these conceptions of Teshuva resonates with me at different times and in different settings. Rather than committing to one view of Teshuva, I think it is most useful to draw on all of these different conceptions when appropriate. Repentance can best guide cases where we have fallen short; the self-improvement lens can be inspiring and motivating; seeking out Hashem can help us navigate difficult times; and self-acceptance provides an awareness of our all too significant limitations. By drawing on these four conceptions, we can have a richer and more nuanced approach to Teshuva.
This article was written as part of the “Journeys” series for Tishrei 5782