The Paradox of Teshuva: A New Narrative
Sarah Cabot is an alumna (2018) and current Machshava Teacher in Midreshet Lindenbaum’s Maria and Joel Finkle Overseas Program
The concept of teshuva is one that is often taken for granted. The fact that we have the ability to be forgiven for our sins is actually not so intuitive. Teshuva grants us the power to clean our slate and move on from our past wrongdoings in a way that almost seems undeserving. The actions we commit have an effect, both on ourselves and on the people around us, and, in many ways, it would be quite understandable that we would not have the opportunity to achieve some sort of fresh start. On the other hand, one could also easily understand the pitfalls of living with a permanent stain of sin; how can we be expected to progress with the weight of the past sitting heavily on our shoulders?
This paradoxical process of teshuva, removing sin without forgetting it, is a philosophical notion that ripples throughout Jewish text and thought; how we, as Jews, choose to relate to our sins is central to our human and religious experience. In the midst of a technical discussion on what qualifies as an acceptable shofar (Rosh Hashana 26a) the gemara shifts gears to a more general discussion of sin and repentance. The mishna begins by stating that all animal horns are fit for use as a shofar except for that of a cow. While the gemara first examines the mishna’s text-based answer, Ulla offers a more philosophical explanation for the disqualification of the horn of a cow inspired by a statement of Rav Chisda:
עוּלָּא אָמַר: הַיְינוּ טַעְמָא דְּרַבָּנַן, כִּדְרַב חִסְדָּא. דְּאָמַר רַב חִסְדָּא: מִפְּנֵי מָה אֵין כֹּהֵן גָּדוֹל נִכְנָס בְּבִגְדֵי זָהָב לִפְנַי וְלִפְנִים לַעֲבוֹד עֲבוֹדָה — לְפִי שֶׁאֵין קָטֵיגוֹר נַעֲשָׂה סָנֵיגוֹר.
Ulla said: This is the reasoning of the Rabbis…As Rav Ḥisda said: For what reason does the High Priest not enter the innermost sanctum, the Holy of Holies, with his golden garments to perform the service there on Yom Kippur? It is because a prosecutor [kateigor] cannot become an advocate [sanneigor].
In a discussion of the High Priest’s clothing on Yom Kippur, Rav Chisda explains that he must wear white and not gold while in the Holy of Holies, so as not to remind G-d of the sin of the golden calf. Ulla cites Rav Chisda’s statement in the context of our mishna and implies that, here too, we are concerned that our actions may recall our sins while we are advocating for our forgiveness. Therefore, we refrain from using the horn of a cow as a shofar, because it may conjure up imagery of the golden calf. Rav Chisda’s logic is clear and sound; why would we ever want to perform any religious action in a manner that could possibly call attention to past sin, and all the more so on a day of atonement?
Immediately after Rav Chisda is quoted, however, the gemara begins to push back; through a whirlwind of rhetorical examples, the gemara heavily narrows the broader application of Rav Chisda’s idea: “But there is the Ark, the Ark cover, and the cherub, all of which are plated with gold!…a sinner seeking atonement should not bring something made of gold into the Holy of Holies…But there is the spoon and coal pan that are brought into the Holy of Holies, and they are made of gold!…a sinner seeking atonement should not adorn himself with ornaments of gold…” Eventually, the gemara limits the application of Rav Chisda’s statement exclusively to its use in our mishna, rejecting a cow’s horn as a valid shofar, and dismisses the notion that we have to be in constant fear of evoking memories of past sin.
The initial attempt to widen the scope of Rav Chisda’s statement juxtaposed with the eventual narrowing of its application demonstrates the gemara’s ambivalence in describing our relationship to sin. The tensions hidden in the subtext of this choppy and repetitive chunk of text emphasize that the gemara is itself grappling with the intricacies of teshuva and how we relate to our past mistakes. There are indeed moments in which we are rightly wary of recalling our past sins, but the gemara’s evident desire to constrict these instances highlights the dangers of such a fearful outlook on life.
The complexities of teshuva present in this gemara are further addressed in Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik’s writings on the teshuva process in “On Repentance.” The Rav explains that the achievement of teshuva is, in essence, the creation of a new person. At first glance, there is something incredibly empowering about this idea; we have the ability to create a better version of ourselves that is seemingly absent of our past mistakes. It enables us to continue imagining brighter futures without fear of getting bogged down by previous failures. And yet, there is something about this notion of teshuva that feels slightly lacking; we like to view ourselves as whole individuals on one long journey, learning from past mistakes rather than forgetting them. The idea that we can erase our shortcomings seems to negate the fact that those actions had a role in helping us grow into who we are today. Maybe there are moments in our lives that could’ve gone better, but is looking back and saying ‘that was someone else’ truly the best solution? In his further expansion of this idea, however, the Rav strikes a breathtaking balance that acknowledges the desire we have to hold on to our past. He explains that our past actions do not just disappear, as one might imagine, but they also do not follow us in each step we take; there can be progress without erasure and history without baggage. Our past actions become part of a new story. What was once part of a downhill trajectory, now becomes part of a greater journey of someone learning from their past and utilizing it to better their future. The Rav’s unique understanding of teshuva empowers us to rewrite our narratives in a way that does not reject or ignore our sins, but instead incorporates them as fundamental junctures in our lives.
A closer look at the story of the golden calf and the response to it echoes this insightful teaching of the Rav. When Moshe reaches the foot of Har Sinai and sees the people celebrating their new god, he is horrified. Overwhelmed with emotion, Moshe throws the newly received luchot to the ground and breaks them. The simple reading of this sequence of events implies that Moshe’s act of shattering the luchot is nothing more than a dramatic response to a heinous display of religious betrayal. Many commentaries, surprisingly, do not follow this line of reasoning; they view the breaking of the luchot not only as an unintended positive outcome of the golden calf, but as a necessary and vital one that shapes the course of history for b’nai yisrael. Furthermore, this pivotal moment is frequently associated with the birth of Torah She’ba’al peh, the oral Torah. The transition from tablets that were solely “written” by G-d to tablets that were a combined product of Moshe and G-d symbolizes our ability to meaningfully contribute to Torah in innovative ways. The way that this moment in history fits into the broader narrative of the Jewish people beautifully illustrates Rav Soloveitchik’s approach to teshuva. The incident of the golden calf is not wiped from our tradition, but, as seen in the gemara, it does not constantly weigh us down with fear and guilt either. Instead, the Rabbis take one of our biggest sins and establish it as a tremendous step of growth that guides us towards a more meaningful service of G-d.
Teshuva empowers us with the opportunity to engender our lives with new meaning. When we reflect on and ask forgiveness for our sins, we begin the process of using them to envision better and brighter futures. This Elul, may we all have the strength and zechut to write new narratives for ourselves that don’t shy away from our failures, but redeem them.