The midrashic tradition teaches that t’shuvah (i.e. repentance, turning, returning) is an ultimate spiritual reality at the core of Jewish faith, and was one of the 10 phenomena that God created before the creation of humankind thus giving us the capacity to extricate ourselves from the chain of cause and effect.
The following are selections from classic Jewish texts and from some of our people’s most inspired and profound thinkers (ancient and modern) on the meaning, nature and impact of t’shuvah on the individual, community, world, and God.
1. “T’shuvah is a manifestation of the divine in each human being…T’shuvah means “turning about,” “turning to,” “response” – return to God, to Judaism, return to community, return to family, return to “self”…T’shuvah reaches beyond personal configurations – it is possible for someone to return who “was never there” – with no memories of a Jewish way of life…Judaism isn’t personal but a historical heritage…T’shuvah is a return to one’s own paradigm, to the prototype of the Jewish person…The act of t’shuvah is a severance of the chain of cause and effect in which one wrong follows inevitably upon another…The thrust of t’shuvah is to break through the ordinary limits of the self…The significance of the past can only be changed at a higher level of t’shuvah – called Tikun – tikun hanefesh – tikun olam…The highest level of t’shuvah is reached when the change and correction penetrate the very essence of the sins once committed and create the condition in which a person’s transgressions become his/her merits.” (Gleaned from “Repentance” by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, 20th-21st century, Israel)
2. “For transgressions committed between an individual and the Omnipresent, the day of Atonement atones. For transgressions between one individual and another, the Day of Atonement atones only if the one will regain the goodwill of his fellow.” (Mishnah, Yoma 8:9, 2nd century CE, Palestine)
3. “Even if one only injured the other in words [and not in deed], he must pacify him and approach him until he forgives him. If his fellow does not wish to forgive him, the other person brings a line of three of his friends who [in turn] approach the offended person and request from him [that he grant forgiveness]. If he is not accepting of them, he brings a second [cadre of friends] and then a third. If he still does not wish [to grant forgiveness], one leaves him and goes his own way, and the person who would not forgive is himself the sinner.” (Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, Laws of Repentance, 2:9-10, 11th century CE, Spain and Egypt)
4. “The primary role of penitence, which at once sheds light on the darkened zone, is for the person to return to himself, to the root of his soul. Then he will at once return to God, to the Soul of all souls…. It is only through the great truth of returning to oneself that the person and the people, the world and all the words, the whole of existence, will return to their Creator, to be illumined by the light of life.” (Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, early 20th century, Palestine)
5. “Humility is the root and beginning of repentance.” (Bachya ibn Pakuda, 11th century, Spain)
6. “Know that you must judge everyone with an eye to their merits. Even regarding those who are completely wicked, one must search and find some small way in which they are not wicked and with respect to this bit of goodness, judge them with an eye to their merits. In this way, one truly elevates their merit and thereby encourages them to do teshuvah.” (Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, Likutei Moharan 282, 18th century, Ukraine)
7. “Rabbi Abbahu said, ‘In the place where penitents stand, even the wholly righteous cannot stand.’” (Talmud Bavli, Berachot 34b, 3rd century, Palestine)
G’mar chatimah tovah u-l’shanah tovah u-m’tukah!