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1102 East Lasalle Avenue
South Bend, IN, 46617
United States

(574) 234-8584

Sinai Synagogue – an integral part of the South Bend community since 1932.

Sinai Synagogue is a proud part of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement, a dynamic blend of our inclusive, egalitarian approach and a commitment to Jewish tradition.


Shabbat Shuvah 5779 - How Does Teshuvah Work?

Steve Lotter

Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, September 15. 2018
Rabbi Michael Friedland

This is probably not the question you want your rabbi asking at this time of year but I wonder: Does teshuvah really work? That’s a little like a physician saying to his patient, You know I always wonder if this antibiotic thing is for real?

But teshuvah is problematic. We are told we must do teshuvah, sometimes translated as repentance, or change or turning, to correct the wrongs we have done. But how? Can teshuvah truly be efficacious?

If I punch someone in the nose, despite any remorse I may feel, despite my efforts to help repair the person’s nose, despite confession and appeasement and resolve not to break people’s noses ever again, the nose breaking does not go away. The person attached to the nose retains the memory of the fist making contact. The nose may heal but it won’t be the exact same; the event occurred and can’t be undone. For all the good that may come of remorse, appeasement and resolve how can teshuvah correct a wrong that cannot be made to disappear? This bothers me. But not only me.

Rabbi Moshe Haim Luzzatto, in Mesilat Yesharim, Paths of the Just, (chapter 4), a prominent Jewish ethical text, asks this very same question: “For in truth, how can a man straighten what has been made crooked after the commission of the sin? If a man killed his neighbor; if he committed adultery-how can he correct this? Can he remove the accomplished act from reality?”

A Jewish philosopher of a much earlier era, Joseph Albo, had a response to this question. He too recognized the problem of the indelibility of sin. “For logically speaking the sinner should not be forgiven under any circumstances (שאין ההקש גוזר שיהיה לחוטא כפרה בשום פנים) as the prophet says, “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? ...Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams? (Micah 6:6-7) That is, the price of being delivered for one’s sins ought to be so great that he knows not how much he should give or what would be sufficient ... All this shows that logically speaking no ransom should suffice to remove one’s sin. [Sefer HaIkkarim, Chapter 25, JPS edition Volume IV, p.223, 1946]

Albo’s solution is that the only way that teshuvah erases sin is through grace. Though some will say that does not sound Jewish, Grace, God’s unconditional love for the Jewish people allows for this illogical consequence. "שהתשובה אין לה מקום לפי שורת הדין...אבל היא דרך חסד ונדבה הנמשך מהשם יתברך" “For repentance, according to strict justice, has no place....except as a result of grace (compassion) and generosity that comes from God.” [Sefer HaIkkarim, p.232]

Sin, according to the Jewish philosophers of the Medieval Era, is an irrational act and for the philosophers the human person is a rational being. Such a person, who truly understood what his actions represented, would not sin. Albo analogizes the situation to an ill individual whose healing begins with a diagnosis. Once diagnosed he begins the proper therapy. So why does a person who is a ‘rational animal’ (Aristotle) do irrational things in the first place? According to Rabbi Byron Sherwin, “They had no good answer.”

And yet Grace, the free and unmerited love of God, is according to Albo the solution to the problem of repentance. An irrational solution to an irrational problem. However ‘grace’ as a solution does not explain how teshuvah works. It is comforting to know that God loves us and has created a system in which our effort to fix our wrongs are credited but its answer is a bit of a let down. We can’t really undo our wrongs so God offers us a get out of jail card if we try hard.

Another medieval Jewish thinker living several hundred years after Albo, Moshe D’Trani in his systematic theological work, Beit Elohim, offers the notion that people sin because, to paraphrase the words of another famous theologian, Lady Gaga, “we were born this way”.

“The creation of the human person contains body and soul. And he sins with both, with thought and with deed...” (Genesis Rabbah 22:11). (For sin) is found in the soul, which comes from the upper regions, as well as the body, which comes from the lower regions....thus man is almost compelled (מוכרח) to sin.” [Beit Elohim, ‘Gate of Teshuvah’, ch.2, p. 59 Warsaw, 1882(72?)] Teshuvah is the necessary response by God to this ‘natural’ situation. “(God) is compelled to accept teshuvah from the penitent, just as (God) tolerates the entire world. And if not, the creation of the world would be for naught. For it is impossible that people would not sin, whether a lot or a little, and God does not want the destruction of the world and therefore must forgive.”

D’Trani disagreed with the philosophers. People sin because it is part of who we are. And God forgives us when we go through the teshuvah process because God would not be able to abide a world that is corrupted with sin if God ruled with strict justice. In a sense, D’Trani is telling us that since sinfulness is hardwired into God’s creation, God has to insure that teshuvah and forgiveness have a place as well. For D’Trani, regret for sinning and resolve not to commit the sin again are the essence of Teshuvah because these two touch upon the two areas where human sin lies - the spiritual, through thought, and the physical, through deed.

D’Trani offers as evidence the well known passage in the Talmud (Pesahim 54a): “Seven Things were created before the world was created: Torah, Teshuvah, Gan Eden, Gehinoam, the Throne of Glory, the Temple, the Messiah’s name.” Teshuvah is a part of the primordial order of creation, it is a component in the system software.

Rabbi Judah Loew, the Maharal of Prague and a contemporary of Moses D’Trani, agreed that teshuvah had to be an essential component of the world because as we have already mentioned it seems irrational: “כי אם שהאמת הוא שמצד השכל אין ראוי שיהיה לחוטא תשובה” [“Rather the truth is that rationally, it is not fitting that the sinner be able to repent] but in any case teshuvah exists for man.” But instead of arguing like Moses D’Trani that teshuvah must be a part of the world’s design because it counteracts sin which is inherent in that design, the Maharal sees teshuvah as an extension of the Divine Personality. “Nevertheless there is repentance for man, and it is wondrous in our eyes. This is the meaning of the verse 'Good and just is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. (Psalm 25:8)' Meaning, that God is just and since God is just God instructs Humankind in the just path. Evil is prepared for the wicked, but God is good, and the Good desires the good; (God does) not (desire) the evil that is arranged for the wicked. Therefore because God is good and upright it is worthwhile that God instruct sinners, (decent people who have done wrong). God leads them to the proper path and saves them from the evil which is prepared for the wicked.” [Netiv HaTeshuvah, ch.1, p. 9, Machon Jerusalem, 1997]

According to the Maharal, Teshuvah is possible because God wants it to be possible. God is all goodness and thus desires goodness in the created world. God wants to guide people to behave properly, thus teshuvah and its process of correction and change for the better is decreed by God to work.

However a little later on Rabbi Loew confronts the question of how does teshuvah work, how can teshuvah erase a wrong done. And he does not shrink from the toughest case - how can teshuvah right a wrong that cannot be undone, such as murder? He answers by teaching us that there are two elements to teshuvah. In some cases teshuvah is about the ability to correct sin but there are times when a sin cannot be erased. Yet even in these cases, teshuvah can still be effective because teshuvah is also about changing the sinner.

There are different types of wrongs that we commit. Some of them we are able to undo – a person who steals something from someone can replace the lost item. But some serious sins fall under the category of “That which is crooked cannot be made straight” (Ecclesiastes 1:15) – this means that they can’t be fixed like the act of theft and thus the punishments for these sins are more severe. In the case of an adulterer whose transgression begets a child, teshuvah cannot remove the sin, the illegitimate child will not go away. So what is teshuvah in such cases where the sin cannot be erased? [Netiv HaTeshuvah, ch.5, p. 83, Machon Jerusalem, 1997]

Rabbi Yehoshua David Hartman offers a commentary to the Maharal’s view: “Because people are fluid and malleable they have the possibility to do teshuvah, which is about change. It is not about the sin. Teshuvah is not really about the object of sin but rather the personhood of the sinner … Teshuvah is not about the sin it is about the sinner.” [Note 67, Netiv HaTeshuvah, ch.5, p. 84, Machon Jerusalem, 1997].

What is significant in the discussion of the Maharal on teshuvah is how he detaches the act of teshuvah from the transgression. We usually think of teshuvah, which means return, as walking back the sin. We think of the Mishnaic teaching: For transgressions between person and person, the Day of Atonement atones, only if the individual will regain the good will of his friend (Mishnah Yoma 8:9). You have to make good on the wrong you have done. And usually the wrong done can be appeased. Therefore doing teshuvah comes to mean the dual action of internal change of the sinner and the appeasement of the injured. “I did teshuvah” means “I changed”, I am no longer the type of person who would do this wrong [Moses Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Book of Knowledge, Laws of Repentance, Chapter 2:4] AND I patched up my relationship with the injured person by apologizing and replacing whatever I took from him. But in cases where the wrong cannot be fixed, punishment and suffering ensues upon the one who did the wrong. It might be incarceration, it might be shame. What the Maharal is indicating to us is that teshuvah in this type of situation is distinct from redressing the wrong to the injured. Teshuvah is about internal change. Teshuvah is a process that each of us can and must go through, whether or not the sin can be corrected and fixed.

This is the meaning of Teshuvah as expressed in the midrash Pesikta Rabbati: The people of Israel said to God, We are afraid because of our sins they are so great, how can we ever draw close to you… And God responds, “Do not worry, even if your sins were as high as the seventh heaven, and you were to do teshuvah I would accept you in love. This is the meaning of the verse “Return, O Israel, all the way to the Lord your God.” Sincere repentance enables the penitent to draw near to God. This does not mean he is exempt of responsibility or goes unpunished, it means the internal change that brings repentance allows even those who commit irreversible wrongs to draw near to God.

During these ימים נוראים, these Days of Awe, these עשרת ימי תשובה, these 10 Days of Penitence, let us strive to correct the wrongs we have done to the best of our ability, let us appease the ones we have hurt to the best of our ability. But let us also recognize that even when we have done something that cannot be fixed, teshuvah still ‘works’, the gift of teshuvah is still open to us, the opportunity to change our ways and our approach to life in order to draw close to God once again.