Dear Jew in the City,
What does it really mean to do teshuvah and how do we do it properly?
Thanks for your very timely question. Taking a page from the sage Hillel, I’ll explain teshuvah “on one foot.”
When my oldest child was young, he had a toy car that changed colors when put in the freezer. Wanting to make it multicolored, he decided to lick it straight from the freezer. Of course, the car stuck to his tongue and removing it took off a layer of skin. My response to this ill-conceived course of events was to roll up a magazine, tap my son lightly on the head with it, and say, “Don’t do that no more.”
The essence of teshuvah is “don’t do that no more.”
Of course, just as Hillel famously gave a prospective convert the whole Torah in one bullet point, he also told him to then go and study it, so I guess we’ll need to go a little deeper into teshuvah.
Teshuvah may commonly be translated as “repentance,” but it more literally means “return.” Through the process of teshuvah we return to God. This is where we were before we sinned, and it’s where we’re meant to be.
To explain what teshuvah is and how we’re meant to do it, I refer you to the Rambam’s classic code of law, the Mishneh Torah. All of the following sources refer to Hilchos Teshuvah (the laws of teshuvah).
Teshuvah is when one abandons his sins and removes them from his thoughts. He resolves in his heart not to repeat them as per Isaiah 55:7, “May the wicked person abandon his ways….” One must also regret his former deeds as per Jeremiah 31:18, “After I repented, I regretted.” The one doing teshuvah must make anoral confession expressing the things that he resolved internally.[2:2] Making this verbal confession is itself a mitzvah, as per Numbers 5:6-7: “If a man or a woman commits any of the sins of man… they must confess the sin that they have committed.”
One confesses by saying, “I beseech You, God! I have sinned, transgressed, and acted iniquitously before You by performing such-and-such act. Behold, I regret and am embarrassed because of my deeds and I promise not to repeat this act again.” This is the basic formula; increasing one’s confession and elaborating on one’s deeds is considered praiseworthy. (Even those who brought sin offerings or guilt offerings in the Temple had to perform verbal confession.) [1:1]
If someone makes an oral confession without resolving to abandon his sins, he is compared to a person who immerses in a mikvah while holding impure vermin in his hand, i.e., it is ineffective. We see that both confession and abandoning sin are necessary from Proverbs 28:13, “One who confesses and renounces will receive mercy.” One must also mention the particular sin for which he is repenting, as Moshe did on behalf of the nation in Exodus 32:31: “I beseech You, the nation has committed a grave sin by making a golden idol.” [2:3]
One knows that he has achieved complete teshuvah when he finds himself in the same situation as the one in which he originally sinned, and he has the ability to perform that sin again, but he refrains from doing so solely because of his teshuvah. [2:1] For example, let’s say that someone shoplifted a watch from a store with lax security. He later did teshuvah and made things right with the store. Subsequently, he found himself in the same store, with equally lax security, and the opportunity to shoplift another watch with impunity. If he refrains because of his teshuvah, then he has mastered the process. (If he doesn’t have the capacity to repeat the sin, such as if the store has beefed up security, then he’s still considered to have done teshuvah, just not at as high a level.)
Even if a person sinned his entire life and he only repented on the day of his death so that he died in teshuvah, all his sins are forgiven. [2:1] We see this from several sources, including Ezekiel 33:12: “the evil deeds of an evil person will not cause him to stumble on the day he repents from his evil.” [1:3]
Ways to achieve teshuvah include – but are not limited to – beseeching God, acting as charitably as one can afford,removing oneself from the situation that tempts him to sin, and changing one’s behavior to the path of righteousness [2:4]. One who has wronged another should repent publicly, saying “Even though I sinned by doing X to person Y, I now repent and express my regret.” If someone is too proud to admit to his misdeeds, he can’t achieve the optimum level of teshuvah. This is derived from Proverbs 28:13, “One who conceals his sins will not succeed.” [2:5]
But that’s only the case when it comes to sins between oneperson and another. When it comes to sins between a person and God, one should not reveal them publicly, as per Psalms 32:1:“Happy is one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is concealed.” In such cases, one should just make a general confession. [Ibid.]
Teshuvah is always effective, but the ten days from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur are specially designated for it. At this time, teshuvah will be immediately accepted as per Isaiah 55:6:“Seek God when He is to be found.” [2:6]
Teshuvah and Yom Kippur only atone for offenses against God, like eating prohibited food or engaging in prohibited sexual relations. Sins against our fellow man, such as injuring someoneor stealing from him, are not forgiven until the offender pays any damages he has incurred and appeases the one he wronged. It is not enough just to pay for damages; one must absolutely appease the injured party and seek his forgiveness.
If the injured party doesn’t want to forgive the one who wronged him, the offender should bring three friends with him and ask again. If the injured party still won’t forgive him, he should do this a second time, and a third. If the injured party still says no, the offender need not pursue the matter any further. At this point, the one refusing to grant forgiveness is considered to be in the wrong. (If the injured party is the offender’s teacher, then the offender should continue to seek his forgiveness until he receives it, even if it takes a thousand attempts.) [2:9] For those on the receiving end of the apology, be advised that we’re not allowed to be hard-hearted and refuse to be appeased. When an offender asks for forgiveness, we should forgive them willinglyand sincerely. [2:10]
That’s the expanded version of the essence of teshuvah: Regret the sin, make oral confession, and resolve not to do it again. If you wronged another person, seek their forgiveness; if you were the injured party, grant forgiveness.
There’s a lot more to say about teshuvah. The Mishneh Torah has ten chapters on the subject and we’ve just hit the highlights of the first two. For more information, see there, or the classic work Shaarei Teshuvah (“gates of repentance”) by Rabbeinu Yonah. (Both of these are available in English.) Happy teshuvah!
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
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