5762 - #02

The Process of Teshuva

The theme of this period in time is teshuva, repentance. We are to transform. As Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuva 1:1 explains: we are to regret our past misdeeds, commit to not repeating such transgressions in the future and verbally declare before God our resolution in this regard. But how is the process of teshuva accomplished? How does one transform oneself? Yesterday, one sinned; one lost the battle of soul to negative forces. Perhaps, today one will win that battle. This, however, is not teshuva. The commitment of teshuva demands that one declare never to lose again. Yet, how is one who has previously lost a battle able to make such a declaration never to again allow negative forces to win the day? This individual's personal history shows that he/she is able to lose. Perhaps, tomorrow this person will win a battle, perhaps the next day and the next; yet as long as one is in battle, there is the possibility of defeat. Therein must lie the essence of the transformation of self that is demanded. The commitment to never repeat a transgression must supersede any individual battle. Teshuva ultimately must require that the battle be won even before it is fought. How does one who was once in battle -- and lost -- become one separate, above and impregnable from battle, thus always able to ensure the victory of soul?

Strangely, even as the goal of teshuva is clearly enunciated, the process by which one achieves the goal is not described. We are to do teshuva -- but how? In response there is silence. During the days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the answer seems to lie in tefilla, prayer. It is communal prayer that dominates the activities of these days -- but prayer is not teshuva. Is it strange that there are no clearly enunciated activities of teshuva connected to these days? It is true that we ask for God's forgiveness and also make declarations of confession, vidui, but the context is tefilla. What do we do for teshuva? There is no guide for the process of transformation that must also be part of these days.

In response, we need to recognize that teshuva must be a private matter. It is specifically individualistic. As each person is unique, similarly each person's path of growth and transformation must be unique. As such, how one accomplishes teshuva must be developed from

within. The goal of teshuva can be dictated but the method by which one accomplishes the goal must flow from the individual. What is demanded is a qualitative transformation of self. As Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik states, the person after teshuva must be different than the person before teshuva.1 But there is no script to describe how this change is to be accomplished -- it must be found distinctively within the framework of one's personal being.

With these words, we begin to recognize that teshuva ultimately must enter the realm of psychology. Indeed, Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot De'ot 2:1, explains that one with improper character traits must go to the rofeh hanefesh, the doctor of the soul, to determine how to acquire proper character traits.2 Psychology is the science of the transformation of being -- as such its findings must be considered in the teshuva process. Teshuva, just like psychological movement, cannot be accomplished totally within the mind. It is not enough to know what is right and what is wrong and to will oneself to victory. No two people are alike and not two motivations for behaviour are alike. As such, to accomplish teshuva, one must look deep within one's psyche to discover ones personal make-up3 and than restructure oneself anew.

But modern psychology suffers from a major difficulty -- there are no objective standards to guide one's restructuring. Today, one may attempt to achieve a goal of reducing anxiety by striving to not feel guilty over a specific behaviour -- thus the healthy person is defined as one who continues this specific behaviour but no longer feels guilty. Tomorrow, the rules may change; one may attempt to achieve the goal by changing behaviour -- thus the healthy person is defined as one who avoids this specific behaviour. One day a certain behaviour is acceptable; the next day it is not. Torah declares, in distinction, that there are objective standards. In so defining proper behaviour, Torah also defines the parameters of the healthy individual.4 Psychology may be the process by which one restructures oneself anew but teshuva is the process by which one restructures oneself anew within the vision of Torah.

It is perhaps with this realization that we understand the importance of prayer within the teshuva process and thus its significance within these days. In prayer, we confront God. In prayer, we recognize that God sets the standard. It is not anxiety that pushes us to enter this realm of transformation -- although sin is often connected with anxiety -- but rather the demands of God. It is not the avoidance of anxiety that sets our goals but rather the accomplishment of God's Will. As we enter the realm of transformation that teshuva opens, we must always keep this standard in mind. Tefilla declares the recognition of the goal. It thus dominates our communal actions within this time. But with it, we must join a private, individual journey of personal transformation that is the essence of teshuva.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


1 See, Rabbi Pinchus Peli, Al HaTeshuva. Rabbi Soloveitchik explains this in regard to the highest level of teshuva, repentance out of love. One who accomplishes this level of teshuva not only is not punished for past transgressions but is deemed not punishable -- for after teshuva, the one who sinned is no longer here. What is before God -- and us -- is a new person, the transformed individual who now exists after the process of teshuva.

2 Rambam himself introduces the idea that, to effect change, one must go to the other extreme in character, essentially offering the solution of behaviour modification therapy. While there may be those that understand Rambam as offering this method as the only, Torah mandated way to effect change, it can be maintained that Rambam is actually advocating a system of therapy. Within his historical context, this meant only behaviour modification. Our present knowledge of psychology can allow us to extend and refine the system to be applied.

3 Basically a process of therapy.

4 See, perhaps in a new light, T.B. Sotah 3a which states that a person does not sin unless a spirit of foolishness enters him/her. It should be recognized that even within Torah there may still be room for different perspectives but the key is that these variant perspectives are within the guidelines of the thought process of Torah. The significance of these ideas lie in the recognition that teshuva is a meeting point of philosophy and psychology within the realm of Torah as one is to set standards (philosophy) and then integrate them within oneself (psychology).

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