5770 - #01

Rosh Hashanah


            A major theme of Rabbi Dr. Pinchus Peli, On Repentance: The Thought and Oral Discourses of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik is the Rav’s view of the difference between teshuva m’yirah, repentance arising from fear, and teshuva m’ahava, repentance arising from love. The starting point of the Rav’s presentation and analysis is, of course, the famous gemara in T.B. Yoma 86b that discusses contradictory statements of Resh Lakish on the subject of teshuva. Offering his view on the greatness of teshuva, in one case, Resh Lakish is quoted as declaring that teshuva is great for it can change zdonot, premeditated sins, into shgagot, unintentional sins. In another case, though, he contends that teshuva is great for it can cause zdonot to be changed into zechuyot, merits. The gemara solves the apparent contradiction by explaining that the first statement involves teshuva m’yirah while the second statement involves teshuva m’ahava. The Rav, however, in commenting on this gemara, begins with a more fundamental question: how can teshuva change anything?  

            Tefilla, prayer, and kapara, atonement, are much easier to understand. A sin is committed; the Will of God, as expressed through the laws of the Torah, has been violated. Punishment, as a consequence, is now deserving. An individual, though, may pray to God to beseech mercy and request that this punishment not be inflicted – and God can forgive. Such a process is understandable; nothing in the reality of facts change. This is not, however, the process of teshuva. The gemara states that, through teshuva, the sins either become deemed less severe or, even, meritorious. Through teshuva, it seems that the punishment is not simply waived, as would seem to be the case with kapara, but that there is some change in the nature of the sin that results in a change in the consequence, in the appropriate punishment. Therein lies the problem: how can this subsequent action of teshuva change the nature of this, effectively, historical act? We can understand that God can forgive a sin but how can I now change a previous act so that the associated punishment is now not deserving?

            The problem, however, is that this question is built on what is ultimately an incorrect assumption. While an act may still be the ultimate cause for punishment to be dispensed, it is, in fact, not an act that deserves a specific punishment; it is the human being who sinned through this action that is so deserving. While an act, a sin, does indicate or establish some segment of the nature of a person, it is then this person who is deemed to deserve the punishment.1 This is the nature of sin; it attaches itself to a person for, on some level, a person is the collection of all his/her actions. It is precisely within this context that we can understand teshuva. Obviously, teshuva cannot objectively change the nature of a historical act but it can change how this historical act is integrated into the nature of a person at this moment. This is precisely what teshuva does. It changes our relationship to our personal history thereby changing our being. What the gemara is now telling us is that that there are two processes of transformation, one that changes the effect on our being of previous premeditated sins so that their effect is similar to the effect of unintentional sins and one that changes this effect so that it is, in fact, similar to the effect of positive behaviours.

            We may ask: how does this occur? What is the nature of this transformation? The Rav explains that through teshuva m’yirah what occurs is that the historical effects of these sins upon one’s being are simply severed. This person, after teshuva m’yirah, is different because there is a clean break from his/her past. He/she is thus a new person not deserving the same punishments as were justified before the process of teshuva for the effect of these sins is now different. Yet this change is limited; the sins still exist as a negative entity within this person’s being but, defined by the gemara, has having less of an effect, similar only to the effect upon a person of unintentional sins. The inherent parts of an individual’s personality are not transformed just some are removed, leaving a new whole formed from the remaining parts. The sins thus indeed continue to affect the person. The sins have forced the person to limit himself/herself because the fullness of the person’s being could not be applied within the framework of the Divine service.

            Teshuva m’ahava is different. The past is not simply cut off. Those very parts of the personality that led to past sins are themselves transformed to be active, positive attributes in the service of God. The change within the person is more extensive, touching upon all aspects of his being. He/she is fully and qualitatively a new person and the sins, which were previous negative manifestations of these parts of his being, now have merit for maintaining these aspects of the personality in anticipation of their eventual use in the fulfillment of the Divine Will.

            Yet how does one achieve this higher level of teshuva motivated by ahava? More precisely, why should this motivation of love yield a transformation of this nature? On a simple level, one would think that teshuva m’yirah is easy to understand: one wants to change because one wishes to avoid punishment. This, however, is incorrect for such teshuva is motivated by fear of punishment, not yirat Shomayim which may be better translated as the awe of Heaven. The motivation of teshuva m’yirah emerges from a recognition of our place in comparison to the Almighty and how ridiculous and inappropriate it is to violate His Will. Such teshuva, though, may still be simple to understand – do anything not to violate this Will. Teshuva m’ahava, however, emerges from a different consciousness. Love is an indication of a relationship. Awe may emerge from the perception of one of the other without any indication of how the other perceives the one. This is not true with love. Love of God can only be built upon a recognition that God, in turn, loves you. This recognition, though, also changes our whole perception of mitzvot.  If mitzvot are the directive of a God Who loves me they must also be beneficial to me. This is the challenge of teshuva m’ahava, to understand that these Divine directives, which, as evidenced by my sins, I am not observing and thus, on some level, do not believe are good for me, are really for my benefit. The challenge of teshuva m’ahava is that it is only possible with a change in my whole perception of these matters. I have to go through a transformation for the love relationship, I have and am to have with God, demands of me to also recognize that this is for my benefit. This demands a eureka point, an exclamation that I perceive matters from a new vista – and now understand how foolish it was not to listen to my Omniscient love.

            Rabbi Benjamin Hecht



1 This is implied in the verse which establishes the punishment of lashes, Devarim 25:2: im ben hakkot harasha, if the evildoer deserves lashes. This sin makes this person an evildoer and it is this evildoer who deserves lashes.

2 See, also, Devarim 10:13

 (c) Nishma, 2009


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