Rabbi Yaakov Feldman

Tshuvah is often misunderstood. Rather than an unfortunately necessary response to our weaknesses, tshuvah is the very life-blood of Torah. It is the power than enables this world to be our platform for growth, for development, and for change.

In this article, the author introduces the reader to this powerful and unique Torah concept. Touching upon many of the characteristics that expose its complexity and difficulty, Rabbi Feldman uncovers tshuvah's distinctive essence.

Rabbi Yaakov Feldman, a frequent contributor to NISHMA, is a free-lance author and speaker residing in the New York City area. His first book, a new translation of Mesilat Yesharim with commentary, is expected in the very near future.

This article on tshuvah, is a prototype for a more extensive work on the subject that Rabbi Feldman is also preparing for book publication, tentatively titled "Move to Tshuvah: A Jewish View of the Metamorphosis of the Self".



AMONG THE MANY STORIES OF TSHUVAH, repentance, is the one told of the Polish shtetel of Dzialoshitz, with its three hundred Jews, its two rabbis and its one graveyard with a tomb of a long-dead tzaddik.

It was nearly the end of the war against the Jews in Europe when Dzialoshitz's were told to meet in the marketplace in three days for "work assignments". As you would imagine, everyone was terrified and either wept, prayed or sat stunned."What'll we do?", the red-haired peddler asked for everyone else. The shochet's oldest son suggested that they all do tshuvah, and that seemed to make sense.

So the entire k'hilla filled the large shul in Shabbos clothing, with tallis and t'phillin, reciting vidui and weeping. And by the third day every

single Jew there glowed, which haunted the gentiles. Three days of tshuvah and the Jews of Dzialoshitz were ready.

They set off for the marketplace....

Humbly, and with all due respect to the three hundred kiddoshim of Dzialoshitz we have to ask, "could any religious person not be moved to tshuvah under those circumstances, and not know how to come to it?

"But, what is tshuvah in our more blessed, less treacherous lives? How do we come to it, and how do we change as a result of it?"



In its wisdom, the Zohar compares tshuvah to life itself[1]. And that's because true tshuvah lasts a whole lifetime; and like life, it's mercurial and complicated, completely different for everyone and universally necessary. For as the Abarbenal put it, "who never sins?"[2], and as the Slonomer Rebbe says, since it's as natural for us to enjoy destruction (and so to sin) as it is for us to enjoy construction[3], we all need tshuvah.

Yet, the Slonomer adds, tshuvah should not just be a reversal of sins. It should raise you up somehow[4], up-end you - confront you far away from home and convince you to come back, or find you in danger and bring you to safety. Maybe that is why tshuvah is identified with Geulah[5] and Ir Miklat[6].

In what is probably one of the most cynical Midrashim, tshuvah is even called a "bribe"[7] - a means of paying off the Judge to avoid judgement.

All in all, however, tshuvah is in fact a spiritual manoeuvre, a way to know and draw closer to G-d[8] and of improving the world itself[9] that is other-worldly[10], and yet as accessible as the sea[11] and adrenaline[12].

The central issue, though, is how we can change through it, how do we change? For after all, change is the heart and whole point of tshuvah.


To begin our investigation of how tshuvah changes us, we must look at the mechanisms of tshuvah.


Varieties of Tshuvah

There are as many kinds of tshuvah as there are mistakes and corrections, but there are primarily four.

First, there is the kind of tshuvah that is supposed to remedy mistakes in mitzvohs (ex., the accidental or wilful violation of the Shabbos, etc.). That is, in fact, what most of us take tshuvah to be good for in the first place. We understand that we have it to fall back on when we either overlook a whole mitzvah or part of one, and we are very happy to understand that G-d, in His wisdom, acknowledges our inabilities and defects, and provides us with tshuvah for them. Yet there is more to it than that.

Secondly, there is the kind of tshuvah that is supposed to mend character weaknesses (eg., near constant anger, greed, etc.[13]), for our selves - expressed in our personalities - need repair, also. Needless to say, that sort of tshuvah is more intimidating and involved, and it is very often dodged with the excuse, "what can I do?... I was born that way...."

Thirdly, there is the kind of tshuvah that's supposed to change incorrect outlooks, hashkofos[14] (eg., that Judaism denies the resurrection of the dead, etc.). As the Rambam says[15], we Jews are required to express certain outlooks instead of others.

And fourthly, there is the kind of tshuvah that is supposed to amend a non-spiritual attitude to life[16] (eg., living for your career rather than using it to make a living, and not concentrating on your Torah life, etc.). We might not ordinarily think of that as one of tshuvah's concerns, but it is certainly a fundamentally sensible one, considering what Torah is and what it demands of us.


The Process of Tshuvah


Rambam says[17] there are four steps to tshuvah: (1) the abandonment of the sin, trait, attitude, etc. under consideration, (2) verbal confession of the sin to G-d, (3) shame and regret for having committed or assumed it, and (4) the taking upon oneself never to do, act or think that way again. Considering each one, even briefly, we see a sequence. The first step is reasonable and obvious. For, after all, if we're going to release a sin, we're obliged to not do it any more.

The second step - confession to G-d - however, touches upon our whole selves again. It asks you to own up to your faults and to soberly consider your deeds through G-d's eyes -a deeply humiliating experience, to say the least.

The third step - shame and regret - also touches the self, but differently. Shame and regret ask you to admit your faults to your self, and to concede that your world-view and your insights into the truth were wrong. That is shattering and frightening, and brings you to real change, as we will see.

And the fourth step - the taking upon yourself never to do, act or think that way again - is, of course, the ultimate act of commitment. It is the act of being reborn, of redoing and of evolving.

Then the Rambam tells us that all that is only basic, not "complete" tshuvah[18]; that complete tshuvah only comes when you fulfil a certain requirement, which is: that you be in the same circumstances you were when you first committed the sin, that you have the same chance and ability to do it you had before, but that you not do it - and this is critical - for the sake of tshuvah.

That gives you the chance to completely undo and untangle yourself from the deed and to absolve yourself of its influence - like a vessel that's become unkosher by being touched by hot treifus, that can only be re-kashered by immersion in comparable heat[19].

And finally we are told that tshuvah is just as legitimate if it is done to avert or "treat" bad circumstances in your life[20] as it is if it is done altruistically; that it cannot really be done without G-d's help[21]; and that it is ultimately an act of self-annihilation before G-d[22], a coming to nothingness.


Thorough Tshuvah

But we are also warned, and possibly most meaningfully, that tshuvah should not be done just intellectually or abstractly, as an exercise in changing values or in self-analysis. It has to be done both intellectually and emotionally - with mind and heart in tandem[23], thoroughly. For, sadly enough, mere knowledge doesn't necessarily lead to change which, as we said, is the whole point of tshuvah. That only comes by becoming aware of and practising this deeper form of tshuvah and by understanding something of the workings of sin.

We come to the first aspect of thorough tshuvah, emotional tshuvah, the same way we come to sin. Just as you sin by seeing something forbidden that you would like to have or to do, by coveting it and then doing something physical to have it[24], you come to emotional tshuvah by "seeing" the Presence of G-d in the world, desiring closeness to Him, and doing tshuvah[25].

And we come to intellectual tshuvah by realizing that G-d, in His greatness, created us and the world itself out of nothingness, altruistically and for the love of us. That will deter you from doing anything against His will, and should coax you to act righteously[26]. It will also have you realize that, spiritually speaking, you have "blemished" G-d's Glory with your mistakes, for without that, even your deepest regret for your sin is nothing but a sin itself[27].



Now we must explore sin and its stimuli.


The Yetzer Harah and Thorough Tshuvah

As we all know, the force behind sin is the yetzer harah, the so-called "evil inclination"[28]. So, we have to understand how it affects us all-in-all, and most especially how it affects tshuvah.

What the yetzer harah does at first is diminish sin in your eyes and make the sin, wrong trait or attitude a faceless, nameless "something or other" instead of a thing that separates you from G-d[29]. Then it limits your awareness and narrows your perspective so that you become wrapped-up in yourself and your needs, rather than the transcendental, like a child thrilled with a knickknack[30]. So we see that sin is a result of limited awareness and needs to be confronted with tshuvah, which is a result of expanded awareness (because it involves "seeing" and being aware of the Presence of G-d in all places[31], as we said above).



Knowing that about the yetzer harah, and using the principles of thorough tshuvah, you can now change.


Coming to Change

Obviously, you change when, following the four steps to tshuvah cited above, you start off by no longer committing the sin you are repenting for. But, that is a change of a way of doing things, while we are referring to a change of self, a transformation. You do not come to transformation at the second step, confession to G-d, either - though you do come to grief, and to the belief that you should change.

You only begin to change your self at the third step, at the point of shame and regret (and certainly at the fourth step, too). Because when you display those traits, you show that you have disconnected yourself from the sin in question and no longer identify with it[32].

But you have to deepen your reaction then. And this is probably the point at which true change of self occurs. You have to shift from regret, which is a sorrow that comes from not having something you want[33], to remorse, which is a sorrow that comes upon your whole self and brings about true and profound change. The Rambam refers to that degree of change when he says that as a penitent you should, "change your name (as if to say, 'I am someone else; I am not the man who did those things'), change all of your ways for the good and toward the path of righteousness, and exile yourself."[34]


Your True Self

That will bring about change and awaken you, turn you 'round and 'round and re-do you. It will force you to act contrary to the way you acted before, and will have you begin to see yourself anew. In fact, when you sinned, you saw yourself in a crooked light and ideal, and acted accordingly. You saw yourself, for example, as the owner of something that wasn't yours and was never meant to be, and you tried to make it yours by stealing it.

You then go through thorough tshuvah, which begins with the wish to see yourself in a newer light, struggling toward a newer ideal, and ends in that "change of name and place" - all with the same ferocity and confidence with which you sinned - and you find yourself changed.

Then you will reveal and accept your true self, which is actually rooted in righteousness. For while sinning, you were robbed of the ability to recall your true self, and you came to hate it, preferring your yetzer harah which is alien to you, in your blindness[35].

And so in one way you have to return to your real self, and in another you have to be reborn, like a convert who is compared to a new-born[36]. And that suggests that you have to be reborn both spiritually and physically, thoroughly[37].

Some, like the Holy Ari'zal, even hold that a penitent should immerse him/herself in a mikveh when repenting, like a convert when converting, the analogy is so great. For immersion in a mikveh helps in rebirthing, because when a person, who is normally a land animal, immerses himself in the water of mikveh, his humanity becomes temporarily nullified in the all-water environment, and he comes out another person - i.e., reborn[38].

The process of rebirthing, by the way, solves a problem in tshuvah, which is: how can you be forgiven for something wrong you did in the world just by going through tshuvah, no matter how thoroughly? Can you deny the birth of an illegitimate child or bring a murder victim back to life?

The answer to that, it seems, is related to the one given by Rav Yoseph Albo in response to another, relevant question[39]: How can we "coerce" G-d to "change His mind" about something in our lives through prayer? Isn't it crazy to think we can?

What happens in fact, Rav Albo explains, is not a change of G-d's mind but a change of person. By praying deeply and sincerely you come out of prayer another person with another destiny, and you do not suffer the consequences of the person you once were, who no longer exists. We can gather from that that when you repent thoroughly and come to be reborn, your whole self changes, and you no longer suffer the consequences of your past actions, you are "forgiven".

And so we are asked to struggle toward tshuvah, not just to correct our mistakes and start fresh but to evolve to newer, higher spiritual levels[40], to fulfil G-d's wish that our world be one of tikkun[41] and to realize a basic truth of life: that everything depends on us[42].



1) Yetzer Harah - Rabbi Feldman, in endnote 28, presents an innovative definition for yetzer harah. In his article, Tree of Knowledge, Rabbi Benjamin Hecht presents another attempt to define this elusive entity. The difficulty arises from the many positive references regarding the yetzer harah. It is necessary for the world to exist (T.B. Yoma 69b). It is called tov m'od (Bereishit Rabbah 9:7). We are even called upon to love and serve G-d through it (Mishneh Berachot 9:5). Can we define it simply as the drive to do evil? (What is evil?) Why does this drive grow stronger with a person's ascent in Torah (T.B. Sukkah 52a)? Is the benefit of the yetzer harah in its defeat? See Da'at Tevunot. For further sources, see The Sages 15:6.2) Responsibility for Ideas - While, obviously, we must continuously grow in thought, change misperceptions as we gain a clearer view of the truth, tshuvah implies more. It involves the acceptance of responsibility, coupled with remorse, for a previous misdeed. How is tshuvah on incorrect hashkofos possible? Isn't an incorrect thought simply a mistake? The answer is somethimes yes and sometimes no. How, though, do we distinguish? See Rashi, T.B. Shabbat 31a; Rabbi Norman Lamm's Faith and Doubt. The question whether the person who says omer mutar, it is permitted, incorrectly, is karov l'meizid or ones, close to wilful or as one compelled, is also on point. See, to start the investigation, T.B. Makkot 9a.

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[1] 3:122b

[2] Commentary to Deuteronomy 30:1

[3] N'sivos Shalom, Nesive HaTshuvah 4:1

[4] Ibid., Preface

[5] T.B. Yoma 86b

[6] Zohar 2:114b. An Ir Miklat is a Biblical "city of refuge" an inadvertent murderer escaped to, to avoid retribution from members of his victim's family.

[7] Shocher Tov, T'hillim 17

[8] Shir Hashirim Rabbah 5:3

[9] T.B. Yoma 86b

[10] Higaon HaTshuvah, Hegyonei Halacha, R. Mirsky. Page 147

[11] Shocher Tov, T'hillim 65

[12] N'sivos Shalom, Ibid. 8:1

[13] Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Tshuvah 7:3

[14] N'sivos Shalom, Ibid., Preface (at end)

[15] Perush HaMishnayos, end of Sanhedrin

[16] Ibid.

[17] cf. chapters 1 and 2 in Hilchos Tshuvah

[18] Ibid. 2:1

[19] Avodas Yisroel, by R. Avraham of Slonom, cited in N'sivos Shalom, Ibid. 3:2

[20] Sha'arei Tshuvah 1:1

[21] Sha'arei Tshuvah HaMevuar 1:43

[22] Ibid. 6:4

[23] N'sivos Shalom, Ibid. 9:2

[24] Tur, Orach Chaim 1

[25] N'sivos Shalom, Ibid. 4:4

[26] Rebbe M'Kuvrin, cited in Ibid. 6:1

[27] Ibid. 6:3

[28] I've always thought "evil inclination" was a poor translation of the term. Everyone has a yetzer harah, but few of us are "inclined toward evil" (with obvious exceptions). Yet most people are inclined toward materiality and the apparent, rather than to G-dliness and the invisible, which is the gist of the problem. Yetzer harah should be translated as the "material inclination".

[29] N'sivos Shalom, Ibid. 3:1

[30] Ibid. 4:3

[31] Ibid. 8:5

[32] Maharal, Nesiv Hatshuvah, Ch. 5 (at beginning)

[33] Regret can be used in the sense of, "I regret never having had such-and-such", referring to something forbidden. So, it is not necessarily a lofty trait.

[34] Rambam, Ibid. 2:4

[35] Michtav Me'Eliyahu, Part One, p. 255

[36] T.B. Yevamos 22a

[37] N'sivos Shalom, Ibid. Preface

[38] Shem M'Shmuel, cited in Mirsky p. 150

[39] Sefer Ha'Ikkurim 4:18, cited in Mirsky p. 155

[40] Refer to note 4 above

[41] Nesivos Shalom, Ibid. Preface

[42] Sifsei Cohen, "Ma'amar 'Elul'" p. 19

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