By Leibel Estrin


Teshuva means “return.” It is the ability to renew our relationship with G-d after we have jeopardized it. In a sense, teshuva is greater than Torah because it enables us to overcome the spiritual damage that we caused by transgressing G-d’s commandments. Once, a great Rabbi asked his disciples, “How far is it from East to West?” The students struggled to come up with an answer that would satisfy their understanding of the question, but they failed. Seeing their frustration, the Rabbi said, “It is not very far at all. All you have to do is turn around.” Similarly, teshuva is the process of turning around. Yet contrary to popular belief, teshuva has nothing to do with afflicting oneself. Rather, it concerns changing our attitude and behavior. In the words of Maimonides, (The Laws of Teshuva, 1:1)

“If a person transgresses any of the mitzvos of the Torah, whether a positive command or a negative command, whether willingly or unintentionally, when he repents and turns away from his sin, he must confess before G-d, Blessed be He, as [Bamidbar 5:6-7] states, “If a man or a woman sins against one’s fellow man…they must confess the sin that they committed.” This refers to a verbal confession. This confession is a positive command.”

What is complete teshuva? A person who confronts the same situation in which he sinned, when he has the potential to commit the sin, yet abstains and does not commit it because of his teshuva alone and not because of fear or a lack of strength….”(2:1)

What constitutes teshuva? That a sinner should abandon his sins and remove them from his thoughts, resolving in his heart, never to commit them again as [Isaiah 55:7] states, “May the wicked abandon his ways…” Similarly, he must regret the past as [Jeremiah 31:180 states, “After I returned, I regretted.”  [One must reach the level where] He who knows the hidden will testify concerning him that he will never return to this sin again…. (2:2)

In addition to the “3 Rs” of regret, recite, and resolve, there’s another act: rectify/restore. If possible, a person should try to repair whatever damage was done, both materially and spiritually. For example, if a person took something, he or she should return it to its owner. If the owner isn’t known, the person should give the equivalent value to charity. Similarly, if a person wronged another by speech, he should seek to set the record straight with those who heard him. He should also ask the person who was wronged for forgiveness.

The process of teshuva should also drive the person to better himself, especially in those areas of weakness. For example, if a person was dishonest in some way, he or she should look for opportunities to make society a better place by promoting honesty in one’s relationship with others, in the home, and in the workplace[1]. Our sages said that a person should continually do teshuva until one’s misdeeds can be accounted like mitzvos because they were the cause of so much good.

In fact, Jewish law states that if a person betrothes a girl “on the condition that I am a tzaddik, one who is completely righteous,” the betrothal is valid and she would need a bill of divorce to marry another. The reason is that teshuva can change the person’s level (and legal status) in an instant.

To put it another way, a tzaddik increases in matters of holiness step by step, in an orderly fashion. But teshuva is so powerful that it can empower a person to leap ahead and continue moving in leaps and bounds.[2]

On a mystical level, Kabbalah and Chassidus explain that teshuva is composed of the two words tashuv hey. This means to “return the lower hey” of G-d’s encompassing name composed of four letters Yud Hey Vav Hey. The lower Hey refers to Malchus, the sefira (manifestation) of Kingship. This sefira is also called Shechina, meaning the Divine Presence. When a person transgresses the laws of the King, the act forces the Divine Presence into concealment. The process of teshuva reunites the lower Hey with the three remaining letters of the Divine Name and leads to the revelation of G-dliness.

On another level, teshuva is the process of serving G-d by returning to one’s Source. This type of teshuva applies whether we have transgressed or not. Viewed from this perspective, every day represents a new opportunity to elevate one’s garments of thought, speech, and deed. This means that even people who are perfectly righteous must do teshuva.

Traditionally, teshuva is linked to the days of Elul, the month before Rosh HaShana (New Year) and the ten days between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. During this period, we work on correcting our behavior, our relationship with our fellow men, and our relationship with G-d, so that on Yom Kippur our sins can be forgiven.


Words of Wisdom

Rend your heart, not your garments. (Yoel 2:13)


An excerpt from the book “Judaism From Above The Clouds.”

Leibel Estrin has been writing about Jewish topics for four decades. He is working as a Jewish chaplain for the Aleph Institute. Leibel has recently published a work on Jewish perspectives and values entitled “Judaism From Above The Clouds.” To read more of Leibel’s writings and to purchase his book click here

[1] Your rabbi can help you proceed down the path of teshuva.

[2] For most people, though, teshuva requires practice and time. In the beginning, you’ll take two steps forward and one step back. But eventually, determination and focus can get you where you want to go. The key is to remember that observant Judaism is a process, not a destination.

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