Teshuvah: Repentance in the Right Direction
If you wish to come back, Israel – it is HaShem who speaks –
it is to Me you must return. (Jeremiah 4:1)1
And one of them, an authority on the Torah, put a test question to Him. Rabbi, which is the greatest commandment in the Torah?” He [Yeshua] answered, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest commandment, and is first in importance. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ These two commandments sum up the whole of the Torah and the Prophets.”2
From these words, we may understand two categories of mitzvot. One is our obligations to God and the other our obligations to our neighbor. These are the standards of Torah righteousness. These are the heart of the Law.
Succinctly, our duties are the vertical aspect of our spiritual obligations to God, and our relationships with our neighbors are the horizontal dimension of our responsibilities.
The moment we recognize these two areas of obligation, we discover two areas of our failure. We have not fulfilled our duty to God or to our neighbor. Whether active or passive failure, whether we failed to perform what was required or violated what was forbidden, it is called sin. Whether we sin in the vertical or the horizontal dimension, we must make Teshuvah [Hebrew] (repentance). We have a day of atonement to make that repentance.
For transgressions between man and the Omnipresent, the Day of Atonement procures atonement, but for transgressions between man and his fellow, the Day of Atonement does not procure any atonement, until he has pacified his fellow.3
In upholding the principle that true worship must reflect the fact that “the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20),4 the Mishnah echoes the Sermon on the Mount where Yeshua had said,
If therefore you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar, and go your way; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. (Matthew 5:23–24)5
Maimonides’ treatise Hilchot Teshuvah (the laws of repentance) in the Mishneh Torah deals with the positive command that “a sinner should repent of his sin before God and confess.” He cites Numbers chapter 5: “If any man or a woman sins against his fellow man… they must confess the sin that they committed” and says it refers to a verbal confession. He then goes on to say,
A person who injures someone or damages his property, does not attain atonement, even though he pays him what he owes, until he confesses and makes a commitment never to do such a thing again as implied by the phrase (Numbers 5:5–7) “sins against his fellow man.”6
According to the Rambam, even though we sin against another human being, we have also broken faith with God. Our sin against that person is not atoned for merely by making restitution, although restitution, when possible, is required. The sin is not atoned for unless the sinner specifically repents and confesses his act as sin to the Lord.
As for sins against God, the prophet Hosea speaks quite clearly that a deliberately articulated Teshuvah is necessary: “Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God, for you have fallen because of your sin. Take words with you (confess) and return to the Lord.” (Hosea 14:2–3)7
If we examine all the mandatory precepts in the Torah, we do not find any one precept through which alone one may attain the purpose intended by the Torah except repentance. The purpose intended by the Torah to be realized through the performance of its commandments… is the love of God, which leads man to the great reward destined for the soul. Now we find that this very purpose is stated in the Torah in relation to repentance.8
In our sins against our neighbor, there is a betrayal of the love we ought to have for a person created in God’s image and therefore we dishonor God.
At the same time, our sins against God are reflected in every mitzvot we forget, in all the seasons of our lives when we do not give the Almighty a place, and even in the religious rites of passages in our lives when we fail to give him the wholehearted love and zeal which he deserves. This omission of God serves to dishonor his Majesty.
It’s been noted that the sinful deeds we commit have horizontal and vertical dimensions, in that they distort our relationship with other people and our relationship with our Maker.
It is also true that the problem of sin has specific and general aspects. There are the deeds we commit; the actual transgressions of the law of love outlined by the Messiah.
But at the root of those specific manifestations is the cause: the sickness of sin. The Talmud says,
How is one proved a repentant sinner? Rav Judah said: If the object which caused his original transgression comes before him on two occasions, and he keeps away from it.9
The proof of repentance is that we do not sin again. But can we ever attain to repentance? We can repent of a thousand particular sins but is it within our power to repent of being sinners? Sin is a condition of human existence and it does not occur to us to confess being merely human and mortal because we don’t see that God designed us to be more.
Perhaps on that horizontal dimension it may be possible for a person to discipline his or her temperament so that no person could level the accusation of transgressing the command, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But as that person stands before the King of Kings, how can they say, “I have failed to love you with my entire being, but I repent and from this moment I shall love you totally.”?
The person might keep all of the ceremonial commands of the tradition, but still their heart would be laid bare by Yeshua, who taught, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and foremost commandment.” If one cannot even attain to the first command, one needs to admit that though one can indeed repent of sins, it is impossible to repent of being a sinner or to make true Teshuvah in their own power.
This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it…. (Matthew 22:38–39)10
Many would suppose that because we are good people, by our own measurement, God must accept us. We need to remember that the first commandment is first, and the second commandment is second. Although it’s true that a person cannot be a sociopath and be close to God, it is also true that a person can be well thought of by all his peers and be a profane person by God’s standard.
Imagine a narcissistic young man in college. He is preoccupied with himself. He visits his parents’ home, the place where he grew up, but tensions that were ignited in his teenage years erupt into a violent argument. He curses his father, and pushes his mother so that she falls to the floor. Turning on his heels, he stomps out, slams the door, and never returns. His parents are heartbroken, and go searching for their boy, but he will not speak to them, and during the summer he moves away and they cannot find him again.
Years later, those bereaved parents are watching television. They see a city official of a neighboring state, officiating at a ceremony where charity money is being donated to the nation’s homeless. The face of the young politician is strikingly familiar, and although the years have changed his appearance and he has changed his name, they recognize their estranged son. The news program is lauding the qualities of this great lover of humanity. Are his parents thrilled with pride at the achievements of their son?
No, their hearts sink with pain they could hardly communicate to anyone else. This great philanthropist they’ve just seen on television is a person who never sought to be reconciled to his parents, to his mother and father whom he’d repudiated so many years ago. How could he care for his fellow man when he can’t even relate to his parents?
Their hearts tell them, there must be something other than the love of humanity motivating this man. Every parent wants to be proud of their children’s achievements and kindness on behalf of strangers. But when there is no love at home, love for strangers seems strangely false.
And so it is with us. If we get along well with other people, and we do it for their friendship or esteem or our own feelings of self-worth, but have not been reconciled to God, then all our social action seems out of place.
God loves the poor and he teaches us to be caring and compassionate. But if our kindness to others is not born out of love for God, then it misses what God intended for us. Our “good” reputation with one another does not impress our Creator! The first command is first. And if we do not seek to be reconciled to God, then although we may seem “good” in our own estimation and be considered a good person by our peers, this goodness does not make us holy or acceptable to the One who knows the secrets of our hearts.
The perception of truth is the basis of penitence.11
Yeshua taught a parable of two sons. One was good and faithful to his father; the other was not. The story tells of how the father had compassion for his prodigal son who recognizing his sinful ways, “got up and came to his father” saying,
“Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.” (Luke 15:11–24)12
Teshuvah is not merely a turning away from specific transgressions, a return to a natural state of purity as if purity were our natural, normal state and sin were abnormal! In actuality, it is sin that is part of our nature, demonstrated by the fact that, though we can repent of sins, we do not have the power to repent of being sinners, much as we might regret our situation.
The essence of Teshuvah, according to the insight we receive from Yeshua, is in the prodigal son’s statement: “I will get up and go to my Father.” Sin at its root is our alienation from God. We cannot by self-reformation, repair the damage that sin has wrought to the depths of our being. But true Teshuvah turns us away from self and toward the Holy One.
It is a tragic expression of the spiritual poverty of our age that many of us do not even consider our lack of a relationship with God when we come to the Days of Awe. We think of sin merely in terms of acts which society finds objectionable, and we give no thought to the standards that the Holy One has set. Our “religion” has become a secular pursuit. We have discarded what Yeshua called the first commandment. And many spiritual leaders would confirm us in this deviation.
Some modern Jewish thinkers such as the late Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan would prevent people from even conceiving of true Teshuvah:
To the modern man, religion can no longer be a matter of entering into relationship with the supernatural. The only kind of religion that can help him live and get the most out of life will be the one which will teach him to identify as divine or holy whatever in human nature or in the world about him enhances human life.13
Those who join Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism in his denial of God as Scripture knows him cannot repent in the sense of returning to God. A person whose outlook is secular can certainly seek to improve himself or society, but such self-reformation is not Teshuvah – it is not repentance as the prophets and the Messiah taught it.
Alongside the secular, anthropocentric worldview of many liberal Jews, the cosmic humanism of many Hasidic thinkers also constitutes [hebrew], a destruction of the foundation upon which repentance is built.
Each Jew possesses a Divine soul which is a spark of God. This Godly potential represents the core of our beings, our real “I.” Teshuvah implies returning to this essential core, seeking contact with these inner powers, and establishing them as the dominant force in our lives.14
This is an attempt to heal the disease by denying the gravity of the illness. By falsely portraying our own souls as being a part of God [Hebrew], this teaching introduces a subtle form of idolatry. Both secular and cosmic humanism as taught by the left and right wing fringes of Judaism would prevent us from saying as we must, “I will get up and come to my Father.”
When the New Testament letter to the Hebrews says, “…he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him” (Hebrews 11:6),15 it states the obvious fact that without such faith, it is impossible to conceive of, much less to attempt repentance in the vertical dimension. Faith in God is essential to repentance.
The tradition gives a name to that sin which is the root of all sin; it is called pride. No evil trait vulgarizes a person more than pride, so that he cannot rise toward the majesty of the spiritual. Whoever yearns for the light of God to illumine his soul must despise pride so that he will literally feel its defilement.
As long as the heart is pervaded by pride, one is inhibited from repentance and cannot comprehend any concept of purity.16
The late C. S. Lewis comments in a parallel way:
According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride, or Self-conceit. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.
It is pride which has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began. Other vices may sometimes bring people together: you may find good fellowship and jokes and friendliness among drunken people or unchaste people. But pride always means enmity – it is enmity. Not only enmity between man and man, but enmity to God.
In God you come up against something which is in every respect immeasurably superior to yourself. Unless you know God as that, and therefore, know yourself as nothing in comparison – you do not know God at all. As long as you are Proud you cannot know God.17
Human pride is seen in the fact that we have arrogated to ourselves the place which God, in fact, holds and deserves in the world. After all, it was he who created this world according to his will. Yet, we honor ourselves and we dishonor God. Even those who loathe themselves still occupy that central place in their own concerns, the sanctuary that God requires in their hearts.
We are bound by God’s word to love him with all of our hearts, and we see the rightness of that obligation. But we are unable to fulfill it.
Before the Baal Shem Tov (Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, the founder of Chasidism) died, his disciples asked him who was to be their master in his stead. He said: “Whoever can teach you how pride can be broken, shall be my successor.”
After the Baal Shem’s death, they first put the question to Rabbi Baer (Rabbi Dov Baer of Metzrich). “How can pride be broken?”
He replied: “Pride belongs to Godïas it is written: The Lord reigneth; He is clothed in pride. That is why no counsel can be given on how to break pride. We must struggle with it all the days of our life.” Then the disciples knew that it was he who was the Baal Shem’s successor.18
A king’s son was sick, and the doctor said that if he would eat a certain thing, he would be healed. But the son was frightened to eat it. His father said to him, “So that you may know that it will not harm you, I will eat of it.” Thus said God to Israel, “You are ashamed to repent; behold, I will be first to repent,” as it says, “Behold I repent” [a playful mistranslation of Jeremiah 30:18]. Now if one in whom there is neither sin nor corruption says, “Behold I repent,” how much more must the sons of men repent.19
We might have discovered from our self-examination that sin, for us, is both a condition and a number of specific sinful actions resulting from that condition. We may regret and seek to change the actions but we do not find the power within ourselves to repent in the vertical direction. We can regret our sins but we cannot stop being sinners. We can regret our alienation from God, but we cannot find him on our own.
Yet God has not left us on our own. The answer of the Bible is that what we could not do, because of our weakness, God did. Yeshua, who had no sin, lived that humble, submissive life that we could not live. He humbled himself, even to the point of death. The only one who never needed to repent fulfilled the role of the Perfect Penitent, committing his life completely into the hands of the Almighty in heaven. His lifelong attitude of “Not my will, but Thine be done” was an embodiment of the essence of Teshuvah. In his innocent death, he paid the price of atonement for those whose failure to submit to God led to his sufferings. But he did more than merely pay the penalty for our sin.
The Bible says that if we will receive Yeshua, he will come and live his life in us and through us. The one who was sinless became our Kippur so that we might share in his life and draw strength from him. We must learn to say with the “Baal-Teshuvah” of Yeshua’s parable, “I will arise and go to my Father.”
And when we determine to make the kind of Teshuvah that Jesus spoke of, when we’ve come to the end of our own resources, we find that it truly is possible. Because Yeshua did not merely point the way. He is the way.
- The Jerusalem Bible; New York: Doubleday and Co., 1968, adapted.
- The Good News According to Matthew, translated by Henry Einspruch; Baltimore: The Lederer Foundation, 1964. Matthew 22:35–40.
- The Babylonian Talmud, edited by Isadore Epstein et al.; London: Soncino Press, 1938. Yoma 8:9 (translated by Leo Jung).
- New American Standard Bible; Carol Stream, Illinois: Creation House, Inc., 1971. (hereafter referred to as NASB)
- Maimonides, Mishneh Torah: Hilchot Teshuvah, 1:1, translated by Eliyahu Touger; New Yorl: Maznayim Publishing Co., 1987.
- Tanakh, A New Translation of the Holy Scriptures; Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1985.
- Rabbi Yosef Albo, Sefer Ha-Ikkarim, IV: 25:1, translated by Isaac Husik; Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1930.
- The Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 86b.
- HaRav Abraham Isaac Kook, The Lights of Penitence, 15:1, translated by Ben Zion Bokser; New York: Paulist Press, 1978.
- From the “Parable of the Prodigal Son,” NASB.
- Mordecai Kaplan, The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion; New York, 1962, pp. 20-29. Quoted in Understanding Jewish Theology, edited by Jacob Neusner; New York: KTAV Publishing House, 1973.
- Eliyahu Touger, in his commentary on the Mishneh Torah: Hilchot Teshuvah; New York: Maznayim Publishing Co., 1987, p.35.
- Rav Kook, Moral Principles: Pride, 1, 4., translated by Ben Zion Bokser; New York: Paulist Press, 1978.
- C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity; New York: Macmillan, 1952, pp. 109–111.
- Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: The Early Masters; New York: Schocken Books, 1975, p.100.
- Pesikta Rabbati, 184a. Quoted in C.G. Montefiore and H. Loewe, A Rabbinic Anthology; New York: Schocken Books, 1974, p.325.