Reexamining repentance


TESHUVAH – this is the word of the season. Usually, this popular Hebrew word is translated as “repentance.” In fact, the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are popularly referred to as the aseret y’mei teshuvah, the 10 days of repentance.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, repentance is defined as “the action or process of repenting, especially for misdeeds or moral shortcomings.” The verb repent is further defined as “to feel or show that you are sorry for something bad or wrong that you did and that you want to do what is right.” In this definition of teshuvah, the process is based on a particular wrong action or problem of character. It is essentially a process of correcting past mistakes; were there no mistakes, there would therefore be no need to repent.

Rav Avraham Yitzhak Hakohen Kook z’’l was the first chief Rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine. He passed away in 1935, and his 80th yahrtzeit just recently passed on the third day of the Hebrew month of Elul.  Rav Kook z’’l was known as an intensely passionate, poetic and creative Jewish thinker who saw the return to the land of Israel as a part of the divine process of the messianic repair and the redemption of the world. A founding father of religious zionism, Rav Kook z’’l published a collection of essays titled “Orot Hateshuva, The Lights of Repentance,” that recast teshuvah more broadly as part of his broader vision.

At its core, his work questions the above-described equation of teshuvah with repentance.  Hebrew words employ a three-letter root that inform their denotation, and the root letters of teshuvah are Shin, Vav and Heh (Sh-V-H), meaning “return.”  The Hebrew word more fairly means the act of returning to the Creator. Understood in this way, teshuvah was a cosmic process and an existential posture of the created world; we are all engaged in an eternal journey of returning to God. For Rav Kook z’’l, this was the animating force behind evolution, moral development, economic and technological progress, and the return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel. Understood in this way, we are distant from God by mere dint of existing as separate created entities. The telos or ultimate purpose of our existence is to bridge the gap in communion together. Cast in this light, repentance is merely a small but significant part of the process of teshuvah. As we strive to connect and come nearer to the Divine, we naturally regret and feel sad about the error of past ways and actions that caused distance. But the process is not one fundamentally defined by the correction of errors.

Focusing on the positive can have psychologically beneficial ramifications. A host of studies have confirmed that a fixation on past failures can lead to something oft termed the “what the hell effect,” serving to demotivate and promote undisciplined behaviors. Additionally, a fixation on prohibitions and avoidance of vices can ironically promote the inability to shake said vices from our thoughts. Focusing on positive goals, on the other hand, with balance and measure, promotes their attainment. 

“The highest form of teshuvah comes from the enlightenment of the general good, of the divine goodness that rests in all worlds, the light of the Eternal Life-Giver. The concealed soul of all things towers over us in its glory and holiness, as much as the heart can absorb; in truth, everything is so very good and upright, and the good and uprightness in us surely stems from our relationship to everything else. Therefore, how is it possible to be torn from everything, an individual crumb, separated like a grain of dust barely noticed. It is from the realization of this reality, which is truly a godly realization, that teshuvah comes to the lives of individuals and the collective whole.” – Rav Kook z’’l     

RABBI BARRY DOLINGER is rabbi of Congregation Beth Sholom in Providence.