shofar

In the Matter of True Teshuvah

Chovos HaLevavos lists seven things of which a sinner must be cognizant if he is to attain true teshuvah.

  1. He must be regretful and ashamed of his evil behavior.
  2. He must know that the deed was wrong, and recognize the wickedness of his act.
  3. He must know that Hashem is aware of his misdeed and that punishment (without forgiveness) is inevitable.
  4. He must understand that teshuvah is the cure that he requires.
  5. He should make an accounting of all the good that Hashem has done for him.
  6. He must contrast this with his own disobedience, and use it as a spur to his resolve not to sin further.
  7. He must take concrete steps to avoid sinning again.

One who undertakes to satisfy these requirements can attain true teshuvah.

-from “A Mussar Thought for the Day,” p.192
Tuesday’s commentary on Parashas Vayechi
A Daily Dose of Torah

“One who undertakes to satisfy these requirements can attain true teshuvah.”

True teshuvah.

I’ve written a lot about repentance, both in the past and more recently. But it’s something that’s difficult to maintain and easy to neglect, thus my mind and heart have drifted off into other topics lately.

But it’s as if God were “programming” my study materials to remind me and bring me back on course:

No enslavement and no tyranny are as ruthless and as demanding as slavery to physical desires and passions. Someone who is unable to resist a craving, and who must, like a brute beast, do whatever the body demands, is more profoundly enslaved than someone subject to a human tyrant. Addicted people are an extreme example of those who have become slaves to their bodies.

Dignity comes from freedom, in the capacity to make free choices, and hence, in our ability to refuse to submit to physical desires when our judgment indicates that doing so is wrong. Freedom from domination by the body is the first step toward spiritual growth.”

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twersky
from “Growing Each Day” for Tevet 8
Aish.com

PrisonAs Rabbi Twersky suggests, we each choose our own prison, but often, when attempting to make teshuvah and overcome a lifetime of error and disobedience, it seems as if you’re perpetually making a prison break. It can be very discouraging.

But then again…

In our Yom Kippur prayers, we say, “until the day of [a person’s] death, He waits for him; if he repents, He will accept him immediately.” This prayer reveals the tremendous mercy that Hashem shows toward his creations. A person may have been a sinner his entire life, doing evil constantly without regard for Hashem or His Torah. As his life is coming to an end, when he does not even have strength left to sin, he contemplates his future, and repents of his past. Surely this is a less than perfect teshuvah! Yet Hashem not only will accept it, He does so immediately, without reservation. As we say elsewhere in the Yom Kippur prayers, “we are filled with iniquity, but You are filled with mercy.”

-from “A Closer Look at the Siddur,” p.195
Tuesday’s commentary on Parashas Vayechi
A Daily Dose of Torah

This isn’t an excuse to wait for the last moment to repent, but rather is it encouragement and hope that no matter how long you have been buried in habitual sin, and no matter how far you have fallen, and no matter how distant you are from God, you can return and He will accept true teshuvah immediately.

But as we saw above, “true teshuvah” is no small thing. As I’ve said previously, it is hardly a matter of just saying “I’m sorry” and then it’s all good. Teshuvah is a life-changing event, and well it should be. It is turning your life around completely and starting off in a brand new direction, the polar opposite of the path you previously trod.

But we can’t do it alone. Without God, no one of us has the will to completely subdue our evil inclination and to make true teshuvah.

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
And renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from Your presence
And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of Your salvation
And sustain me with a willing spirit.

Psalm 51:10-12 (NASB)

I’m sure you recognize this as part of David’s sincere plea to God for forgiveness for the multiple and heinous willful sins he committed in the matter of Bathsheba. There is no sacrifice in the Temple for willful sin, and the only sacrifice that is acceptable before God for such sins is “a broken spirit and a broken and a contrite heart” (verse 17).

And this is exactly what God is waiting for from each of us:

As we pray each day, the knowledge that Hashem is not wrathful or vengeful, but is rather a merciful God Who desires our sincere repentance, should act as a powerful stimulant, giving us the fortitude to mend our ways and live our lives as servants of Hashem.

-“A Closer Look at the Siddur,” ibid

But as for me, I am like a green olive tree in the house of God;
I trust in the lovingkindness of God forever and ever.
I will give You thanks forever, because You have done it,
And I will wait on Your name, for it is good, in the presence of Your godly ones.

Psalm 52:8-9

PrayerIn the Days of Awe surrounding Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the shofar blast is meant to be something of a “wake up call” from God to the Jewish people to repent, for time is short. But actually we can repent at an moment, and God will listen and be merciful. However, this happens only if we’re diligent and serious about teshuvah, about turning around and returning to Him. We all must answer the call and answer today and everyday.

Amen.

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15 thoughts on “In the Matter of True Teshuvah”

  1. I happened to see a documentary with Israeli prisons highlighted recently. Some of the prisons had very innovative and constructive approaches to their work. However, there was this one elderly man who had substance problem (alcohol) but also had a larger problem that he couldn’t let go of, it seemed. He had a stubbornness I’ve seen before. It’s inexplicable, and obvious to the professionals and all his family and everyone around. He had stabbed the mother of his children, his wife, repeatedly while drunk and had been found guilty and sentenced for it. He was nearing his time to be released but hadn’t made a particular progress. The camera showed his counselor explaining that he hadn’t admitted his guilt. As isn’t unique to him, he said he’d “already said” that. But there was no point in him saying it. He added “but I don’t want to be responsible for her going to the hospital.” [I might have a word or two off, but that’s what he said.] It is because of him that she had to go to the hospital whether or not he ever wants to accept it. Mean while, his family says he ruined their lives. Most of them (including young grandchildren) come to visit him, though, on family day — but the matriarch doesn’t. What good is he?

  2. Chovos HaLevavos lists seven things of which a sinner must be cognizant if he is to attain true teshuvah.
    1.He must be regretful and ashamed of his evil behavior.
    2.He must know that the deed was wrong, and recognize the wickedness of his act.
    3.He must know that Hashem is aware of his misdeed and that punishment (without forgiveness) is inevitable.
    4.He must understand that teshuvah is the cure that he requires.
    5.He should make an accounting of all the good that Hashem has done for him.
    6.He must contrast this with his own disobedience, and use it as a spur to his resolve not to sin further.
    7.He must take concrete steps to avoid sinning again.

    One who undertakes to satisfy these requirements can attain true teshuvah.

    It is decidedly strange to find out one is doing something in the right way, even if one is not doing it well.

    I always have trouble with #7, but I find that if I ask Abba to help me do it, to change me to what He wants me to be, and do and say, etc., I find it gets done, but not really by me.

    Numbers 1-6 one can do in one’s own strength…number 7 is hard.

  3. @”Q” — I’m surprised that you would single out number 7 that way. It seems to me that reliance on HaShem is a fundamental aspect of all of them, particularly the attitude adjustments of numbers 1-6. The “concrete steps” of number 7 might be deemed most tempting to interpret as activities that one might do “in one’s own strength”. How easy it is to fall into the fallacy of “Buy this self-help book, avoid ‘x’, ‘y’, and ‘z’, do ‘n’ spiritually healthy exercises and activities each day, et al”? .

  4. As a father, I do not seek opportunities to punish my children, nor do I find enjoyment in the process of correction. As a father, I am delighted in the moments that my children offers me a home made note with the words, “I am sorry, daddy. I will never do this again. I love you.” Even though I am confident my child will falter again, I revel in the moment of sincere apology and am so proud to watch them attempt to behave correctly afterwards.

    How much more so is Hashem joyful in these moments?

    I recently listened to Prophet Pearls with Nehemia Gordon and Keith Johnson from 1 Kings 3. Interestingly Nehemia pointed out that Solomon was sinning by offering sacrifices in the high places. Verse 2-3 states, “The people were sacrificing at the high places, however, because no house had yet been built for the name of the Lord . Solomon loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of David his father, only he sacrificed and made offerings at the high places.” Solomon was sinning by offering sacrificing outside of the proper location. Verse 10 states, “It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this.” Despite the reoccurring sin of sacrificing wrongly, Hashem saw Solomon’s heart and desire to please Him.

    Perhaps the focus should not be that we must continue to seek repentance because we falter, but the idea that we bow before Hashem with a childlike heart, offering a home made note of apology and love.

  5. I listened to a teacher yesterday and he was the first to point out that Adam’s ‘original sin’ was one of omission not commission. Had he not allowed the serpent into the garden he couldn’t have tempted Eve. It is easy to point and say you shouldn’t DO that, but it isn’t as easy to see what should be done. That seems to be my biggest struggle. The discipline to make me do my ‘have tos’. But, we press on, don’t we?
    ” Thank you, HaShem, for your mercy endures forever, amen.”

  6. I talk with someone fairly often who has problems facing what he does and says. He has stubbornness similar to the man in the story I shared [first comment]. And he is not an alcoholic, and doesn’t need a drop of alcohol (or molecule of any other drug) to engage in the senseless kind of conversation (which is not really conversational or relational) indicated. I think it’s true there has to be a loving connection with the Father for any steps to be meaningful. It’s so frustrating to have someone who talks about God and about thanking God, and so on, to apologize and subsequently do something worse (because it’s not exactly what the other wrong was, at least on the surface), and over time develop a manner of apology that involves saying the words and immediately lashing out at the person to whom he just apologized. The apologies were never real, they were (rather) another offensive behavior. A game play. And if you say to him that God knows what he is doing even if he won’t admit it, he says you can’t know what God knows or if he’s even real. But he will go back to talking about God.

  7. @ PL
    @”Q” — I’m surprised that you would single out number 7 that way. It seems to me that reliance on HaShem is a fundamental aspect of all of them, particularly the attitude adjustments of numbers 1-6. The “concrete steps” of number 7 might be deemed most tempting to interpret as activities that one might do “in one’s own strength”. How easy it is to fall into the fallacy of “Buy this self-help book, avoid ‘x’, ‘y’, and ‘z’, do ‘n’ spiritually healthy exercises and activities each day, et al”? .

    I agree that reliance on YHVH is necessary for all of the steps of teshuvah as listed, but 1-6 are a process within oneself…how one moves within one’s heart and mind from the recognition of sin committed to the point of doing something about it. Number 7 seems to be a mixture of what we can do, in resolve, and the setting up of safeguards against repetition of the sin, and what we need for the Ruach haKodesh to do in us…to enable us to be changed in our actions.

    I find changing from the old ways to the new ways very difficult, so I ask for a lot of help from G-d, and blessedly receive it. I do put my feet on the path of the new behaviour, but lean heavily on G-d to help me replace the old behaviour with the new, and to continue in it.

    And again, the more I ask for Abba to change me to what He would have me be, the more I change, and the less I seem to have anything to do with it, except in yielding to the sovereignty of G-d in me.

  8. @Marleen: What good is he? On a human level, I’m tempted to say “none” and to write him off, but I can’t see into the future. Maybe he’ll make teshuvah and maybe not. God knows. All I know is that on a human level, the state is responsible to make sure that he doesn’t represent a significant threat to the public upon his release. God will have to take care of what happens to his spirit after he dies and in the final judgment.

    @Questor: I see those seven steps as not exactly linear. It’s easy to imagine climbing a ladder one rung at a time, finishing with the first and going to the second, but that’s not the way teshuvah works, at least not for all of us. I think most people struggling with habitual sin move back and forth, up and down, perhaps for a long time. Some people get stuck and never finish, but that’s not what God wants. That’s why He disciplines us as motivation to keep on pursuing teshuvah until we finally accomplish our return to Him. The ultimate choice however, is up to us, as it is written, “Everything is in the hands of Heaven except the fear of Heaven.”

    @Terry: People are motivated to make teshuvah by one of two things: fear or love. While making teshuvah for the sake of love, as you say, is the best, even if one does so out of fear, it’s still valid. Hopefully, as such a person matures spiritually, they will see that since God is loving, we should respond to Him with love as well.

    @Cynthia: Actually God only told Adam and not Havah (Eve) about not eating the fruit of the tree, so I see Adam’s sin as not informing her and not stopping her when she was tempted to eat. After all, he was standing right there when the whole thing went down.

  9. As for that episode in the Garden — there is no reason to assume that the man was standing right there while the serpent was feeding Hava that line about the fruit being actually good for her, nor is there reason to believe that the man hadn’t informed her about what HaShem had commanded. The evidence is that the man did relay the command to her, because Hava used it in her response to the serpent’s challenge. Cynthia’s suggestion about not letting the serpent into the garden in the first pace fails to recognize that it was HaShem who placed all the animals in the garden; it was not the man’s prerogative to put the serpent anywhere else or to regulate where it could go. Further, at that point it appears that the serpent was not recognized to be the only predatory animal in the entire garden, so it is understandable that neither of the humans were expecting it to set a trap for them, nor to have to defend themselves against it). Hava’s problem was exacerbated when she attempted to add a fence around her mini-Torah, claiming that not touching it was part of HaShem’s instruction not to eat from that tree. The serpent challenged that, with a very arguable: “Is *that* what G-d said!?”, because, technically, all G-d had said to the man was not to eat. If the man had been present, he would likely have answered the serpent’s question (much as Jews have often had to defend the halakhic fences around the Torah against adversaries who would challenge them). But most likely, he was off somewhere else in the garden checking on the state of things (HaShem’s “dominion” assignment, don’tcha know); and then Hava offered him the fruit when he got home (inferred from the distinct clause in the terse Hebrew verse). The events all sound very distinct when they had to answer HaShem’s challenge about it. The man said the woman, that HaShem had made and given to the man, gave him the fruit (notice the subtle attempt to shift responsibility onto not merely one but two others). She answered that the serpent lied to her about it to convince her to eat it. She did not claim that the man should have stopped her, or that he failed to protect her from the serpent. The serpent is not given any opportunity to offer any explanation (what could he have answered, anyway?) before the curses start flyin’. He gets “grounded”, along with a threat of a future stomping, the earth becomes a less friendly place for the man to work, and the woman will feel more dependent on her husband (and hence seldom satisfied that he is meeting her needs) and have greater difficulty with childbearing. After the great flood, HaShem relents a little by removing the curse on the ground, but also limits human lifespans (some would argue that to be also a blessing).

  10. @James — I suspect Hava tried to convince him of what the serpent told her, and that he then tried to convince himself. There is a midrash that he chose deliberately to join her in her transgression, in order not to be separated from her in whatever decree HaShem would declare against her; and possibly to make it harder for HaShem to condemn both of them too harshly, lest He ruin His entire plan for the humanity for which He had worked so hard to create an entire cosmos suited to sustain them. Hence his emphasis on her sense of initiative and the reminder that she was HaShem’s own creation (i.e., two positive arguments in her favor to offset the negative of the transgression).

  11. James, Jeshua said something extreme about some people, something like they were to be condemned. Doesn’t “seem right.” After all, they could repent. Nevertheless, he wasn’t wrong to say it, and he did explain that he meant they would be condemned if they didn’t change. My statement/question as to what “good” this man is I would think an be seen to consistent with teaching you have shared about people being dead while they are alive. Maybe you haven’t met anyone really that bad, who is teaching wrong a ruin.

  12. A daughter did say he had worked and given them everything (not every drunkard or sinner is homeless), but this can serve in the long run to teach wrong and ruin. The children go for the monetary or material support as is shown throughout scripture, that it is natural to gravitate to physical sustainance (which is necessary but not enough).

  13. All I’m saying is that only God can see if a person is “beyond saving”. I’d hate to make that sort of judgment on another person, though I admit I do from time to time. We can’t discount the power of God to reach even someone very lost and to bring that person to Him. Yes, I agree some people will never turn to God and will die in their sins, but there are also stories of people who seem too far gone who have miraculously returned. By the way, forgiveness doesn’t necessarily mean reconciliation on a human level. A man who has abused his wife and children, for example, may turn to God and repent permanently of those acts, but that doesn’t mean the wife shouldn’t divorce him to protect herself and her kids, even after he’s repented. God may accept this man as having repented, but since he’s broken trust with his loved ones, there may be no way they can take him back, even if they forgive him as well.

  14. I agree…I have a brother in the flesh, and all of his large and expanding family, and a divorced spouse all adamantly, defiantly, rebelliously saying there is no G-d, or if a G-d, not one they would want. Never the less, I pray frequently that they will someday hear the word from someone who can give it to them at the right time, and do teshuvah, and be saved.

    Even so, I don’t expect reconciliations even though I would welcome it in what ever form it took…pride, shame and distance are big barriers between people, even if they are swept away between each person and G-d.

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