As we approach the Yamim Nora’im and the ten days of repentance, we tend to feel a déjà vu; we feel a déjà vu that is not necessarily always a positive one. As we reflect, introspect, and examine what it is that we have done wrong this year, as we wonder “what is it that I could have done differently this year?” and see what it is that we can do going forward, we uncomfortably realize that it is these very same thoughts that we had last year at this same time of the year. We realize that there are many things which we would like to change now that we wanted to change last year at this time of the year. We realize that there are resolutions that we are about to make now, that we made last year, but failed to live up to. This can become depressing and disabling as we approach the process of change and Teshuva (repentance). How can we possibly attempt to doTeshuva when we know that similar attempts have failed so much in the past? Sometimes we even feel that we are embracing hypocrisy as we pay lip service to the concept of Teshuva while knowing very well that the changes we are aspiring to may be well beyond our reach.
This difficulty becomes all the more serious when looking at Maimonides’ prerequisites for Teshuva. The Rambam states: “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…[He must reach the level where] He who knows the hidden will testify concerning him that he will never return to this sin again…”.
This standard of repentance seems to be so difficult that it is difficult to think of a person who indeed meets this standard; whom can we point to in confidence and say that the Master of the world can testify that he will never commit this sin ever again? How then, can we properly and sincerely attempt to commit ourselves to a lasting change and embark on this spiritual journey with the confidence that we will indeed find it to be rewarding?
In order to properly approach this issue we must address the concept of Teshuva as a process and not as an isolated action. Jewish thinkers of the modern era have outlined the following approach, though each in their own unique style.
While Teshuva can be looked at as an isolated action, it can also be looked at as a process. Indeed the act of Teshuva and regret for a given sin can be a one-time action in which one quickly realizes that they have done something wrong and immediately resolves never to return to such an action. This act of Teshuva, if sincere and determined, has an immediate impact allowing one to rid himself of the guilt associated with the sin and absolving oneself of the punishment and impurity that result from sinning.
At the same time, another aspect of Teshuva is the process of Teshuva[i]. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, author of the Tanya, writes that “ Teshuva is not only in he who sins, but it is rather for every person because the concept of Teshuva is to bring the soul (neshama) to its original source and root…where it was included in its Creator blessed be He”[ii]. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the father of the modern day Mussar movement in his famous letter, also explains Teshuva as a process of approaching where we truly belong. He suggests that by learning the halakhot of the field one violated, one begins to go on a path of cleansing himself and ridding himself of the potential to go on this path again.
We are thus reminded of the Midrashic account wherein (Midrash Rabbah 5:2) God tells the Jewish people “open for me an opening the size of a needle-hole, and I will open for you an opening the size of a large hall.” The notion of Teshuva especially in the context of sins that are deeply embedded in our identity, is a notion of a process, a striving, a quest, and an ascent towards a higher form of self.
So as we begin the process of introspection and our quest towards a change for the better, let us remember that the process matters just as much as the final product; let us not be discouraged by previous attempts which have not been as successful as we would have liked them to be[iii]. Let us be assured that no attempt and no striving for good goes unnoticed, and that the process matters just like the final product, transforming us and making sure that indeed this is a change that we can really believe in.
[ii] Torah Ohr, Vayechi page 41a. Similar reflections are made by Rabbi Yehuda Leib Aleter, the Sefat Emmet(SEfat Emet Al HaTora, Nitzavim, 1880), , Rav A.Y. Kook (Orot Hatshuva Chapter 15) and other great thinkers. CF Rabbi Shlomo Aviner Echta Ve’ashuv