One of the most important and original terms of Jewish moral thought, teshuvah, is quite inadequately rendered by the usual translation “repentance.” To repent is to turn away from sin and seek forgiveness. Teshuvah is a broader concept, one that goes to the very root of human existence. It is no wonder that the Talmud lists the power of teshuvah as one of those seven things that existed before God created this world. Human life is inconceivable without teshuvah.
The first person to undertake teshuvah was the very first human. Adam realized the magnitude of his sin in the Garden, according to the Midrash and sought to be reconciled with God. Teshuvah in this case would mean re-establishing the intimacy and trust that existed between God and God’s beloved creatures before the expulsion from Eden. Teshuvah, in this key story, could not mean the re-creation of innocence. That childlike aspect of Eden was gone forever. But a new relationship, one more mature since it had faced and overcome the moment of doubt and betrayal, was Adam’s goal. It is this deeper faith, one that emerges from struggle with the self, that is the goal of teshuvah.
Another great paradigm of teshuvah is the Biblical tale of Jonah. For this reason it is read in the synagogue on Yom Kippur afternoon, as the special season of teshuvah draws near to its close. God teaches the prophet Joan not to be cynical, to always maintain faith in the possibility of human transformation, just as God does. The prophet, who had longed for God to destroy the wicked city of Nineveh, is reminded that the city contains “more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and much cattle” (Jonah 4:11). Most sinners are like fools or children, not knowing right from left, no more guilty than cattle. Their Creator does not want to destroy them, but to see them transform their lives by turning to God.
The Kabbalah views teshuvah as a comic process, one that extends beyond humans and encompasses all life and being. It is identified with binah, the third of the ten sefirot and the maternal force within God. All creatures are derived from the divine womb, and all contain within them a deep longing to return to that source. The human desire to reach out to God is as whole and natural as the tree’s stretching to grow toward the sunlight or the root’s sinking deeper into the earth in quest for water.
Rabbi Arthur Green, PhD, is the Rector of the Hebrew College Rabbinical School and is recognized as one of the world’s preeminent authorities on Jewish thought and spirituality. In addition, lectures widely at universities and Jewish communities throughout North America, as well as in Israel, where he visits each year. Dr. Green received his BA and PhD from Brandeis and an MHL and rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary.
To learn more with Rabbi Green, please join us on Thursday, September 22 at Hebrew College from 7:30PM to 9:00PM for A Season for Renewal: Preparing Our Hearts for the High Holy Days. Register now.