THE THREE LEVELS OF TESHUVA
A Rosh HaShana Teaching, 5770/2009
by Sarah Yehudit Schneider
R. Isaac said: Why do we sound the shofar on Rosh HaShana? …To confound the Accuser (TB RH 16a/b).(1)
Resh Lakish said: Great is teshuva that it turns premeditated sins into errors… But did he not say that teshuva turns premeditated sins into full-fledged merits. There is no contradiction: The former is the power of teshuva when instigated by fear, the latter is the power of teshuva when prompted by love (Yoma 86b).
There are three levels of teshuva. Each of them is real, but their sticking power varies. There is 1) teshuva from suffering, 2) teshuva from fear, and 3) teshuva from love. Teshuva is the most powerful tool of transformation available to humankind. It is not a mere formality; it is a potent agent of change.
First a definition of terms: Teshuva means, literally, return, and conveys a rich constellation of meanings: 1) Spiritual Path: It describes our life-journey which is to recover our authenticity and return, improved, to our Creator. 2) Personality Inventory: It refers to our ongoing effort of self-improvement and self-reflection. 3) Repentance: It refers to the three (or sometimes five) tasks which, when performed with a whole heart, can restore a relationship to its unspoiled state before the offense that created the breach that now requires an apology.(2)
Teshuva from suffering occurs when a person cries out from the torment that is the bitter fruit of his wrong action and resolves, on the spot, to straighten his ways. This is a real teshuva, accepted by HaShem, and it is potent to bring relief. The danger, however, is that once the discomfort lightens, we lose our motivation for change, and revert back to our old ways, and another cycle begins. Teshuva from suffering is passive because the instigation for change originates from without, from the distressing circumstance. Pharoah models the downside of this teshuva, the difficulty of making it stick. Nevertheless, each time Pharoah promised to “let Israel go,” he really meant it in that moment, and HaShem responded by stopping that plague. Yet as soon as the stressor lifted, the motivation to change dissipated as well.
Teshuva from fear is a higher level of repentance because it is self-initiated. The person has suffered the consequences of wrong action often enough (or witnessed the pattern in others), that she anticipates, even before the fact, that this promised pleasure will backfire and produce more pain than gain. The person’s nerve-net has finally integrated the (unwelcomed) message that grabbing forbidden fruit always, predictably, draws suffering in its wake. And so when she considers performing an illicit act, a fear awakens (a repugnance even) that is a foretaste of the anguish that will surely follow the transgression and that will, inevitably, obliterate its gains.
Teshuva from fear effects real transformation. The nerve-net absorbs spiritual law in a way that is potent to sustain change. Yet because the will itself has not altered, the person remains conflicted.(3) A “big” temptation can still override that fear. Its tidal wave of desire will throw him off balance and distort his judgment, deluding him into thinking that he will avoid the costs and dodge the rebound this time around.
“Teshuva from fear turns premeditated sins into errors.” When a person absorbs the fact that a temptation is really a hype—that it hurts more than it pleasures—and her aversion integrates deeply enough to counterbalance her wayward attraction, then she has really changed. She has become a different person. Though her will has not yet shifted, her behavior really has. She demonstrates, through the facts of her life, that if she had really grasped the consequences she would not have acted that way before. Proof is that now she does understand, and consequently she really does refrain.
Teshuva from love is when change touches core. The person integrates life’s lessons so deep that his instinctive response to the world always accords with spiritual law (at least in the area that is his current focus of inner work). The person’s genuine first choice exactly coincides with HaShem’s first choice for him. It is called teshuva from love because his heart, itself, (now corrected) steers him to the high road.
“Teshuva from love turns premeditated sins into merits.” A sin is something that takes a person off course, conceals G‑d, and lengthens the road to redemption. A merit is something that serves good, reveals G‑d, and shortens the way. When a person integrates truth so deeply that it changes her impulses at her core, then this is a teshuva that is sure to stick, because there is no conflict or competing will. She is not weighing the threat of pain against the promise of pleasure, but acts from an inner drive that is reliable, rectified and on the mark. When a person reaches this milestone, everything that preceded it (including her sins) becomes reframed. Instead of taking her off course, they now get judged as stepping stones that brought her to this paradigm-shifting moment where she chooses good (and G‑d) with a 100% whole heart. Her misdeeds get partial credit for her teshuva. This is how teshuva turns sins into merits.
And really, if you dig deep enough, you’ll find love of God at the heart of every Jewish soul. Through the power of resonance, the shofar’s wail connects us to that bedrock place inside our depths that cries the shofar’s cry: HaShem, I only want You, I only want truth, I only want to do what I am designed to do. On Rosh HaShana, when the shofar blasts, the House of Israel does teshuva-from-love and their sins get reckoned as merits.
And the Accuser gets discombobulated, for he has spent the whole year compiling a gigantic heap of accusations and incriminating evidence—the more the better, from every angle, concocting an airtight case. With glee he is certain that the weight of his denunciations will overwhelm the list of mitzvot proffered on our behalf. And yet, suddenly, when the shofar blasts, and our hearts awaken to love and our sins turn into merits, his massive pile of transgressions gets moved to the pan of assets. And now he’s all confused: he wants his pile bigger by not overlooking a single lapse, and yet it is having the opposite affect than what he had intended. And so he wants it smaller to minimize his loss but that undermines his raison d’être to ferret out misdeeds.
I want to bless us, as individuals and as a nation, that we open our hearts, minds, souls, and spaces to the shofar’s call. That we let its message reverberate through our being and awaken our own pure and genuine cry for good and God and truth and integrity in a way that is potent to sustain its resolve. Our teshuva, on every front, should be from love—our slate should be wiped clean and our misdeeds turned into merits. The world, and every individual in it, should be blessed with a good, sweet, healthy, joyful, peaceful, love-filled, light-filled, truth-filled, life-celebrating, Torah-sanctifying, Mashiach-bringing New Year.
1) The full text: R. Isaac said: Why do we blow the shofar on New Year? [Are you asking] why do we make the [shofar] sound? Because the All-Merciful One has told us to do so [“And in the seventh month, on the first day of the month… is a day of blowing the horn for you.” (Num. 29:1 and Psalms 81:4).] What [R. Isaac] is asking is why do we make the particular sound called teru’ah [the broken staccato sound instead of the teki’ah mentioned in Ps. 81:4]? [Are you asking] why we blow the teru’ah sound? Because the All-Merciful One commanded us to do so [as it says] “a memorial of teru’ah!” (Lev. 23:24). What [R. Isaac] is asking is why do we make two kinds of sounds: a teki’ah [unbroken sound] and teru’ah [broken staccato] while sitting [before Musaf] and then again both of these two sounds: teki’ah [unbroken] and teru’ah [broken] while standing [within the Amida]? [The answer is] in order to confuse the Accuser.
2) Repentance is something that applies between and man and God and also between people. In the former there are three steps, in the latter there are five:
Both between people and between man and God:
-Confession. Admitting that one has done wrong and specifying the affront.
-Regret. Expressing a heartfelt apology that is proportionate to the hurt caused by the offense.
-Commitment to change. Resolve not to repeat that behavior again.
Between People, the same three as above plus:
-Securing forgiveness. We must apologize at lest three times until the injured party forgives the affront.
-Reparation. We must compensate for damages that accrued from the offense.
3) The deepening of relationship with HaShem that is effected by teshuva-from-fear is nevertheless back-to-back because a front-to-front encounter requires, by definition, a meeting of wills.