Thoughts on Teshuvah 2018
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At the very onset of his Hilkhot Teshuvah, HaRambam wrote:
If a person transgressed any of the commandments of the Torah – whether a positive command or a negative command, whether willingly or inadvertently – when he repents and turns away from his sin he is obliged to confess before God…
He described a system where teshuvah responds to its most objective context. Following sin, a person must regret their wrongdoing, verbally confess it and commit to act differently. Absent from this picture, however, is a more nuanced approach to mending a fractured relationship with God. A process of that nature would need to expand the focus from concrete actions to the subjective realm of thought and emotion. The first several chapters of Hilkhot Teshuvah make no mention of that concept.
The general contours of teshuvah begin to expand, however, with HaRambam’s words at the beginning of the fifth chapter:
Free will is granted to all men. If one desires to turn himself to the path of good and be righteous, the choice is his. Should he desire to turn to the path of evil and be wicked, the choice is his.
Stressing our freedom of choice, these words diverged from the strictly structured system of return which was previously described. Accordingly, HaRambam then mentioned the need to repent from negative character traits – anger, hatred, envy, frivolity, etc. – each of which necessarily defies the clear-cut definitions of missvot and averot.
This broader vision of teshuvah emerges as the passage to restoring a lost relationship with God:
Teshuvah brings near those who were far removed. Previously, this person was hated by God, disgusting, far removed, and abominable. Now, he is beloved and desirable, close, and dear.
Merely straightening our actions which have become skewed cannot bring back a lost emotional bond. Returning to that past communion must instead entail a complete reconstruction of our self-identity.
A transformation of this sort is no simple feat. It requires our steadfast commitment to creative vision. R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik z”l wrote about the central role of creativity to teshuvah:
A person is creative; he was endowed with the power to create at his very inception. When he finds himself in a situation of sin, he takes advantage of his creative capacity, returns to God, and becomes a creator and self-fashioner. Man, through repentance creates himself, his own “I.”
Making sense of past mistakes and realigning ourselves with our innermost ideals means tapping into our creative soul and reformulating our very being.
Hilkhot Teshuvah, then, maps out a system of return that begins with a clearly defined structure and ends with the endless possibilities of creativity. The Hakhamim intuited a similar reality in our general approach to Torah. Consider the description of the first luhot:
The tablets were God’s work, and the writing was God’s writing, incised upon (“harut”) the tablets. (Shemot 32:16)
Chiseled by God onto the stone tablets that He crafted, the words of the luhot seem impenetrable. Paradoxically, however, R. Yehoshua b. Levi pointed to this very reality when he stated that “no one is truly free, except if he engages in Torah study.” Homiletically reading the word limiting word “harut” (incised) as “herut” (free), he realized the potential freedom of future interpretation of the Torah in the initial reception of the luhot. The well-known Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim captured this irony when he referred to the “double astonishment” at that time, beginning with “terror at a Presence, at once divine and commanding,” which then emerged as “joy at a Grace which restores and exalts human freedom by its commanding Presence.” The flourishing life of Torah’s creative expression came forth from the narrow straits of a contained beginning.
Our careful reading of Hilkhot Teshuvah revealed a process that resembles our approach to Torah. Each process begins on a path of a strict obedience which then expands into the freedom of creative expression. This should come as no surprise. Teshuvah and Torah represent ideal paths to establishing a relationship with God. The roots for growth in any relationship are nourished by adherence to precise guidelines which set the grounds for the flowers that are blossomed through thought and emotion.
In our quest for a renewed relationship with God, we must begin along the strictly-defined path of “If a person transgressed…when he repents…he is obliged to confess before God.” Setting the groundwork for the communion, we may then cautiously proceed into the realm of “Teshuvah brings near those who were far removed…Now he is beloved and desirable, close, and dear.”