(September 5, 2011 / JNS)
SIDEBAR to ‘Repentance: A Leap Across Faiths’
As the Jewish year ends and a new year begins, one word dominates: Teshuva—the Hebrew word for repentance. It’s bandied about in synagogues and homes, newspapers and podcasts, but at the end of the day, what does it mean?
Simply put, Teshuva is a two-part process: The first part is regretting past misdeeds, and the second is resolving to make things better in the future.
Teshuva is commonly mistranslated as “repentance.” The actual meaning of the word is to “return,” to once again be beloved in God’s eyes as if there was never a break in our relationship. In order to achieve this, one must first put an end to personal misdeeds. No part of a misdeed may carry on to the new year. It is not enough to merely stop doing the physical action; one must stop one’s “actions” in words and in thought too.
Teshuva also has the unique ability literally to change the past. Even though we have committed a sin, Teshuva has the power to erase it. How? The answer lies in the fact that God is not bound by time. While a person must obey the laws of time and space, the past, present, and future are all the same to God.
Through Teshuva a person can take complete control over himself including his past, and not only neutralize his past transgressions, but transform them into merits.
Rectifying our actions is but to scratch the surface of what Teshuva can accomplish, for it has the capacity to change the individual, rather than one’s deeds alone. We as Jews are not defined by our external actions, however sinful they may be, rather we are defined by the innate connection to God that lies at the center of our souls. We therefore have the ability to take the distinctive power of Teshuva and use it to not only rectify our past transgressions, but to actually reveal our true selves. Through Teshuva we can reach and reveal that deep part of the Jewish soul that is always openly connected to God, regardless of our transgressions.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hassidic movement, once said that a Jew neither wants, nor is able to be cut off from godliness. This is because our soul has an actual spark of God in it, and that spark can never disappear. It must only be revealed.