Three Steps of Teshuvah
By Rabbi David Weissman
It’s Elul again, that wonderful time of year when G-d opens the gates of repentance to those who seek Him out! Elul is the Jewish month leading up to Rosh Hashana and the Ten Days of Repentance, culminating in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
So, what is repentance, or “teshuva” in Hebrew, and how do we accomplish it? Teshuva means “to return”. It is called “to return” because when a person repents he uncovers his true self (his or her G-dly soul), and he returns to the original closeness he had with G-d before the transgression. Fundamentally, Teshuva is when a person commits himself or herself to abandoning conduct and character traits that are against G-d’s will as prescribed in the Torah.
A person who accomplishes this and breaks with his past improper behavior and thinking becomes a new person and is beloved by G-d. As the sages taught: “in the place that those who have accomplished teshuva (repentance) stand before G-d, the purely righteous cannot.”
Teshuva is comprised of 3 steps: 1) remorse, 2) confession, and 3) resolution for the future.
Remorse refers to the mental and emotional awareness of having done something wrong and regretting having done it. This step is closely related to the nature of the relationship we have with G-d.
If we feel no love or closeness to Him, then the remorse here will likely be based on fear of punishment. Such fear is surely justified since no transgression of the Torah will go unpunished (in this world or the next) unless a person repents. However, such an approach is not optimal and is only the beginning of authentic teshuva. This is called teshuva out of fear. This is a lower level of teshuva. At this level, at the very least, a person should meditate upon how much G-d has given him and how ungrateful he has been by sinning and transgressing G-d’s will.
It should be noted here that any punishment in this world, or the next, meted out by G-d upon a person is for the person’s own benefit — to erase the stain and impurity created by the sin, and to allow the person to experience the sublime, spiritual pleasure of the presence of G-d.
Now, the higher level of teshuva, in general, and remorse, particularly, stems from a yearning to be close to G-d, and the shock of realizing that one has become distant from the source of life. This is called “teshuva out of love”. The greater the regret, the greater the yearning and feelings of love. This regret causes an even greater love for G-d than before. This can be compared to a husband and wife that have a dispute and then “make up”.
Accordingly, when a person does teshuva out of love, his or her sins are not only forgiven, they become merits, because, in the final analysis, it was the great distance caused by the sin that brought the person even closer to G-d than they would have been otherwise. Deep feelings of painful regret purify a person and remove the spiritual stain that developed on the soul from the pleasure experienced by the person when performing the transgression.
After remorse, the second step is the confession. A person must verbally confess their sin before G-d, and admit to doing wrong. Verbal confession is necessary to ensure the person truly faces the truth of what he has done. Verbal confession also operates to purify the person from impurity brought upon the soul by physical and verbal transgressions of the Torah. The physical act of speaking and admitting the sin negates the effects of the past impure physical acts or speech.
Offences against G-d require quiet, private confession so as not to appear to be taking the sin lightly and brazenly. Offences against other human beings, on the other hand, such as theft or slander, require public confessions to correct the wrong and clear the other person’s name.
An exception to this would be when public admission would bring humiliation to the other person. In such circumstances, one is not obligated to publicly confess. However, a person is still required to approach the person who was wronged and ask their forgiveness.
One is required to attempt to obtain forgiveness from the victim of the sin three times. If after three times the offended person still refuses to accept the offender’s pleadings for forgiveness, he is no longer required to obtain it.
Finally, the third step is resolving never to commit the transgression ever again. This is, in truth, the essence of teshuva. It is, without doubt, the hardest component. Maimonides states in his Laws of Teshuva: “what constitutes complete teshuva? A person who confronts the same situation in which he sinned and he has the potential to commit it, and nevertheless, abstains and does not commit the sin because of his strength of teshuva alone, and not because of fear or lack of strength.” In other words, his commitment is real and absolute. The resolution never to commit the sin ever again requires meditation, but most of all, firm dedication to the extent that “the Knower of secrets will testify that he will never return to such folly ever again.”
However, a person must put his trust in G-d and know that if he or she is sincerely committed to change, G-d will come to his aid and help him succeed.
May we all be among the “masters of teshuva” this Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and may we merit a sweet year!
(For further reading see “The Gates of Teshuva” by Rabbeinu Yona, and the Laws of Teshuva found in the first volume of Maimonides colossal work, the “Mishneh Torah”.)