The amora Reish Lakish distinguishes between two types of
repentance. One, called teshuvah miyirah, is motivated by awe and reduces the level of
severity of the transgressor's sins. The other, called teshuvah mei'ahava, is motivated by
love and actually transforms the sins into merits.
Rav Yosef D. Soloveitchik, zt"l, expounds upon these two types of repentance. The Rambam in Hilchos Teshuvah describes a teshuvah of sudden change, of total catharsis through which a sinner, who was but yesterday despised by Hashem, eradicates the past and instantly assumes a new identity, becoming a close friend of Hashem. This form of repentance is tikun hara, repairing the evil.
The other form of repentance is not instantaneous, but part of a process. Rather than totally abandoning the past, one takes the energy he used to err and redirects it to do good. In this form of teshuvah, the sinner does not assume a new identity. Instead he takes a new road in life, utilizing all of his skills to gradually develop a new relationship with Hashem. The Rav refers to this move as ha'alas hara, elevating the evil.
Likewise, Rav Avrahahm Y. Kook, zt"l, contrasts teshuvah pisomis, sudden change, with teshuvah hadragis, gradual change. Sudden change is the equivalent of tikun hara and can be identified also with Reish Lakish's teshuvah miyirah. It cannot wipe the slate perfectly clean because little effort was put into the defining moment of repentance.
Gradual change, however, is the equivalent of ha'alas hara and can be identified with teshuvah mei'ahavah. This form of repentance, the result of a long cleansing process, transforms the energy of sin into merit.
These two methfods of teshuvah are found in numerous Talmudic examples.
Reish Lakish himself was a notorious bandit who repented his ways and dedicated long hours to Torah study. Through hard work he channeled his energy, previously used for evil, toward good, becoming one of the great rabbis of the Talmud and the editor of the Jerusalem Talmud- an example of teshuvah mei'ahavah.
On the other hand, the tanna turned heretic Elisha ben Avuyah is an example of teshuvah miyirah. He was once riding on his horse on Shabbos and talking with his student, the tanna Rabbi Meir, who walked alongside.
"Repent," Rabbi Meir told him.
Elisha ben Avuyah replied that a heavenly voice told him that the gates of repentance were open to all but him. Nevertheless, Rabbi Meir insisted that as long as one is alive it is never too late to repent. Elisha cried and his soul departed from him, whereupon Rabbi Meir declared him a baal teshuvah.
"Some acquire the world to come in an instant," the Talmud declares. Whether we repent instantly or gradually, whether we are motivated by fear and awe or by love, there is always time and opportunity for us to obtain forgiveness and develop ourselves and our relationship with Hashem.
Let us seize these opportunities now.
Rabbi Heshie Billet
Rabbi Billet is Rabbi of the Young Israel of Woodmere, N.Y.
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