No, Really, How Does Teshuva Work?

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This article originally appeared at

As we approach the Jewish New Year there is an effort to at least attempt to enter Rosh Hashanah clean from sin. Unfortunately, we have made bad choices, we have done wrong in our lives. How are we to start a fresh year with joy and confidence if we are carrying all the baggage of our mistakes?

It can be depressing to think about bad choices we have made. They all have consequences and we may regret what we have done. But regret does not fix the harms we have caused. Regret can have a debilitating effect if it holds us back from achieving our goals as we wallow in self pity.

The word “repentance” generally refers to a person to has decided to commit his or her life to G-d (see Wikipedia on repentance). But what of people who have already committed their life to G-d and are trying their hardest to make the best moral choices but have made mistakes? Is there a mechanism for them to somehow come back to G-d? Aren’t they already committed to G-d? What more can they do?

Fortunately, there is a concept of teshuva, repentance, in Judaism. Anyone can do teshuva and everyone should be doing teshuva all the time. Any time we make the wrong choice, we have created a separation between ourselves and G-d who is perfection. Our lack of perfection stands in the way of being with G-d and Perfection. The further we are from perfection, the further we are from G-d. Teshuva brings us closer to perfection.

But how? Once we have acted and done wrong, the deed is done. Can teshuva make it disappear? Is it magic?

Compounding the problem is the idea that G-d is the Ultimate Judge. That means that if an act is “bad” it deserves immediate consequences. There is no judge, no jury, no lawyers, no plea bargain deals, because Ultimate Judgment means that every act has an exact and precise Divine Reaction.

That is how the physical world works as well. If one steals something, the item is stolen immediately. There is no grace period or gray area. If one kills someone, the person is dead. If a man cheats on his wife, he has cheated. In the physical world, our actions have immediate, real reactions. That is what is meant by “judgment” (poor translation of the hebrew word din).

There is an immediate reaction to our actions from G-d as well. The distance created by our lack of perfection is instantaneous. How do we repent from acts that are done? If someone is dead because of another’s action, no amount of sorrow or regret will bring the person back. Same with infidelity. How can teshuva fix the immediate reactions of our actions?

This leaves us with an additional question: While it is true that G-d acts with judgment, G-d also acts with mercy (rachamim). How does mercy reconcile with judgment if judgment means that every action has an immediate physical and spiritual reaction?

The Ramchal (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto) in Mesilas Yesharim (Path of the Just) provides a wonderful explanation.

First, he explains that the mercy of G-d is that while every action does have an automatic spiritual consequence, that consequence can be suspended for a period of time, giving the person time to repent. The immediacy of the consequence is mitigated.

But what of the repentance? How does that work?

The Ramchal says that every action really has two parts. The first part is the formation of intent. The idea and the desire to act are the first part of every action. Then we act; that is the second part. The action causes the immediate result, physical and spiritual.

Now, each action is “owned” by its actor. When you make a wrong choice, the act is connected to you–connected by the desire to perform the act.

In other words, the action is at the end of a chain that hooks up to the actor. The hook on the end of the chain that is connected to the actor is the desire for the result. So a flow chart would look like this:


The result is only connected to the actor through the desire. Teshuva is the process of “undoing” the desire for the action and its result. True repentance occurs when the actor wishes with all his heart that he had never acted the way he did.

When the person truly regrets his choice, the desire part of the action can be unhooked from the actor! If there is no hook connecting the action to the actor (the desire) then the actor and the action are no longer associated with one another.

That is teshuva. Repentance is disassociating the action from the actor by removing the desire to act. Of course, in order for the desire to be disassociated from the actor the actor must do everything in his power to fix the horrible results of his action. But once that is done, repentance can be achieved and the action can be clipped away from the actor.

We cannot change the past. But we can change our association with the past.

This kind of repentance leaves no room for baggage and guilt. It is a clean break from the past and allows us to move forward to a future of better choices.

It is the perfect way to begin a new year.

(To hear some of these concepts in an audio class on Mesillas Yesharim, click here.)

Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, J.D., is the rabbi at the famous Pacific Jewish Center | The Shul on the Beach in Venice, CA. Connect with Rabbi Fink through FacebookTwitter or email.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.