Rabbi Eliezer, Sanhedrin 97b, says this: ר׳ אליעזר אומר אם ישראל עושין תשובה נגאלין ואם לאו אין נגאלין. “If Israel does teshuva – Israel will be redeemed! If not, they will not be redeemed!” So what is teshuva?
To grasp the significance of teshuva, let’s start with two (2) of its central aspects, directly from the Bible. Who must do teshuva and when should teshuva be done? We Jews pray 3 times each day, morning/shacharit, afternoon/mincha and evening/maariv. The Amidah is the central prayer that we offer 3 times each day. And the Amidah begins, every time we offer it, the same way. “Adonai, open up my mouth, so my lips may declare your praise.” From where do these words come?
We learn in the Book of Samuel an important story. King David sees a beautiful woman sun-bathing on a patio in view of the Kings’s palace. He sends a servant to retrieve the woman, whose name is Michal. Michal is the wife of Uriah, an extraordinarily loyal and courageous soldier in the King’s army. Michal comes to the palace. King David sleeps with her. She becomes pregnant. And adding insult to great injury, David returns husband-Uriah back to war, to the frontlines, knowing that he will lose his life.
Shortly after, David’s prophet and spiritual advisor, Nathan, comes to David with a story. It’s a parable about a rich man who took terrible advantage of a working man, even taking the man’s one and only lamb. The King was immediately outraged. This man must absolutely face serious punishment. Then came Nathan’s timeless words to David: “That man is you . . .”
At that very moment, David knew the meaning of Nathan’s parable. The parable was about him. The King could have ordered Nathan to be put to death. Most kings would. David could have ordered Nathan to suffer terribly, to be forever removed from his position. Instead, David immediately uttered these words to Nathan: חָטָ֖אתִי לַיהֹוָ֑ה – “I have sinned against God.”
Every day, three times each day, we answer the 2 questions: who must do teshuva and when? Just as the King chose to accept responsibility, so must we. Just as the King refused to deny, to lie about, to pretend that it was someone else’s fault, so must we. Who? Every single Jew is called to do teshuva. We derive inspiration from King David to perform one of life’s simplest but most profoundly challenging acts. And when? Three (3) times each and every day – we utter the words of David. Uttering his words, we are called to see teshuva as the highest act of royalty. We learn about teshuva from royalty, says Torah!
And, we can add “how and where” to our already-answered questions, “who” and “when”. Might it be easier for all of us, to do this very hard work of accepting responsibility, of not denying, misdirecting etc, if we travel to Jerusalem? Three times each day, we are invited to transport ourselves to Jerusalem – to the words of King David and to the place where he spoke them, right outside the Walls of the Old City.
Hearing the breeze of Jerusalem, stepping into the shoes of King David, we open our ears and minds to our sins, to the mistakes that we have made, small and large. Like David, every day we should listen for Nathan’s voice saying: “That sin we committed in secret, make it known to those who we harmed.” This is teshuva, straight from the Bible, II Samuel 12.
What is teshuva? Consider a second biblical moment as well, generations before David. In Exodus, shortly after standing at Mt. Sinai and receiving the Ten Commandments, the Israelites built the Golden Calf. Ch. 32. God was angry. Speaking to Moses, God was full of rage and anger. God threatens to wipe out the Jewish people. וְעַתָּה֙ הַנִּ֣יחָה לִּ֔י וְיִֽחַר־אַפִּ֥י בָהֶ֖ם וַאֲכַלֵּ֑ם – “Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them…” Ex. 32:8. Immediately, Moses gives God reason after reason to not destroy his people. Moses rejects God’s offer to become the leader of a brand new people. And something extraordinary happens. God does teshuva. The first act of teshuva in Torah is from God. Listen. וַיִּנָּ֖חֶם יְהֹוָ֑ה עַל־הָ֣רָעָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר דִּבֶּ֖ר לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת לְעַמּֽו “And יהוה renounced the punishment that God planned for the people.” This is extraordinary! Our sacred Torah brings the very first moment of teshuva and it turns out that God is our teacher of teshuva. God models teshuva for all of us. Our most powerful examples come from the kings. The King, the Creator of the Universe and King David of Israel.
In the event we feel that we are too important to need to do teshuva, we must understand that if even our Kings choose the holy act of teshuva, then every one of us can do so as well. And our greatest teacher of the Middle Ages, the Rambam, reminds us that teshuva is the primary call of every High Holy Day season. He reminds us that the sound of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah contains this message. “Arise from your slumber! Search your ways and return in teshuvah – remember your Creator!”
Who? Teshuva is meant for every single Jew – from the most powerful King to the most average Jew. When? Any day. Every day. Three times each day. Every High Holiday season.
Let’s consider one additional question. What is the cause of sin? From where does it come? Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz taught that sin comes from a sense of distance from the sacred. Sin comes from breaking the bond we possess at birth that binds us to ultimacy, to pure goodness, to the sacred, to God.
“. . . teshuvah is more than just repentance from sin; it is a spiritual reawakening, a desire to strengthen the connection between oneself and the sacred. The effectiveness of teshuvah is thus frequently a function of one’s sense of distance from the sacred. The greater the distance, the greater the potential movement towards renewed connectedness. As one Jewish sage put it, A rope that is cut and retied is doubly strong at the point where it was severed…. All forms of teshuvah, however diverse and complex, have a common core: the belief that human beings have it in their power to effect inward change.”
Many of our teachers remind us that teshuva is from the word lashuv – return. The work of teshuva is the work of returning. As Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum reminded us during Hanukkah, in the face of darkness, our call is to say: אני אור, “I am light.” That is teshuva. As Yiscah Smith an amazing teacher of Torah says, “All of our learning should be to reconnect us, to connect us more deeply with Gd, with our highest selves.” That, I believe, is teshuva.
Rabbi Norman Lamm offers another compelling teshuva thought.
“Jews have learned throughout history that when life is difficult on the outside, then you must build up your inner resources and buttress the spiritual aspects of your existence. . . When the sun sets and darkness comes, there is one imperative: חנוכה נרות. When it is dark outside, light a candle. . . If on the outside we are plagued by enemies who bear hatred against us, let us on the inside increase our mutual אהבה, our love and concern for each other. Let husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters, friends and neighbors, draw closer together, forgive each other, act with more mutual respect and patience.”
Returning, deepening relationships of love with husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters and I will add – with other Jews, especially Jews whose practice is very different than one’s own, this is teshuva. And that is – the beginning of redemption.
Here’s how Rabbi YY Jacobson explains the return of teshuva. Returning to Gd, can also mean returning to the presence of Gd in every situation. It’s not easy. What is easy, is seeing the fault, the blame, the anger, the fear, the pain. Teshuva means returning to Gd’s presence in every situation. It is the honesty and the courage to ask: where is Gd in this moment?
And this insight from Rabbi Yitzhak Breitowitz: “When we can’t hear the voice of our soul, we travel in the wrong direction. Teshuva is returning our soul’s voice, to our soul. When her voice returns, we are again able to hear God and the good.” And Rabbi Breitowitz adds: “No matter if it’s metal or wood, the great sculptor is not creating something new. No. The work of the sculptor is to remove the material that is blocking the essence from shining through. She or he is simply returning the material to its godly essence. King David was always there. Michelangelo simply liberated David from all that had blocked him.”
Every day, 3 times, we are called to the City of David and to the shoes of David – to acknowledge our sin/s. We acknowledge our mistakes to God, and as Maimonides makes clear, we go directly to the person we have harmed and confess our misdeeds to that person. Every day, we see ourselves as King David and recognize clearly – what qualified him to become King and progenitor of the messiah? It was his courage to admit the terrible sin that he had committed. That’s what made David qualified to become king.
Every one of us can cultivate the quality that makes us worthy of kingship. See our mistakes. Speak, confess our misdeeds. Know that our kingly, our royal essence is simply being revealed, like Michaelangelo who liberated David from all that had blocked him.
There’s still time left – this Hanukkah, give the gift of teshuva.