The Duality of T’shuva

With the Day of Judgement approaching, repentance is in the air. I think most of us would like to repent and to improve, but how do we do so?

We find some valuable insight on this matter in the Torah portion of Nitzavim, read 2 weeks ago. Parshat Ha’T’shuva, is what the piece of Parshat Nitzavim referring to repentance is known as. The portion teaches us some good T’shuva strategy, and provides us with very motivational rewards, on the condition that we follow through with the repentance.

In regards on how to repent, it says that “You shall return and listen to the voice of G-D and perform all of his commandments that I command you today”; and “When you listen to the voice of your G-D, to observe his commandments and His decrees, that are written in this book of Torah, when you shall return to your G-D with all of your heart and all of your soul.” Basically the text informs us that through adhering to the Torah’s commandments, and returning to G-D with all of our heart and soul, we can repent. This leaves us a little misguided, since following all of the commandments seems a little much, and the meaning of returning with all of our heart and soul is pretty unclear.

The reward, according to the text, is such: “And you shall return, and G-D will gather you from amongst the nations”; “G-D will bring you to the land of your forefathers and you shall inherit it”; “He will make you more numerous then your forefathers”; “He will make you rich in all of your work in your offspring, the fruit of your land, the fruit of your animals.” These are all very beautiful and redemptive ideas, but what are they good for if we can’t fully understand how to repent and earn these rewards?

The piece ends with a powerful line, the cherry on top, “For the word is very near to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, to perform it.” What is the “word” the text refers to? This portion is clearly an instruction on repentance, but different paths of repentance have been presented to us up until this point. Which path is the text advising us to take, since it is easy to think, speak, and do? This question has troubled many of the great Jewish thinkers of the past.

Rashi, in his Talmudic commentary, claims that this “word” is the following of the Torah’s commandments. This line is meant to further strengthen our resolve to follow the commandments, by teaching us that through our actions, thoughts, and words, we can easily adhere to them. This represents the first explanation of the “idea”, by presenting it as an external form of repentance- repentance through latching on to an external idea and internalizing and applying it to our lives through our thoughts, actions, and speech. This “external” type of T’shuva can be seen in all sorts of religious communities, which try and follow the path of the Torah and it’s commandments, even if it may be difficult to follow or understand.

The Ramban, representing the more welcomed opinion here, maintains that the “word” is the idea of T’shuva. This understanding implies that T’shuva can be done through listening to your heart, and fixing your words and actions. The return to G-D with all your heart and soul, seems to correspond with this explanation of the “word”, hence explaining to us the intention of the text, when it instructed us to return with all of heart and soul. This answer, to me, paints the picture of Rav Kook’s model of T’shuva, which is more of an “internal” repentance. Rav Kook’s “internal” model of T’shuva, is a return to your true self, by following your heart and listening to your conscience. A manifestation of this model of T’shuva, in my opinion, can be seen in the all of the humanitarian and human rights’ actions being taken nowadays. Our response to our conscience, heart, and soul, is expressed through the actions we take that improve society and help those in need.

So we come out of this Parshat Ha’t’shuva, with two models of repentance, that we can apply to our lives in the ten days of T’shuva, the external model (following the commandments), and the internal model (following our heart and soul). Clearly, we are supposed to combine the external and the internal if we want a successful and rewarding T’shuva.

Professor Yehuda Gellman questioned our ability to actualize T’shuva in today’s world. He claims that we find it difficult to find love nowadays, since we search for the models of love that are presented to us in culture. When we try and mimic these models of love, we don’t find what we are looking for. This problem, seemingly exists too in the world of T’shuva. Many different people who have successfully done T’shuva, teach us the path that they took to repent. These paths, which we try and follow, apply to the person who discovered it, and not necessarily to us. We try and repent by following these models of T’shuva, but find ourselves hitting dead ends, since we are different than the person it originally worked for. Rav David Bigman, the Rosh Yeshiva of the Yeshiva I attend, Yeshivat Ma’ale Gilboa, shared some wisdom on the matter. What Rav Bigman suggested, is that when attempting to do T’shuva, we study many different models, and then take what we need from each one, thus creating a new combination of T’shuva that reflects our own personal story and personality. We don’t just follow the Torah’s commandments, or strictly follow our heart and soul, but rather combine the external wisdom of the Torah, and the voice that is within, in order to truly repent, as we have learned from theTorah, and from Rav Bigman’s observation of T’shuva.

So, Parshat Ha’tshuva comes to teach us that the answer, on a personal and communal level, is in the duality of T’shuva. When a man wants to repent or improve, he should learn from the Torah (or any other source of wisdom that he may deem worthy), but also follow his heart and intuition. So too, when we want to repent and improve on a communal level, we should value the wise ideas stemming for the Torah and the great thinkers of the past, and combine these ideas with our moral drives that come from within. Torah along with human rights, the teachings of the founders of our State along with modern social and technological innovation. It seems to me that this combination is the recipe to a healthy repentance, and progress and unity in our society.

About the Author
Eli Friedman recently finished his IDF service and is now pursuing Rabbinical and Academic studies in the Jerusalem area. Between studying for tests and running up the hilly streets of Jerusalem, he enjoys writing about the Halakhic and political issues facing the Jewish people today (and about philosophical and contemporary topics in general, too).