By Rabbi Binyomin Friedman | Congregation Ariel
Pondering past misdeeds, we may be embarrassed, bewildered or motivated to change, but try as we might, it is impossible to reach back through time and change anything.
Yet that is exactly what the Talmud says is within every penitent’s grasp. Teshuva repentance can reach back and turn misdeeds into mitzvos.
How can this be? Let’s illustrate.
A man named Adam is an inveterate liar. One day he realizes that he can no longer maintain the complex web of lies he has spun. Adam is overwhelmed by life and feels he is about to collapse. Or Adam is overcome by moral disgust with himself and his incessant lying. He realizes that he is totally unreliable and has disappointed all of those around him. Or Adam is holding his newborn baby, and his heart is suddenly filled with fear. What if G-d were to punish him for his sins by taking away that which is precious to him?
For any of the above reasons and many others, Adam may be motivated to repent. Making changes for whatever reasons will certainly have salutary effects on Adam’s life. They will remove pressure and negativity from his life and help him repair relationships.
However, as great a mitzvah as this form of teshuva repentance might be, it still cannot reach back and change past misdeeds into mitzvos. Adam’s teshuva cannot change the past because it is fear-based. Although important, and maybe even indispensable, Adam has only reached Teshuva Level One.
What lies ahead is Teshuva Level Two, or love-based teshuva. Love-based teshuva generally follows the fear-based teshuva described above. One brings one’s life in line with G-d’s will.
In Adam’s case, he starts to live honestly. As time passes, relationships are repaired, and a positive self-image begins to form where none previously existed. With the passage of time, or perhaps suddenly out of the blue, it may one day dawn on Adam that G-d controls the world. G-d created it with a plan, and that plan is being played out before his very eyes.
At this point Adam understands that G-d’s will is directed toward absolute goodness and truth. He wants to merge with the flow of life and synchronize his actions to the divine spiritual energy that infuses all of existence. He resolves to correct his wrongdoing because he realizes that lying is antagonistic to world development and perfection.
Invariably, the penitent is suffused with joy at having connected to such profound truth. Then something exquisite happens. All of the past actions that brought about this level of understanding, even the sins, now take on a positive light. It is those very same wrongdoings that aroused the thoughts of repentance and motivated him to achieve oneness with G-d.
From every past misdeed, he now derives lessons. All past humiliations become ascents. The sins become meritorious deeds.
When we look at the Torah, we see that the story of mankind is one long teshuva drama. The Torah opens with Adam and Eve living blissfully in the Garden of Eden. By the end of the second chapter, they have been banished from the garden because of their sin. The rest of the book, and of history, is the struggle to return to Eden.
Did it just happen to turn out that way? If so, why did G-d let it happen? We are forced to conclude that this is G-d’s plan. Through sin and failure, we come to appreciate G-d in this world and align ourselves with Him.
As it is with the individual, so it is with the nation of Israel, and so it is with the world in total. When our misdeeds motivate us to initiate the path of return, we have begun the trek toward the goal of life, which is reclaiming our oneness with G-d.
Our past deeds become mitzvos, and we find our lives whole and in a state of purposeful connection to our source: a lofty and exciting goal to focus on at the special time of year.
This article is based on the teachings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook as presented in a book titled “The Art of Teshuva.”