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Shiur #10: Teshuva

  • Rav Ezra Bick



Dedicated in memory of Jack Stone, and Helen and Benjamin Pearlman, z"l,
and in honor of Mrs. Esther Stone.

By Gary and Ilene Stone of Teaneck, NJ


Dedicated by Aaron and Tzipora Ross and family in memory of their grandparents
Shimon ben Moshe Rosenthal, Shmuel Nachamu ben Shlomo Moshe HaKohen Fredman, and Chaya bat Yitzchak David Fredman, whose yahrtzeits are this week.






            The fifth berakha of the Shemona Esrei is a request for help in repentance - teshuva.


Bring us back, our Father, to Your Torah;

Bring us close, our King, to Your service;

And cause us to return in perfect repentance before You.

Blessed are You, who desires ("harotzeh") repentance.


            Two questions arise, one semi-philosophical and one textual. The philosophical question is: What exactly are we asking for? What do we want God to do? Clearly, repentance is something which WE have to do, as an exercise in free will, if it is to have any meaning. What do we expect of God?


            The textual question relates to the "chatima" of the berakha. Every other berakha in the middle section of requests has a chatima in the form of, "Blessed are You, who PERFORMS that which we have requested." The verb in this case is "harotzeh," which I have translated as "desires." "Ratzon" means "will." This chatima does not speak about God's actions, but about His will, or perhaps His state of mind or attitude (as we shall see later). What does this unique type of chatima signify?


            There is a connection between the two questions. Both impel us to understand what is the action of God that this berakha is about. It clearly is not the usual kind of performance, like producing bounty or building Jerusalem, or even showering us with the light of His reason and understanding. PRODUCING repentance is inappropriate, and not a fit subject for a request. So it is not surprising that the chatima does not refer to such a performance. But that leaves the question: What is the berakha about and what does it have to do with the will of God, who desires repentance?


            I have four answers to this question. Actually, as I hope you will see, these answers are interconnected, so it might be better to speak of four layers to the answer. In developing these layers, we shall examine the most important concept of repentance. This, of course, is a very large topic, to which whole books have been devoted. We shall, however, restrict ourselves to those aspects of the principle which are relevant to understanding the berakha in the Shemona Esrei.


I. Repairing a relationship


            Normally, when one repents, he is hoping for forgiveness and atonement. But that is clearly NOT the focus of this berakha, for one very simple reason - it is the theme of the following berakha. Immediately after this berakha we ask God to forgive us. So, what is the intended result of the request in THIS berakha?


            The answer is that repentance is not merely an internal process of regret and decision. Sin, we are taught, destroys the relationship between man and God. This is true metaphysically - a whole man is the "image of God" and sin corrupts that image - but even more so psychologically, for our relationship with God is a personal one. "Your iniquities," said the prophet, "have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hidden His face from you, so he does not hear" (Is. 59,2). Our prayer, in this berakha, is not that we should merely change our ways, but that we should repair the relationship between ourselves and God. "Bring us back, our Father, TO YOUR TORAH; Bring us close, our King, TO YOUR SERVICE" means not only that we should behave in the right way, but that we should be close to Torah and accepted into God's service as His loyal servants. That is the reason that this berakha calls God by the title "our father," which is found in no other berakha. We are not appealing to God who has the power to do great natural events, but to our father, who, we hope, will reconstitute the relationship between us. Since the relationship is personal, it is not automatically repaired by our deciding to repent. The relationship depends on both sides - actually mostly on God's side, for it is a relationship of holiness. In other words, we are requesting to be admitted into the holy community and to have the impurities in our hearts replaced by the presence of God.


            Therefore the chatima of the berakha is not God who "does something" or performs an act, but God "who desires repentance." The success of this petition depends directly on God's will and not on His might. God does not have to create anything for us, but only to accept our repentance.


            Actually, the verb "rotzeh" might better be translated here as "who is pleased with repentance" than "who desires repentance." The two meanings are closely related in Hebrew. This verb is commonly found in relation to the acceptance of sacrifices, which are "le-ratzon." We will come across this usage in the Shemona Esrei as well, in the seventeenth berakha, "retzei." The main point here is that repentance is a means of approaching God, of returning to a former relationship and being close to Him. We are therefore not praying for the ability to repent, or for God's aid in deciding to do so, but that our repentance should be effective in repairing the torn and tattered remnants of what was once a holy and pure connection between us. For that we appeal to the will and desire of God, for we know that although our sins corrupt that relationship, He yet desires our repentance - or perhaps we should say, He yet desires us, ourselves, when we have repented.


II. The world of action and the world of will


            There is a second level in which the desire and will of God are crucial to our ability to freely repent and return to God. R. Yitzchak Hutner zt"l, in his work "Pachad Yitzchak" on Yom Kippur, elaborates on the idea that repentance is based on the principle that "uprooting the will results in the uprooting of the action." Repentance is much more than a decision not to sin any more. The Jewish concept of teshuva insists that the sin itself, as a fact of history, as well as its results in contamination of the personality and poisoning of the relationship with God, can be undone, destroyed, turned into non-fact. Now clearly, in the real world, the "world of action," this is impossible. What is past is past and cannot be undone. The entire edifice of teshuva is based on a kind of miracle, going against the inexorable flow of time in the natural world. What man has the power to do, naturally, is to undo his will. He can change his desire to do wrong. Teshuva is an act of God's kindness which equates the uprooting of the will to sin with the uprooting of the sin itself. It is as though sin, to have the effect it does, must be "fed" with the will of the sinner. Cut off from the supply of "oxygen," uprooted from its life-support of human desire, the sin withers and dies. This particular historical fact, that I sinned yesterday, is transferred from the world of action into the world of will.


            What is the world of will, where reality is no more than the will of the individual? It is the world of God's creation, where God's will is reality. "Blessed is He who spoke and the world came into existence." God is He whose will is equivalent to reality. For the uprooting of our will to sin to result in the disappearance of the sin itself, we would have to be like God, not created man. To whom can we appeal for this miracle to take place - To He who "desires repentance." The verb of this berakha is not "God who does," but God who wills" (rotzeh), because if God wills repentance, then our repentance will be the uprooting of the action and the true cleansing of our souls.


III. Help in repenting


            Despite what I stated above, our Sages did indeed teach that Man needs the aid of God in repenting just as he does in all his other endeavors. The question, of course, is, how is this possible? Surely repentance must be done freely, by choice. If God "does" it for us, it would not be repentance at all.


            The answer must be that I of course must repent on my own. Only after I make the first move is it stated that "he who comes to purify himself is aided." But the berakha teaches us that man's ability to truly repent is dependent on his ability to sense the reality of the repair of the relationship which we described in section I. This is true both psychologically and metaphysically.


a. Psychologically - True repentance is not performed only out of a desire to observe Shabbat, or to avoid God's punishment for disobeying His will. The real motivation for repentance is man's desire to be better - to become closer to the Good. The feeling, half intellectual and half intuitive, that by correcting my behavior I am actually changing the meaning of my life and entering into the presence of God, the sensing of the closeness of kedusha (sanctity), is the motivating force behind deep and revolutionary repentance. This is the meaning behind the choice of words in the saying of the Sages I quoted above: "He who comes to purify himself is aided." If one does good deeds but does not feel the purity and holiness in the move, he will not be able to continue to climb and perfect himself. The "aid" granted him is that purity and sanctity are really accorded him in the measure of his repentance - and this is the most important factor in maintaining the path. God's desire and acceptance of our repentance, the realization of absolute value that is achieved when one does teshuva, is a necessary condition for man's ability to motivate himself to do so.


b. Metaphysically - But this is not merely a quirk of human psychology, an accidental need of man for encouragement. The closeness to God is a real, metaphysical necessity for repentance. This is based on the most important principle within the theory of repentance, one which we began to analyze when we discussed the berakha of kedusha. Repentance is man's transcendence of his own natural ability, of his PRESENT. The ability to be better than you are is not something inherent in one's present, natural condition, because by definition you are becoming better, greater, than you are presently. From where does one obtain this power, this realization of the "image of God" in which Man was created, which I explained a few weeks ago to mean that Man's ideal and his limiting design is nothing less than God? The answer is not from within nature, but from his connection to God, his ability to reflect the absolute Good, to "become as God, knower of good and evil." If the movement of repentance is TOWARDS GOD, closer to God, it can succeed, because the result empowers the actions. (I am aware that this goes against the Aristotelian rule that the cause must precede the result. Man, created in the image of God, is an exception). Hence, God must come close to us, must allow us to feel His closeness, for repentance to succeed in really creating more value and more kedusha. This is the subject of the request of this berakha. We pray that the power of the "image of God" be manifest within, and we pray to He Who "desires repentance," Who makes Himself be present to those who repent.  "Ha-rotzeh b'teshuva."


IV. The Will of creation


            Taking this last point a little further, we can understand the title "who desires repentance" not merely as a particular aspect of God's relationship with the world necessary for the success of this berakha, but as a summation of God's will in creation itself. When we describe God's actions, we have many titles - He who grants knowledge, who forgives, who heals, who redeems, who gives sustenance, gathers Israel, etc. But there is only one title based on God's will, and that is "ha-rotzeh b'teshuva," who desires repentance. Repentance is possible because it is rooted in the reason for creation itself - God desires and wishes that man create more good, freely. God does not want us to BE GOOD, for then He would have created us so, but rather that we BE BETTER, that we grow and develop. Repentance, turning freely to the good, is therefore a reflection of the deepest will of creation. The world, we might say, was created for the sake of repentance - or, in the language of the Sages, repentance is one of the things "created before creation." God's relationship with the created world is defined by "ha-rotzeh b'teshuva." That is why it is possible. If, God forbid, God were to "give up" on man and his chance to repent, then repentance would be impossible, for the world's existence would be based on God's will that we BE GOOD - and all that is not good would no longer be able to exist. He who comes to repent exists and succeeds only because he lives in the light of He who desires repentance. Blessed be He, who desires repentance.


Note: The last line of the berakha reads, "And cause us to return in perfect repentance before You." Two terms here demand attention, and both should be, I think, understood in light of the point of today's shiur.


a) "Before You" - Teshuva is not an internal affair alone, but a repair of the relationship between man and God. Furthermore, it can take place only if man is "connected" to the power and goodness of God, something which logically is true only AFTER he has done teshuva. It must exist "in God's presence."


b) "Perfect repentance" - Imperfect repentance, I would suggest, is the psychological, internal movement of the individual. Perfect repentance is what I have attempted to describe today. The first part must be done by man entirely on his own. For the second we appeal to God, to the uncovering of His will and desire for us, for our repentance, for our cleaving unto Him.


Next week: Forgiveness.