We often hear the words baal teshuvah as a term generally used for someone who has taken on a Torah observant lifestyle later in life.
We often hear the words baal teshuvah as a term generally used for someone who has taken on a Torah observant lifestyle later in life. Teshuvah, however, is a broad concept with a major impact on the life of all Jews. It has many details and subtleties which are worthy of our attention.
It would not be an overstatement to say that Mans survival in this world hinges upon teshuvah. Were we to be strictly judged by Hashem, no Man would be found completely righteous and free of sin. To be human means to err. Sin alienates. Teshuvah restores.
In the Jerusalem Talmud (Tractate Makkot, Chapter 2, Halachah 6), we hear a remarkable conversation with the forces of wisdom, prophecy, Torah, and Hashem. It goes like this: They asked of wisdom, "What is the punishment for a sinner?" Answers wisdom, "The sinner is pursued by the evil of his sin." They asked of prophecy, "What is the punishment for a sinner?" Answers prophecy, "The soul that sins shall die." Finally, they asked Hashem. Hashem said, "Let him do teshuvah and be forgiven."
Rabbi Gedaliah Schorr, one of the leading Torah scholars of the previous generation, sheds light on this obscure dialogue. He explains that sin exists on many levels and has different ramifications on various planes. According to logic, if one sins he violates a Divine command and should be subject to the death penalty. Case closed. How is it that wisdom and Hashem have different answers to the same question?
Rabbi Schorr answers that wisdom and Hashem are familiar with the fate of a sinner, but each is subject to how much repair it can offer. For example, prophecy, which represents a knowledge of what happens after death, says that a soul which has sinned can only be repaired by death. Only Hashem, however, has the ability to cleanse the soul of its impurity as if it had never sinned. Only He can say, "Let him do teshuvah and be forgiven." Teshuvah requires active intervention from Hashem to erase the after-effects of sin. He enables a person to go against the laws of nature which state that you cannot repair something after it is damaged beyond a certain point. Hashem, in His infinite love for His people, offers them His personal protection and is willing to utilize His great power even if it means overruling the laws of creation.
One has to beg and plead for teshuvah. One must beat on the gates of heaven, again, and again, as we do on Yom Kippur. It is not a right; it is a privilege. If it is granted, it allows for the total re-creation of the person. The penitent Man is not the same person who existed in the past. He has burned the bridges to his past and has set out in a new direction with a new mission. He can once again face his Maker with a pure heart.
The immense impact of a sin cannot be underestimated. An unrepented sin is like an open wound. It drives a wedge between Man and his Creator. It results in a loss of dignity and leaves one spiritually weakened. It unleashes a kind of poison which gnaws away at ones integrity. It calls for immediate countermeasures.
The process of teshuvah can be lengthy and span the course of a lifetime, possibly beyond. It is a subject worthy of great study. Volumes have been written on this topic. Avoidance of sin requires constant vigilance. Sincere teshuvah does not come easy. It may require a sifting self-analysis and overhaul of deeply embedded views on life. It may take the voice of the shofar to penetrate the inner reaches of the soul to awaken one from the slumber of habit and routine. It is a joint process between Man and G-d, each action of Man being more than matched by a greater reaction from Hashem.
Teshuvah is not just for the novice. It forms the basis upon which we approach G-d in prayer. It provides a road back when we unfortunately stray off course. It is perhaps one of the most precious gifts we have. A gift which, if properly used, allows us to re-create ourselves into new and better people.
Steve Lerner writes from Atlanta.
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