To do teshuvah(“repentance”) rates as one of the most arduous demands that our tradition places upon us. As a Torah study participant said last week: “who among us wants to admit she’s wrong?” Teshuvahis a painstaking and comprehensive process. We must go to the person we have hurt, straightforwardly articulate our offense (without explaining, minimizing, or justifying it), express remorse, resolve never to recommit the injurious behavior, and be willing to do whatever is in our power to make amends for the damage. These are the steps enumerated by Maimonides. They take time, effort and courage. Failure to do teshuvah is considered more serious than the original transgression. Judaism ranks transgressions according to their level of severity. A “sin” (cheit) is an unwitting transgression, committed by accident (for example, forgetting a promise or commitment). An “iniquity” (avon)is a willful transgression, committed because we can’t resist the “evil impulse” or temptation (for example, losing one’s temper). Finally, an “act of rebellion” (pesha) is a willful transgression, committed solely to violate another’s authority or dignity—the most grievous kind (for example, acting out of malice or spite).
What’s noteworthy is that when we commit wrongdoing but fail to do teshuvah, the original transgression, no matter how flagrant or slight, now automatically upgrades to the level of pesha, a deliberate and sustained act of defiance. The sage Netivot Shalom explains: “when an individual commits a sin, he transgresses the will of the Creator only once, at the moment of the misdeed itself, but when he doesn’t return in teshuvah, he stands in rebelliousness all his days.” In other words, a momentary lapse hardens into longlasting obduracy.
Given how exacting and even painful the process can be, how do we summon the will to do teshuvah? On the other hand, given how consequential and grave the obligation is, how can we afford not to do teshuvah? Netivot Shalom settles the predicament by offering an extraordinarily encouraging analogy. He compares doing teshuvah before the High Holidays to searching for chametz (bread and other leavened products) before Passover Jewish law prohibits the possession of chametz on Passover—down to the smallest crumb. We’re supposed to scrub and sweep every room during the days leading up to the festival. On the night before, we ceremonially search high and low for the last morsels, armed with candle, feather and wooden spoon. Try as we might, however, we can never be sure of having eliminated all of it. That’s why we conclude with the recitation: “Let all leaven that may remain be regarded as dust of the earth.” As the Talmud directs: “search all the nooks and crannies, but then you must let it go and nullify it in your heart.”
Likewise, the entire month of Elul is devoted to teshuvah, so that we may enter the New Year with a clean slate. We’re supposed to scrupulously inventory our behavior, enumerate our wrongs, identify all those we have harmed, and seek their forgiveness. Try as we might, however, we can never be sure of having atoned for everything. Just like the removal of chametz,the process of teshuvahhas a fixed endpoint when we get to say: “I’ve done all I can.” Concerning past transgression, at a certain point we must tell ourselves: “let it go and nullify it in your heart.”
Our behavior will always be flawed. Even the way we do teshuvahwill always be flawed. “What does Adonai require of you? Only do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” I take the prophet Micah’s famous tripartite injunction to mean that the only thing that matters in the end is: our constant striving to live according to our principles, our compassion toward others and ourselves when we fall short of our values, and our willingness to learn and grow from every misstep along the way.
L’shanah tovah tikateivu. "Days are scrolls: let us write on them what we want to be remembered."