Shabbat Shuvah-What It Means To Repent

Have you ever wanted to be perfect? To get things right the first time without making mistakes? To never have to say “I’m sorry” because you get everything right?

Today is known as Shabbat Shuvah, not Shabbat T’Shuvah. It is the Sabbath of Return, not the Sabbath of Repentance. Yet these words have the same Hebrew root: Shin-Vav-Vet (שוב). It’s as if to say that the way by which one returns to G-d is through repentance.

How does our tradition describe repentance? First, it contrasts us and G-d. Today rather than focusing on being made in G-d’s image, בצלם אלוקים, we ponder the fact that we are the in need of repentance whereas G-d is perfect. As found in this morning’s Torah reading, G-d is described as הצור תמים פועלו כי כל דרכיו משפט אל אמונה ואין עול צדיק וישר הוא,  “The ROCK! His deeds are perfect, all his ways are just. A faithful G-d, never false, true and upright is He.”[1] The earliest Midrashic work on Deuteronomy, Sifrei Devarim, goes further, stating “His ways are not to be brought into question…he sits in judgment with everyone and gives him what he deserves.”[2]

Many of us question this because we’ve seen bad things happen to good people and because we’ve seen thing occur in the world which do not appear to be the result of a just, perfect G-d. How do we maintain our faith in G-d when we see someone get cancer or people killed by natural disasters? The goal of Judaism is not to answer these questions but rather to focus on the things which we can control.  By teaching that we should not question G-d’s ways, the Torah is not that we should remove all doubt from our midst, for it is natural to have concerns, questions and doubts. Rather it is to transcend our doubts, to reflect on what we can do to make a difference in our lives and in the lives of the others around us.

Every year we get the gift of Shuvah, of returning to be the people G-d meant us to be through doing Teshuvah, actively working on changing our behavior for the better. Our tradition believes that we continually evolve in our behavior and our actions and that there is always room for improvement. As Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik teaches in his book Halakhic Man, “Repentance, according to the Halakhic view, is an act of creation-self-creation. The severing of one’s psychic identity with one’s previous ‘I,’ possessor of a new consciousness, a new heart and spirit, different desires, longings, goals-this is the meaning of that repentance compounded of regret over the past and resolve for the future.”[3] The phrase from Ezekiel, לב חדש ורוח חדשה, “a new heart and a new spirit,”[4] is what we are supposed to instill in ourselves-that we are constantly capable of change. Maimonides took it even one step further, stating “and one who changes his name, that is to say ‘I am another, and I am not that same person who did those deeds.’”[5] One can acquire a שם חדש, a new name for oneself, resolving to make one’s previous behavior a thing of the past.

While we’d like to be הצור תמים, the perfect rock that is G-d, it is better that we are not, as we can see how far we’ve come. One of the reasons I love climbing mountains is because despite the pain and at times slow progress, when I reach a peak I look down and see how far I’ve come. To see the progress you’ve made individually is worth its weight in gold. Things which seemed insurmountable, or where one said “I can’t do it” over time can become done without a second thought because of the hard work that’s been put in. Next time I might try to climb to a higher peak or one which is more strenuous and takes greater energy exertion to reach.

The same is true with spiritual growth, working towards being more caring, thoughtful and refined people. The hardest thing is before we can change, we need to atone for past behavior. In so doing, we need to go through that pain again, to put ourselves in a state of vulnerability through going to another and asking for forgiveness, yet admission of wrongdoing is the first step in correcting one’s behavior. When one recognizes the error of his/her ways, s/he can work on ensuring that these mistakes do not occur again, acquiring a new name and new identity.

In 5778, let us each make a name for ourselves by changing our names for the better. May we look carefully at our actions and take systematic, gradual steps for self-improvement. As such, we will recognize that we will never reach the level of G-d yet we will elevate ourselves to greater and greater spiritual heights.

[1] Deuteronomy 32:4

[2] Sifrei Devarim 307:6-7

[3] Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man (Philadelphia: JPS, 1983), p. 110.

[4] Ezekiel 18:31

[5] Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance, 2:4

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