Teshuva: Dry Cleaning for the Soul

May 9, 2009

7 min read


Done something wrong? We all have. Here's how to fix it. Once and for all.

Many people misunderstand the concept of sin. They think someone who sins is a "bad person."

Actually, the Hebrew word chet does not mean sin at all. Chet appears in the Bible in reference to a slingshot which "missed the target." There is nothing inherently "bad" about that slingshot! Rather, a mistake was made ― due to a lack of focus, concentration or skill.

The same is true with us. When we engage in irresponsible or destructive behavior, we have simply misfired. Every human being has a soul, a pure piece of Godliness that distinguishes us from the animals. When we do something wrong, it is because the soul's "voice" has become temporarily muted by the roar of the physical body. This confusion is what we call the "Yetzer Hara." But our essence remains pure. We only need to make a few adjustments ― and we're back on target!

This is the idea of teshuva. Teshuva literally means "return." When we "do teshuva," we examine our ways, identify those areas where we are losing ground, and "return" to our own previous state of spiritual purity. And in the process, we "return" to our connection with the Almighty as well.

The process of teshuva involves the following four steps:

Step 1 - Regret. Realize the extent of the damage and feel sincere regret.

Step 2 - Cessation. Immediately stop the harmful action.

Step 3 - Confession. Articulate the mistake and ask for forgiveness.

Step 4 - Resolution. Make a firm commitment not to repeat it in the future.

Now let's examine each of these steps in-depth.

Step 1: Regret

Sometimes, we try to justify our actions, using a variety of excuses:

  • "Everyone else is doing it"
  • "At least I'm not like some people who go around killing and stealing!"
  • "Who are YOU to say it's wrong?!"

Regret is not really possible unless we can clearly distinguish between right and wrong. Otherwise, we will just rationalize and delude ourselves into thinking we've done nothing wrong. The ever-changing, sliding standards of society contribute to this lack of clarity.

For example, imagine growing up in a house where gossip was constantly spoken. Unless you're introduced to the Jewish idea of Loshon Hara ("negative speech") and made aware of its destructive nature, you may otherwise never consider gossip to be wrong!

(For this reason, it is important to be familiar with halacha, Jewish law, and to have a rabbi who knows you personally and can advise you.

How should we feel upon recognizing a mistake? Should we feel guilty, worthless and bad? No! "Guilt" is the negative emotion saying that "I am bad." Whereas "regret" is the positive acknowledgement that while my essence remains pure, I have failed to live up to my potential.

Feeling regret is a positive sign that we're back in touch with our Godly essence. Our conscience will not let us relax until we've corrected the mistake. Would an evil person feel regret over a transgression?

This first step of teshuva is indeed the most crucial ― because unless a person feels regret, he will most likely continue in his errant ways.

Step 2: Cessation

The Talmud says:

A person who made a mistake and admits it, but does not renounce doing it again, is compared to going into the mikveh holding a dead reptile in his hand. For although he may immerse himself in all the waters of the world, his immersion is useless. However, if he throws [the reptile] out of his hand, then upon immersing in 40 se'ahs of water (the minimum size of a mikveh), his immersion immediately becomes effective. (Ta'anit 16a)

Can you imagine trying to ask forgiveness from someone while you continue to wrong him at the same time? Without stopping the bad action, all the heart-pounding in the whole world won't help.

Step 3: Confession and Asking For Forgiveness

In admitting our mistake, Jewish law prescribes that it be articulated verbally. ArtScroll's Yom Kippur Machzor gives a beautiful explanation of why this is so crucial to the teshuva process:

As an intelligent, thinking, imaginative being, man has all sorts of thoughts flashing constantly through his mind. Even sublime thoughts of remorse and self-improvement are not strange to him, but they do not last. For his thoughts to have lasting meaning, he must distill them into words, because the process of thought culminates when ideas are expressed and clarified.

That is not as easy as it sounds. It is usually excruciatingly difficult for people to admit explicitly that they have done wrong. We excuse ourselves. We refuse to admit the truth. We shift blame. We deny the obvious. We excel at rationalizing. But the person who wrenches from himself the unpleasant truth, "I have sinned," has performed a great and meaningful act.

Teshuva must not only be in our minds and hearts. It is to restore our relationship with the God we have wronged. We must stand before God and ask His forgiveness. If we are sincere He is sure to grant it, but to make amends we must first approach Him and ask.

In addition, if our past actions have hurt another person, we must ask his forgiveness as well. The Torah requires us to be humble and contrite as we ask forgiveness. This is crucial in enabling the "victim" to heal. Has someone ever apologized to you and you knew it was not sincere? Just grunting the words "I'm sorry" is not enough.

Even secular courts are now adopting this principle; some judges are requiring that criminals demonstrate sincere regret and formally apologize to their victims before the court will consider shortening the sentence.

Step 4: Resolution Not To Repeat

On Yom Kippur, we say two prayers ("Asham'nu" and "Al Chet") which contain an extensive list of mistakes. As a matter of fact, as you go through these lists, you'll see the mention of mistakes covering every conceivable aspect of life! This begs the question: By saying these prayers, are we in effect making a commitment to never sin ever again? Is this realistic?

Imagine a new child taking his first steps in front of the proud parents. He gets to his feet, takes a few steps ― and falls flat on his face. The parents clap with excitement and joy. But if you analyze the scenario, shouldn't the parents be upset? After all, the child fell down!

The answer is obvious. A parent doesn't judge a child based on whether he walks or falls, but rather on whether he took a few steps in the right direction.

So, too, with the Almighty. We are not in competition with anyone but ourselves. What concerns Him is whether we're making a sincere effort to move in the right direction. God doesn't ask you to change in an area that is not yet feasible for you to change. We are commanded to be human beings, not angels. This means making a serious commitment to change ― and taking the right steps at the right time.

An individual doesn't need to have all the answers right now. The key is the commitment to change. Be aware of situations in which you're likely to stumble, and keep a safe distance from them. The Torah tells us: Strengthen your resolve in a certain area and God will ensure your success. Nothing that can stand in the way of persistence and determination. As the Talmud (Makkot 10b) says, "In the way that a person wants to go, he will be led."

Next Steps