One of Judaism’s signature beliefs is in our personal ability to make amends – Teshuva.
It’s hard to overstate the significance of this belief.
In sharp contrast, Christianity does not have a framework for humans to make amends; humans are born and remain in a state of sinfulness as a result of the corruption of original sin, which is the theological basis of Jesus’ death as an atonement.
Teshuva is a fundamentally different worldview.
Teshuva and the personal abilities of atonement and forgiveness are groundbreaking because, in the ancient world, humans lived in fear of their gods. You would try to do right by them, in the hope that they would do right to you; you don’t offend them, so they don’t smite you. The relationship people had with their gods was explicitly transactional; and from a certain perspective, what we might call abusive.
But in a framework where atonement and forgiveness exist, God isn’t looking to catch you out at all, and the new possibility exists for a very different relationship – not just master and servant, but now something more like parent and child.
Why do we believe we have the ability to atonement and earn forgiveness?
Quite simply, we believe we can make amends because the Torah consistently not only emphasizes that God is not impartial; but that God is biased towards creation – וּבְטוֹב הָעוֹלָם נִדּוֹן / עוֹלָם חֶסֶד יִבָּנֶה.
The priestly blessing explicitly talks about God’s preferential treatment; Rashi explains it as a wish for God to literally smile at us – יָאֵר ה’ פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וִיחֻנֶּךָ, יִשָּׂא ה’ פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ.
As the Shem mi’Shmuel explains, God’s compassion amplifies the steps we take to make amends – ועֹשֶׂה חֶסֶד לַאֲלָפִים.
The Torah speaks plainly about how compassion will drive God to personally gather up every lost soul and return and restore them from wherever they are:
וְשָׁב ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶת–שְׁבוּתְךָ, וְרִחֲמֶךָ; וְשָׁב, וְקִבֶּצְךָ מִכָּל–הָעַמִּים, אֲשֶׁר הֱפִיצְךָ ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, שָׁמָּה. אִם–יִהְיֶה נִדַּחֲךָ, בִּקְצֵה הַשָּׁמָיִם מִשָּׁם יְקַבֶּצְךָ ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, וּמִשָּׁם יִקָּחֶךָ – God will return your captives and have compassion for you; and will return and gather you from all the nations, wherever God has scattered you. (30:3,4)
Rav Kook teaches that the first promise is about a physical return to Israel, and the second promise is that God will also return us from the outer edge of the spiritual universe – קְצֵה הַשָּׁמָיִם. The Sfas Emes teaches that Hashem makes this promise regardless of whatever it is that brought us there to that spiritual wilderness – whether it’s upbringing; bad choices; poor self-control – none of it matters – מִשָּׁם יְקַבֶּצְךָ / וּמִשָּׁם יִקָּחֶךָ.
The High Holy Day prayers prominently quotes Ezekiel telling his audience, and us, what it will take to avert harsh judgment:
וְהָרָשָׁע כִּי יָשׁוּב מִכּל־חַטֹּאתָו אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה וְשָׁמַר אֶת־כּל־חֻקוֹתַי וְעָשָׂה מִשְׁפָּט וּצְדָקָה חָיֹה יִחְיֶה לֹא יָמוּת. כּל־פְּשָׁעָיו אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לֹא יִזָּכְרוּ לוֹ בְּצִדְקָתוֹ אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂה יִחְיֶה. הֶחָפֹץ אֶחְפֹּץ מוֹת רָשָׁע נְאֻם אֲדֹנָי אלוקים הֲלוֹא בְּשׁוּבוֹ מִדְּרָכָיו וְחָיָה – Moreover, if the wicked one repents of all the sins that he committed and keeps all My laws and does what is just and right, he shall live; he shall not die. None of the transgressions he committed shall be remembered against him; because of the righteousness he has practiced, he shall live. Is it my desire that a wicked person shall die?—says the Lord God. It is rather that he shall turn back from his ways and live. (Ezekiel 18:21-23)
As R’ Jonathan Sacks notes, there is no mention of sacrifice, no mention of a temple, no magic ritual or secret; it’s never too late to change, God will forgive every mistake we’ve made so long as we are honest in regretting it and doing our best to make it right.
As the Izhbitzer teaches, there are no mistakes, and the world has unfolded up to this moment as intended; which, quite radically, validates sin retroactively, although it should be clear that this teaching has zero prospective or forward-looking value. You are where you are supposed to be today, you were supposed to make that mistake; and now your task is to move forward from it. God is willing to let go of our mistakes; we needn’t hold on so tight.
As R’ Simcha Bunim of Peshischa points out, there’s nothing surprising about humans making mistakes and doing the wrong thing. The big surprise is that we don’t take advantage of our ability to atone and make amends every day – כִּי הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם לֹא-נִפְלֵאת הִוא מִמְּךָ וְלֹא רְחֹקָה הִוא. לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם הִוא / כִּי-קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר מְאֹד, בְּפִיךָ וּבִלְבָבְךָ, לַעֲשֹׂתוֹ.
The conclusion of one of the most moving parts of the prayers unambiguously says that even a person who sinned their entire life can still repent on his deathbed –כי לא תחפץ במות המת, כי אם בשובו מדרכו וחיה ועד יום מותו תחכה לו, אם ישוב מיד תקבלו.
It’s literally not possible to alienate yourself from the Creator Who permeates Creation. As R’ Akiva taught, God Himself cleanses us – וּמִי מְטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם, אֲבִיכֶם שֶׁבַּשָּׁמַיִם, … מַה מִקְוֶה מְטַהֵר אֶת הַטְּמֵאִים, אַף הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מְטַהֵר אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל.
It’s not even difficult! Our sages authorize a wicked man to marry a woman on the condition that he is righteous, on the basis that he might have had a moment’s thought about changing for the better. The Minchas Chinuch notes that this potential thought doesn’t include the confession and follow through required for complete rehabilitation; but the Rogatchover and the Brisker school suggest that the mere thought alone of doing better removes the designation of wicked from a person – because God is biased.
By designing creation with a framework that includes atonement, forgiveness, and Teshuva, God freely admits bias towards the children of creation. In fact, our sages say that a repentant can achieve what saints cannot.
God invites the children of creation to come home – שובו בנים שובבים. There is no need to hold yourself to a higher standard than God.
If you think you can probably be doing a little better in certain respects, you might be right and it could be time to raise your standards.
It’s not hard, and it’s not far away. Creation has been designed for you to make amends, has been waiting for you to make amends.
What are you waiting for?