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Teshuva – Return and Repentance

סְלַח לָנוּ אָבִינוּ כִּי חָטָאנוּ. מְחַל לָנוּ מַלְכֵּנוּ כִּי פָשָׁעְנוּ. כִּי מוחֵל וְסולֵחַ אָתָּה (ספרד: כִּי קל .טוֹב וְסַלָח אָֽתָּה:). בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’, חַנּוּן הַמַּרְבֶּה לִסְלחַ

Teshuva and forgiveness

The previous Bracha was a prayer for teshuva, and this Bracha is a blessing for forgiveness. They are linked, and forgiveness does follow teshuva, but they are not the same. There is a distinct conceptual gap between the two.

When we think about teshuva, and who is the actor, it is self-evident that we have to do the work. In the previous blessing, we ask for help finding our way through God’s Torah, that where we are is far from where we want to be, but we have to do the work and act.

In this prayer, we go further along the continuum, and even assuming we have done teshuva, we ask God to act by accepting it. This bilateral relationship is a universal constant in any discussion about God. God can say not to eat from the tree, but will the human listen? Humans can pray and attempt to please God, but will God be receptive? This constant tension is a feature in all relationships, and the relationship we have with God through the lens of our Tradition is that it is a two way street – retzei na bimnuchoseinu

It is possible to do teshuva and for God to reject it – there are times in the prophets when it it is too little, or too late – navi quote about ignoring korbanos – Chazon?

When you hurt somebody you love, you absolutely should feel bad for hurting them, and you should certainly apologize and attempt to make amends. But it doesn’t follow in any way that the person you hurt has to accept your apology, or that the relationship can be restored. There is a leap of faith that we take when we have a relationship with another, and part of the apology must affirm the space for the other to respond how they choose.

Teshuva, the apology, is a distinct act from the forgiveness.

Importance of teshuva

Our prayers are structured in a hierarchy – we don’t just show up and freestyle with all the things we want and need. The opening prayers affirm the destination of our prayers, the Almighty Creator. The next prayer is for holiness and separation, sacred distinction, which orients and designates our lives with purpose and imbues it with meaning. The following blessing is about wisdom and understanding, expanding our consciousness; everything that follows is what you want, but your consciousness what fundamentally your essential self and what you are.

Still quite abstracted from our daily wants and needs, we ask for teshuva and forgiveness. It’s the sixth Bracha, six corresponding to the letter ו. The letter itself is shaped as a straight line with a hook on the top, and the word ואָֽו itself literally means hook. The letter is used a hook, the conjunctive “and”, and links things that might otherwise drift apart. The concepts of teshuva and forgiveness are the hooks that stop us from drifting too far for too long.

Keeping teshuva in mind

The God of our prayers is kind, loving, and forgiving. Our sages anticipated that someone might exploit that perspective, doing all the worst things possible while bearing in mind that God is forgiving anyway, so there’s no downside to doing whatever you please because God will forgive you! Echteh vashuv

Our sages cautioned against this mentality, warning that taking this stance in teshuva is doomed to fail; not as a punishment, but because that’s just not how it works. Our sages explain that teshuva necessarily predates creation and existence, and is the mechanism that enables our conintued existence. If you don’t use it right and attempt to coops it into themechanism of the sin or make it part of the sin, it just won’t work the way it is supposed to.

But that leaves us in a precarious position.

By asking God for forgiveness and teshuva every time we pray, don’t we open ourselves up this issue, effectively making our entire lives consciously aware that God forgives our sins, and go about with our lives anyway counting on forgiveness?
Ultimate echteh vashuv

If we try to unpack the metaphor of teshuva preexisting creation, it quickly turns into nonsense. We cannot imagine what ice cream is if we strip it of the physical characteristics we are familiar with. To the extent there exists a category of supernatural, our sages say that they were created as part of creation, and not before – including splitting the Red Sea, and Bilam’s talking donkey.

Complex things emerge from the simple things that precede them. Humans cannot exist without air and sunlight; so Planet Earth had to possess the properties of air and sunlight before humans could emerge. In a similar way, God had to create teshuva as an abstract conceptual category, wholly dinstcnt and separate from gods ability to forgive, because there is otherwise a filter that stops the complex thing from emerging after it, creation itself.

What if we didn’t need teshuva

We only need teshuva because God displays attributes of strict justice – din. But what if God only displayed generosity – Chessed?

We understand that doing your child’s homework forever and sheltering them from all issues and never teaching boundaries or consequences is catastrophic for healthy development, because exclusive kindness quickly stop being so kind.

In part, because the child never learn, but more fundamentally, because the child never really exists, they never have an identity or existence independent of yours. Nothing they do has any meaning, because they can’t really do anything all, it’s all you.

With no judgment, Hitler is the same as the friendly kindergarten teacher. Judgment is important! It adds a moral dimension to our existence, that we are either worthy or unworthy, ascribing meaning and value to what we do, whether positive or negative. For precisely this reason, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are days to celebrate – Yom Tov, in sharp contrast to Tisha brave, because, even though the books of life and death are open and the stakes couldn’t be higher, we celebrate that what we do matters. With no judgment, we live a meaningless existence.

Justice justifies our place in the world; so by necessity, God must sit in judgment in order to give God’s creatures a purpose. But the other side of the coin is that justice allows the possibility for punishment, and perhaps punishment so bad that God just cancels existence, and it’s not hard to imagine. In a world of pure strict justice, it would be impossible to survive because nothing would be enough.

Finite beings are always lacking – Ilu pinu Shira kayom. If you took for granted that you can see and breathe, you could be considered ungrateful. If you squandered two seconds of your day, you’d be wasting God’s precious gift to you. noone would stand up to scrutiny!

So by necessity, God’s justice is wrapped and enmeshed in God’s kindness, and God gives us teshuva before anything else. Before we can fail at our existence, god doesn’t wait for us to fail before providing the mechanism to thrive, A hook holds something close that would otherwise fall away.

We make mistakes, we are selfish, and we hurt each other; but a fundamental property of the the universe is that we possess the capacityto find our way back.

What is sin?

Sin is a Christian idea – see bashevkin

סְלַח לָנוּ אָבִינוּ כִּי חָטָאנוּ

According to Avraham ben hagra, the word חָטָא literally means to miss. In modern Hebrew today, sports commentators use the work חָטָא to describe a player missing their shot.
We tell our father we made a mistake – missed take – סְלַח לָנוּ אָבִינוּ כִּי חָטָאנוּ

In Hebrew, when you brush past somebody on the street, you says slicha – excuse me, a casual and mild form of apology. Utilizing the imagery of parent and child, it was an accident, by mistake, please excuse me.

מְחַל לָנוּ מַלְכֵּנוּ כִּי פָשָׁעְנוּ

But for willful or negligent misdeeds, where the outcome was quite foreseeable, a mild excuse me isn’t quite enough, and the familiarity of the relationship isn’t enough.

When your parent forbids you to take their car and you take and crash it, you need to apologize for at least two things. Firstly, you need to apologize for crashing his car, but there is a second dimension of disobedience and disrespect, that in the moment, you didn’t accept their authority or the boundary they set, and part of the apology will have to acknowledge and affirm that once again.

A yeshiva student once told his rabbi that he didn’t feel like praying, and the rabbi told him he had to anyway. There are going to be days you can’t be bothered to work; but part of having a job is that you show up.

As one prophet hauntingly asks, If I am your father – im aba, ayeh kvodi. Some of the things we do wrong are more severe and we can’t just casually ask for forgiveness, and we need to be more formal and acknowledge God as sovereign – מְחַל לָנוּ מַלְכֵּנוּ כִּי פָשָׁעְנוּ

Its easy to say that life is difficult, but its far harder to own your contribution and responsibility for life being that way. Life is like a mirror, its only nice if you are. We need to take extreme ownership of that, and a key part of that relates to understnaidn that we must ultimately answer to God for how we devote our time and attention.

כִּי קל .טוֹב וְסַלָח אָֽתָּה

Bad things happen all the time. They often happen to good people, and often for no reason. Our sages suggest that bad things can serve as a Tikkun that rectifies or cleanses us in some way, or they could be micro punishments for wrongdoing. In our prayers on Yom Kippur, we take ownership of our mistakes, and ask God to spare us from the terrible things – Vlo al ydei yissurim vchalayim raim.

We can ask that because God is might in kindness – כִּי קל .טוֹב וְסַלָח אָֽתָּה. This isn’t a way of asking to be let off the hook lightly or easy; it is a request for forgiveness that it gentle and kind.

We ask for forgiveness, but fact of the question affirms that you aknolwege God as the bearer of that power, and that you are accountable to and responsible to God. Relating to God as a sovereign, we ask for a pardon, accepting God’s authority.

Owning it

Our sages explained abstract concepts in language and imagery we would recognize. After life on earth comes to an end, our sages imagine our soul called to a heavenly tribunal, with a prosecution, defense, and judgment. The prosecuting angel whose job is to scrutinize our actions and draw attention where necessary is disparately called Satan, Yetzer Hara, or sanegor. It is not malicious or vindictive; it is a divine entity fulfilling its core protocol, in the same way as the sun shines.

Part of the power of this imagery is that we all know that there are things we’d rather keep concealed or hidden, and the prospect of being exposed is terrifying.

And yet, sunlight is the best disinfectant. When we confess our action, apologizing and asking forgiveness from God directly with a personal appeal, it bypasses the whole theatre and spectacle of a heavenly tribunal. We can ask for clemency, a presidential pardon straight from the Source of the law.

Like a pardon we might be familiar with in the real world, once a case has public attention in the courts, there is far less discretion and room for maneauvariblity; which showcases the power of this blessing. It’s a quiet discussion, part of the daily check in we have with our Father in Heaven, far less formal than the ceremony of Rosh Hashahan and Yom Kippur .

Caveat

Prayer doesn’t work in a vacuum, the words aren’t a magic spell with an automatic tangible effect. We have put in serious work before the prayer, and maintain course afterward. You can’t just ask for things and expect them to materialize. You can pray to lose weight all you like, but if you eat that box of donuts on the way home every day it’s just not going to happen.

But we’re shallow creatures with big eyes and short attention spans, so our sages formulated the text of the prayer for us, and we say the words even when we don’t feel them. 
They exist so that we contemplate them while saying them, but even if we don’t have the correct intentions, asking without meaning isn’t nothing

Reward and punishment

Our sages teach not to expect a reward for our achievements in our lifetimes – schar mitzvah bhai alma leka. That’s partly confirmed by lived experience, but it’s also because our achievements are so astronomically valuable that there really is no reward adequate enough to compensate for the good we have done.

Conversely, our sages teach that our troubles and ordeals do compensate for the wrongs that we do. The good vastly outweighs the bad.

חַנּוּן הַמַּרְבֶּה לִסְלחַ

God forgives us a abundantly.

R’ Levi yitzchak of berditchev would tell of a child who asks his pious father for a snack, and the father gently replies that it’s not snacktime. Undeterred, the child loudly recites the blessing over the snack, and not wanting the child’s blessing to go to waste, the father gives him the snack – Bracha lvatala.

The child isn’t cheating or exploiting his father; the child cannot force or coerce the father. When the answer was no, his father didn’t want to give him a snack; but he changed his mind!

In quite a similar vain, we acknowledge God’s abundant forgiveness. It’s not an exploit; it’s a feature. It’s not an exploit so much as a feature. After the debacle with the Golden Calf, our Sages imagine God teaching Moshe how to make amends; it’s not cheating the system at all, it’s actually exactly how the system is supposed to work.

God forgives generously, without always exacting punishment. When you make a mistake, you apologize, and hopefully, they forgive; but they don’t always forget. When someone wrongs you and you forgive them, maybe you don’t hate them, but you might no be friends anymore.

The exceptional property of God’s capacity to forgive is that God’s forgiveness extends dat beyond making it like it never happened. Our sages profoundly highlight how when we approach teshuva out of love, our mistakes and misdeeds can be treated like merits and mitzvos -zedonos naaseh kizchuyos. It’s not magic, it’s common sense. When you make a mistake, you are afraid of losing the relationship and work harder. When you confront grief and pain in a relationship in a healthy and constructive manner, it can propel you to a new place that weren’t previously able to a access, and you can directly say that what brought you closer was the mistake

This sheds light on the closing of the previous blessing – Harotzeh beteshuva. God desires our teshuva, which quite shockingly suggests that on some level, God wants people to sin by extension of the transitive property.

Don’t forget

In this request to God to forgive us, we acknowledge that Hashem is the one that gets to forgive, not ourselves.

Too often, we justify and excuse ourselves. We judge others mistakes freely, but we are very good lawyers for our own mistakes. But in a certain category of misdeeds, it’s not your place to forgive yourself.

After the Golden Calf, Moshe prayed for forgiveness for the people on the first Yom Kippur, with the revealing words of Vayomer hashem salachti kidvarecha – the degree of God’s forgiveness mirrors the input of the apology. God doesn’t forgive without you asking

The worst thing god could do is make excuses for you
You’d move further and further away
The more god needs to forgive you, the better your devarecha needs to be
In words, thoughts, and actions, all aligned

After golden calf – moshe apologized
Jewish people did not
Shmuel – vayomer chatanu lefanecha
Shmuel put on a coat of the jewish people and said we sinned
Shmuel said god only judges people who say they didn’t sin – blame environment and nurture
God judges us on how we feel about our mistakes
They ask for everyone
We need to ask for everyone together
Imagine getting teshuva for everyone you love
Collectively
Not apologizing for them, but with them

The third Beis HaMikdash
The biggest tzadik might be the biggest rasha who does teshuva
A tzadik fights to do good things and gets where he gets
A rasha can go further down the path because its natural
All the things that came natural and easy can turn to merits
What if we get teshuva for all the people we are losing and have lost

How can we do teshuva for aveiros we don’t know about?
Shogeg – absent minded
Misasek – oness – don’t really need to do teshuva

Our first reaction to accidents is – oh no!
That feeling makes you think about it
Sent to you to get you to feel something and look closer around there

If something goes wrong, yefashfesh bmaasav

When someone comes for charity, don’t say you’ll daven
Help them
But also daven for them