Fighting Truth with Teshuvah

In the midst of the ten days of repentance, we are all focused on Teshuvah.  While Teshuvah may mean something slightly different from person to person, the basic idea is that we are able to repent and return to God.  Our past actions and sins no longer “count” against us and we have a fresh slate in which to start the new year.

This idea is however, somewhat problematic: How can a God who we view as “truthful” and “just” come along and erase all of your past sins?

It seems like the ideas of truth and repentance are logically incompatible.  Interestingly enough, this problem seems to be one of the main reasons why Jonah, the prophet, ran away when God asked him to tell the city of Ninveh to repent.  The Tanach calls Jonah “Ben Amittai” – Son of Truth.  Jonah represents the idea of Truth – why should a city full of evildoers be allowed to repent?  This idea was so troubling to Jonah that he becomes sick after he tells the people of Ninveh to repent.

This same idea seems to be picked up by the Midrash:

They asked Wisdom, What is the punishment of 
the sinner ? Wisdom replied, Evil pursueth sinners 
(Proverbs xiii., 21). They asked Prophecy, What is the 
punishment of the sinner ? Prophecy replied, The 
soul that sinneth it shall die (Ezekiel xviii., 2 • >). They 
asked the Torah, What is the punishment of the sinner? 
The Torah replied, Let him bring a trespass offering, and 
he will obtain atonement. They asked the Holy One, 
blessed be He, What is the punishment of the sinner ? 
The Holy One, blessed be He, replied, Let him do 
repentance, and he will obtain atonement

When one sins, we often have a picture of a metaphorical weight being dropped on one side of a scale.  We assume that the “good” side of the scale needs to outweigh the “bad” side.  In this view, when one sins, the “bad” side of the scale has already gotten heavier; there seems to be no way to lift up the weight.

While there is no way to change the past, there is a way to change how the past shapes our current selves.  Put in other words, I cannot change what I did in the past, but I can change my relationship and my association with things that I have done.  When viewed this way, Teshuvah is not a crazy, illogical gift that God gives us, but rather it is a different way of looking at one’s actions.  While according to a strict truth one may still have more sins than Mitzvot, God does not need to view our actions this way.  If one is able to take his/her past and reshape and use them to reshape who they are, becoming better based off of it, then it is natural for those past sins to go away.

During this Yom Kippur, we should not be discouraged by ideas of all of our sins being counted against us or even trying to repent for our sins one at a time.  Rather, we need to look at the big picture.  I only am who I am today because of past events in my life.  If I can change who I am today then naturally the way that my past events effect my life will also change.  A true righteous man is one who falls six times but gets up seven times.  Many commentators point out that the only reason this person is righteous is because he fell six times before.  While the past will never change, the future is open to many different possibilities depending on what we do in the present.


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One thought on “Fighting Truth with Teshuvah

  1. I gave a similar derashah on Rosh HaShanah where I differentiated between History and Memory. History is looking at events in isolation, Memory is the meaning events have for us today. Events that in isolation might have been the wrong thing to do become challenges to be overcome on the road to the better people we are today. That’s what the gemara means when it says teshuvah can turn even rebellious sins (זדונות) into meritorious actions (זכויות).


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