These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Thoughts on T’Shuva

Posted on April 9, 2011 by Pious Antic

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What is t’shuvah?

The word is often translated as repentance, but that doesn’t quite capture it. T’shuvah comes from a root meaning to return, and it connotes the idea of turning away from sin and returning to one’s true values, to the best version of oneself, as well as the idea of figuratively returning to the scene of the crime, to at the very least take note of ones mistakes and misdeeds, but ideally also to confess, make amends and seek forgiveness. Books have been written about t’shuvah, and my goal here is not to explicate every nuance and facet of the concept – I don’t have the knowledge to do that even if I wanted to. Instead I want to focus on one little fun fact about t’shuvah.

In his discussion of the laws of t’shuvah, the 16th century authority, Moshe Isserles wrote that an uncertain sin requires more t’shuvah than a certain one. In other words, the thing I did that I know was wrong requires less repentance than the thing I did that may or may not actually have been wrong. Thinking of T’shuvah as repentance, as an attitude towards our actions, this doesn’t make much sense: how could I repent more for something that may or may not have been wrong than I do for something that was clearly wrong? If, however, we think of t’shuvah as a process of self-appraisal and reckoning, the truth of his statement is self-evident.

If I already know what I did was wrong, I must on some level feel bad about it and it won’t take all that much self-reflection to get me to the point of repentance, at which I can make a sincere apology and move on with my life fully intending not to repeat the same mistakes. On the other hand, if I can half convince myself that what I did was okay, I have a lot of work to do to before I can get to the point where I honestly and wholeheartedly repent for what I did.