Teshuva is God’s ultimate gift to all of humanity. The ability to invert our past, transmute our personality and rehabilitate our broken relationship with God is His exquisite gift to man, the pinnacle of His creation. Religiously sensitive people crave this process and greatly anticipate the “inflamed and fiery” days toward the end of summer.
Parshat Nitzavim describes teshuva instigated by national distress; a wave of suffering triggers a moral and religious response and we rise to the opportunity of teshuva. Summarizing an effective teshuva, the Torah describes God “removing the covering” (literally the foreskin) surrounding our hearts. Evidently, teshuva entails a dual gift from God: He “enchants” the possibility of teshuva even to undeserving sinners. He also participates in the actual process of teshuva along with us. He grants us pardon but also helps us seek it. Conventionally, teshuva is viewed as an exclusively human process. As the greatest and boldest implementation of human liberty, it is fundamentally a human moment in which God, by design, has no “say.” We seek God but we must seek Him freely and through our own insight, inspiration and courage. Evidently, as autonomously human as teshuva is, God assists us even as we seek Him and His enchanting offer. How does God participate in the process of teshuva?
Firstly, God, knowing that we are frail and moral cowards, accepts our imperfect teshuva. Teshuva is not binary—all or nothing. There are various levels and versions of teshuva, peaking at the supreme or ultimate teshuva or “teshuva gemura”—a level that feels elusive for most of us. Often, we confess our sins with partial sincerity, lacking full and deep-seated conviction for change. Yet, despite our shallowness, the very act of facing our flaws and articulating them demonstrates a degree of remorse that God accepts, though imperfect.
Even sincere teshuva is haunted by the inevitable failure of our most sincere promises. Experience demonstrates that we are likely to arrive to the very same situation next year. As life passes, we try to plug the never-ending leaks in our sinking ship and we find ourselves repeating teshuva for the sins we had forsworn a year earlier. Despite this inevitability and despite His knowing that we will ultimately fall short, God accepts us and our current sincerity. If we generate sincere conviction and desire for change, God accepts our teshuva based on our current determination and does not reject us based on our ultimate failure. I annually ask myself the following question: If there were a magical pill that would “lock in” my current teshuva dreams and guarantee their implementation, would I take that pill? Answering “yes” to this question reassures me of my deep desire for change, and hopefully God acknowledges my sincerity and accepts my teshuva.
God doesn’t only accept our flawed teshuva, He also pries open our locked hearts. The pasuk in Nitzavim describes Him removing the covering of our hearts. Sometimes these “heart shields” prevent intake and inhibit important messages from entering our hearts. Many understand the mitzvah to remove our heart coverings as a commandment to listen to rebuke. Reproach and moral censure are difficult to handle as we prefer affirmation of who we are rather than whistle-blowers who call us to higher ground. The teshuva journey can only begin when we decide to listen—to events, to prophets, to people who challenge us, or to our own restless conscience. We ask God to help us open our hearts so that religious challenges can enter and stir us to change.
Conversely, the insulation around our hearts prevents emotion from flowing outward or being voiced. As my rebbe Rav Lichtenstein wrote, “… where do we stand in relation to crying? Our gut instinct is that crying is for the ignorant and the superstitious; but we are sophisticated and intellectual, and therefore decorous and restrained. Ribbono shel Olam! Amidst all this decorum and restraint, can’t we, at least at Ne’ila, shed some genuine tears?... if not to be totally dissolved in tears, at least to open somewhat that ‘terrible dam’ which inhibits …our giving vent to our sense of shame and guilt...” We ask God to help us remove this “terrible dam” and allow our deepest and most vulnerable, but authentic, emotions to flood our tefillot.
Interestingly, God doesn’t only assist us in distilling a superior davening, He also davens right alongside us. The gemara in Rosh Hashanah portrays God donning a tallit and leading a tefillah of mercy, while Moshe listens and learns how to properly daven. Evidently, God Himself davens on our behalf and on behalf of His relationship with His people. I recall my rebbe HaRav Yehuda Amital describing our desperation to open the gates of prayer during the closing crushing moments of Neilah. This mirrors God’s desperate attempts to force open the gates of our hearts and enter the precinct that He doesn’t possess the keys to. Just as we seek God, He seeks us, and our sensing this “partnership of prayer” should embolden and impassion our teshuva.
Oftentimes, though, we need even more Divine assistance. Unquestionably, God empowers man with absolute and unlimited freedom of choice. Yet despite the autonomy of choice He invested in us, God compassionately helps us make better decisions. In the end of the parsha, God outlines our absolute freedom of choice but encourages us to make the proper choice, “u’vacharta ba’chaim.” Even though throughout life we are “tested” to render proper decisions, we are provided a “cheatsheet” with the correct answers. As David writes in Tehillim (25), God is just as He instructs sinners toward repentance.
However, God doesn’t just educate us toward better life-decisions but He also shades our free will. Pharaoh in Egypt was always free to release the Jewish people; absolutely abolishing his free will was inconceivable. However, his lifestyle along with God’s intervening in his inner emotional world made his reversal extremely unlikely. We dig very deep “ruts” in life and sometimes God digs them even deeper into pits.
Well, if God can punish Paro by tilting his free will, he can, as an act of compassion, calibrate our free will by sending us powerful signals: external events and inner murmurings that goad us to teshuva. Ultimately, we remain entirely free to resist this goading, but God’s prodding can become very powerful and almost too powerful to avoid.
Living through our current crisis, it isn’t difficult to hear and feel God goading us to teshuva. The global sweep of the pandemic deludes us into shirking personal responsibility. How can one individual possibly be responsible for a global pandemic that is indiscriminately affecting millions? Yet, despite this global feel, it is crucial to personalize the pandemic and collect individual messages. God is currently speaking to each person just as He is speaking to all of humanity. His message and His goading resonates more loudly this year than in past years. How we respond to this amplified message is entirely our choice as free men.
Rabbi Moshe Taragin is a rebbe at Yeshivat Har Etzion, located in Gush Etzion, where he resides.