Breaking Down Teshuvah
In the daily calendar he wrote in 1944 known as the Hayom Yom, the Lubavitcher Rebbe relates that the Maggid of Mezritch—the Ba'al Shem Tov's heir and spiritual son—explained to his holy students the meaning of the first few words of the haftarah (the weekly reading from the Prophets) read on the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Shabbat known as Shabbat Teshuvah (or Shuvah):
“Return unto Havayah, your God” (שׁוּבָה יִשְׂרָאֵל עַד הוי' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ): your return, your teshuvah, should ascend high enough that God's essential Name, Havayah—which refers to His transcendent, unchanging, and unalterable nature, which precedes creation and endures beyond it—will become Elokim, “your God” (אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ)—the Name of God that is associated with his immanent manifestation in creation, specifically in nature.
The Rebbe continues to relate that all the holy disciples of the Maggid were greatly aroused by this novel interpretation of the verse. But the famous Rebbe Zusha responded to this teaching by saying that he cannot achieve such an enlightened state of teshuvah all at once. Instead, he needs to break down his return to God into stages (not necessarily ordered chronologically or by importance), the initials of which spell the Hebrew word teshuvah (תְּשׁוּבָה). Rebbe Zusha said that the five stages or elements in his teshuvah would be:
ת – "You shall be earnest (תָּמִים) with Havayah, your God."
ש – "I place (שִׁוִּיתִי) Havayah before me always."
ו – "And you shall love (וְאָהַבְתָּ) your fellow as yourself."
ב – "In all your ways (בְּכָל), you shall know Him."
ה – "Walk humbly (הַצְנֵעַ) with your God."
After quoting the Magid's interpretation of Hosea's call for teshuvah, the Rebbe dedicates another five days of entries in his Hayom Yom Chasidic calendar—the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—to explain the inner meaning of each of Rebbe Zusha’s stages of teshuvah.
Teshuvah Before Chasidut
Rebbe Zusha was not the first to give a mnemonic based on the five letters of the word teshuvah in Hebrew to illustrate its meaning. In the times preceding the revelation of Chasidut (particularly, as related in an important work called Reishit Chochmah), a different mnemonic was commonly used:
ת – fasting (תַּעֲנִית)
ש – sackcloth (שַׂק)
ו – and ashes (וָאֵפֶר)
ב – weeping (בְּכִי)
ה – lamentation (מִסְפֵּד)
Rebbe Zusha’s mnemonic was either consciously, or unconsciously, meant to sweeten this earlier teaching, in the way that Chassidut sweetens the bitter and oftentimes overbearing approach to religious feeling and practice that preceded it. Rebbe Zusha's five stages of teshuvah lead one to the point of the Magid's teaching, that Havayah—God’s transcendent, unchanging essence—becomes your natural conception of God, represented by the Name Elokim; meaning that God’s transcendent essence becomes the subject of our everyday relationship with Him.
Three Classic Interpretations of “Unto”
Well before the Maggid's time, the Talmudic sages also addressed the special idiom "return… unto Havayah" (שׁוּבָה… עַד הוי') with three different explanations. The focus of these interpretations is the unusual use of the preposition "unto" (עַד). Normally, this sentence would be written "return to Havayah." The preposition "unto" implies a certain limit on teshuvah, the return to God.
The first explanation is that the verse is teaching us something about the nature of teshuvah: "So great is the power of teshuvah that it reaches unto the heavenly throne of honor" (גְּדוֹלָה תְּשׁוּבָה שֶׁמַּגִּיעָהּ עַד כִּסֵּא הַכָּבוֹד). In other words, even if a person has transgressed every prohibition in the Torah, teshuvah has the power to fix this. What is the heavenly throne of honor? The sages teach us that the soul of every single Jew is etched, or carved on the heavenly throne, upon which sits the figure of our patriarch Jacob, the progenitor of the Jewish people. Thus, by reaching as high as the heavenly throne, teshuvah returns our soul to its very source and origin above.
Another thing to add about the heavenly throne is that because it is associated with Jacob—the archetypal soul of the sefirah of beauty—it also represents the quality of compassion, the inner aspect of beauty. Thus, says the Zohar, when God sits upon the heavenly throne he judges us compassionately, as opposed to judging us harshly when he sits upon his throne of judgment. The heavenly throne, therefore, symbolizes God's merciful relationship with us. Indeed, in Hebrew, the words "relationship" (יַחַס) and "pedigree" (יִחוּס) stem from the same root. When God sits on his throne of mercy his relationship with us is affected by our lineage, as we are the children of Jacob. Just as Jacob instilled within each and every one of his offspring the quality of being compassionate, so God acts towards each and every one of his offspring with mercy.
The special power of teshuvah to reach unto the heavenly throne of honor can be compared to the manner in which certain fish travel for thousands of miles to return to the place where they were born. Teshuvah returns us not only to God, but to our own inner self, to our own original being in God, as in the verse "the spirit will return to God who gave it…." By doing teshuvah we, as it were, encourage God to sit on His throne and to connect to us, thereby granting us a good and sweet year.
To understand the second explanation of the unusual preposition "unto," we must first mention that the books of the Bible do not contain nekudot, i.e., Hebrew pronunciation marks, in the text itself. Instead, for thousands of years, the correct pronunciation was memorized. Consequently, many times commentaries, especially early ones, explain words by using an alternate pronunciation. In this case, the sages explain that the word "unto," pronounced "ad" (עַד) may be read as "eid" (עֵד), which means "witness." The meaning of the verse is then that my teshuvah is complete when God can act as my "witness," testifying that I will no longer return to perform the same negative act. Based on this interpretation of the verse, Maimonides writes:
What constitutes teshuvah? When the sinner leaves his sin and removes it from his mind and decides in his heart to never perform it again… and he regrets the past… so that the Knower of Mysteries [i.e., God] can bear witness that he will never return to this sin…
In the Torah, if an event or situation is known to many, one is not required to bear witness. In our case, it is only God who knows my true inner nature, and thus it is only He that can testify to my state. As explained by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, with respect to the Tanya’s definition of the true intermediate servant of God (beinoni), God observes our situation on a moment-to-moment basis. It is possible for a person to reach a state, in which at that particular moment, it is clear to him that there is nothing in the world that will make him want to sin in the same manner again. At that moment, God can testify that indeed this person has performed complete teshuvah. We will shortly return to discuss how this moment can be extended in time so that it is not just a passing state.
A third explanation offered by the sages is: do not read it as “unto” but “while.” This reading is also based on using a different pronunciation, this time "od" (עוֹד), instead of "ad" (עַד). What this explanation is saying is that teshuvah should be performed while God is still revealing His compassion, referred to by the Name Havayah: "Return Israel while [God is revealed as] Havayah…." A Jew has a sense for knowing when it is an auspicious time for returning to God. For instance, if you suddenly feel a powerful urge to truly cry, this is a sign that the heavenly gates are now open for your return. While there is still time, you must seize the moment and stand before God's compassionate and merciful nature. Once the moment has passed, God will return to his aspect of judgment. This last interpretation is almost opposite to the Maggid’s novel interpretation.
Correspondence to the Letters of Havayah
Altogether, we have seen four interpretations of this verse and its unique language: one by the Maggid of Mezritch and three from the sages. As is usually the case when a verse has four different explanations, these interpretations correspond to the four letters of God's essential Name, Havayah. Let us first summarize the correspondence in chart form and then explain each of its elements:
|letter of Havayah||Explanation|
|yud||teshuvah until Havayah becomes your God, i.e., is manifest in your nature|
|hei||teshuvah reaches the heavenly throne, i.e., returns you to your source|
|vav||teshuvah such that God can bear witness to the sincerity of your return|
|hei||teshuvah while God reveals to you His merciful aspect|
Let us begin with the second explanation that corresponds to the first hei of Havayah. The first letter hei of Havayah itself corresponds to the sefirah of understanding and to the mother principle (אִמָּא). The throne is the archetypal symbol in Kabbalah for the mother principle (אִמָּא). In the revealed teachings of the Torah, "the Torah of your mother," (תּוֹרַת אִמֶךָ) is explained to refer to the Oral Torah as revealed by our collective "mother," the source of the Jewish people’s souls. In the Zohar, teshuvah is identified with the sefirah of understanding. As explained, doing teshuvah is like returning to one’s origin, to one’s womb. By re-entering our first mother's womb, the womb in which we are one with the entire Jewish people, we can renew the compassion that our origin has for us, drawing forth blessings in regard to our offspring, our health, and our livelihood.
The second interpretation offered by the sages corresponds to the letter vav of Havayah. According to this interpretation, it is not I who ascend with the purpose of making God my nature (as in the Maggid's novel explanation), rather it is the Almighty who descends to bear witness about me, and to look within my innermost nature; Maimonides here calls God "the Knower of Mysteries," the mysteries of my own inner being. Descent, in the sense of being called down, the way that the Almighty is called down to investigate my being, is associated in Chasidut with the letter vav of Havayah. Reference to God as the Knower of Mysteries alludes to a particular Biblical idiom in which the Almighty is described as "He who scrutinizes the kidneys and the heart…." The heart and the two kidneys correspond to the sefirot beauty, victory, and acknowledgment, respectively, three of the six sefirot from loving-kindness to foundation that are referred to by the letter vav (whose numerical value is 6). In some translations of the Bible, this phrase is even rendered as "the feelings and the heart," indicating that knowing our mysteries is about knowing our innermost feelings.
Just after Adam sinned by eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, God confronted him with the question: "Where are you?" This question is meant to provide a prelude to God's own descent to scrutinize our inner being. If we correctly question our spiritual location and observe our own inner state, then the Almighty descends to help us answer the question of where we stand. If Adam would have used the question correctly and would have repented, God would have descended into the space formed by His own question, “Where are you?” and would have verified that indeed Adam had fully repented.
The Chasidic masters ask: how is it possible for God to bear witness, i.e., to guarantee that someone will never commit a sin again? Would this not contradict the individual's free will? Or, in other words, is it possible for God's testimony to be more than localized, testifying to a person's present condition, which is prone to change? Is there a state in which God is assured that this person will never again return to commit the same sins?
The answer, as explained in Chasidic teachings is that when you come to the realization that without God’s help you will indeed sin again—that it is only God’s help that allows you to overcome your evil inclination—then God can bear witness that if you remain aware of your dependence on His aid, you will never sin again.
Indeed, by bearing witness, God enters your being and gives you the strength necessary to overcome your evil inclination. This is the power of resolve in the heart (קַבָּלָה בַּלֵּב) insuring that you never sin again. Teshuvah is mostly about the future, but it does not start if you do not first take responsibility for and feel remorse about the past. In the Name Havayah, the letter vav is understood as drawing or extending the letter yud, which more than all the other letters alludes to God’s essence. Heartfelt emotions thus have the power to draw down the Almighty’s essence into your self.
The final interpretation corresponds to the sefirah of kingdom. Knowing that the name of one of the sefirot is “eternity,” (נֶצַח), one might think that all phenomena that relate to time are related to that sefirah. However, eternity refers to steady states that do not change over time. Eternity refers to the permanence of time. Thus, if you experience God as never changing—always static and never dynamic—then you are experiencing Him through your sefirah of eternity, a relatively masculine power of the soul. But our interpretation here focuses on God’s shifting revelation, a relatively feminine experience. The measure of past, present, and future, time is related to kingdom (as in the statement: “God is king, God was king, God will be king forever and ever”).
One of the branches of Kabbalah, known as Ashkenazic Kabbalah (taught by the Rabbi Moshe Chayim Luzatto—the Ramchal—and the Gaon of Vilna and later adopted by Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook), is based on the understanding that God acts or reveals a different type of Providence, at different periods of history. This understanding begins with the sense of knowing or feeling when God is merciful and when God is judgmental, which is offered in this third interpretation of the sages.
We can expand this last interpretation some more by comparing kingdom and the Almighty to a wife and her husband. When kingdom feels the presence of her husband, even if it is the feeling of him leaving her presence, it experiences compassion; such a time is an auspicious one for crying from the depths of one’s being. But there are times when the feminine reality feels that it is all alone, these are times of judgment.
In all, these three “lower” interpretations originate from the yud, the interpretation given by the Maggid. Our sages did not reveal the Maggid’s explanation because the Oral Torah, as revealed by the sages, is known as the revealed dimension of the Torah. The Maggid’s interpretation relates to another saying of his: “Atzilus is auch da,” meaning that the World of Emanation [a world of pure consciousness of God and nothing else] is present here [in my natural state of consciousness]." The Maggid’s interpretation likens the ba’al teshuvah, the person doing teshuvah to a son who by inheriting his father’s fortune (both spiritual and material), by continuing his father in full becomes, in a sense, his father. The Maggid’s interpretation thus sweetens the three others. It offers the highest explanation of what it means that teshuvah is not just acting like God, but it is actually becoming Godly. In Chasidic idiom, a person who attains this state of being is called “walking selflessness” (בִּטּוּל מְהַלֵּךְ), a person who is a walking, living example of selflessness. This is a person who has reached the state of what we refer to as natural consciousness.
Teshuvah as Lowliness
When reaching a state of natural consciousness, it would seem that it does not at all matter whether I enter God, or Godliness enters me; it is all the same. But for God it does matter, because He does not want us to disengage ourselves from our reality. Instead, He wants to be the One to enter our reality, and we can prepare ourselves for Him by making Him a dwelling place below.
This point of view leads to another question. Since the dwelling that we are making is for the essence of the Almighty, how can we call it a dwelling place below? It would seem that from the Almighty’s perspective there is no essential difference between something being above or being below; between the spiritual and the corporeal. Indeed, the explanation is that this seeming equality is true only from our perspective. God Himself in the Torah reveals that he can dwell only in a space that is “lowly.” Thus, only when a person feels that there is no one lower than himself does God dwell in him.
In his will, Rebbe Aharon the Great of Karlin wrote that he swears that there is no worse criminal than himself. Indeed, as explained in Chasidut, the lower one feels, the more joy one has and the more can he be one with Havayah.
Connecting the Beginning with the End
There are words we recite during the Shabbat evening services that beautifully illustrate the difference between the mercy of the Name Havayah, and the harsh judgment associated with the Name Elokim. “All the trees of the forest will sing for joy. Before Havayah, for He is coming, He is coming to judge the earth….” Normally, we would not be joyful that God is coming to judge the world, that is, to clean things up. But when nature realizes that the judge is now the Name of Havayah, the Name of mercy, then indeed there is great joy. If a person cannot tell the difference between the revelations of Havayah and Elokim then he does not understand that if it were the Name Elokim coming to judge, there would indeed be harsh and terrible consequences to this judgment. This is the type of judgment imagined by those who feel far from the Almighty, and do not see their goal as being one with God. But the judgment of Havayah is merciful and ultimately brings us all to a state of natural consciousness. Thus, by clearly sensing the change in revelation that is the focus of the final interpretation, we can come to seek the first. We have now connected the first interpretation with the last.
(Based on a class given on Tishrei 7, 5766, October 9, 2005 in Jerusalem)
. Hosea 14:2 and ff.
. Based on Esther 4:3.
. See also Tanya, Igeret HaTeshuvah, chapter 1, beginning.
. Yoma 86a.
 Yevamot 79a: "There are three characteristics to these [the Jewish] people: they are merciful, they are shy, and they perform acts of loving-kindness." See also Tanya, end of chapter 1.
. Ecclesiastes 12:7.
. Yalkut Shimoni, Hosea 532.
. Hilchot Teshuvah 2:2.
. Proverbs 1:8, 6:20.
. 3:122b; and elsewhere.
. Jeremiah 11:20, and elsewhere.
. Genesis 3:9. In Hebrew, the numerical value of the word for "where are you" (אַיֶּכָּה) is 36, or 6 squared, alluding to the fact that it is addressing the six emotive attributes of the heart.
. “I dwell… with the contrite and lowly of spirit” (Isaiah 57:15). Based on this verse and others (e.g., see Sotah 5a), the sages say that God cannot dwell in one who has a prideful spirit.
. Psalms 96:12-13.