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Iyar

Three Types of Teshuvah (Repentance)

three types of repentance

Three Festivals―Three Principles

There are three festivals that stand out in our Hebrew calendar: Passover, Shavuot, and Sukot. These three times of the year clearly correlate to the well-known triplet: God, the Jewish People, and the Torah, of which the Zohar states, “There are three links: God, the Torah, and Israel [i.e., the Jewish People].” [1] We might even refer to them as the three mainstays of Judaism.

Passover, the Time of our Liberation, is the festival that commemorates our faith in God. The exile in Egypt was not just physical slavery but―perhaps even primarily―the constriction of psychological suffocation. Egypt worshiped the blind powers of nature and denied the existence of the One and Only God, who is above everything, as Pharaoh stated, “I don’t know who God is.”[2] This mentality seeped through into our psyches and as slaves to Pharaoh we were unable to approach God directly. Once we were redeemed from Egypt we began to breathe in fresh air, and we met the God who redeemed us. In the Zohar, the matzah that we eat on Passover is called, “Bread of faith,”[3] and its mild flavor opens up a rudimentary pure channel of communication with God, like an infant who says, “Daddy” for the first time. Our faith reached its pinnacle when the Red Sea split (on the seventh day of Passover), of which the verse states, “And they believed in God and in Moses, His servant,”[4] and our mouths opened in a great song of praise to God.

Shavuot, the Time of Giving our Torah is the festival of the Torah, of course. After our initial acknowledgment of God through the Exodus from Egypt, we continue to climb a ladder of forty-nine rungs―the days of Counting the Omer―until we reach the understanding that we didn’t leave Egypt in order to be an “emancipated nation”; rather, we are a people with a special purpose, a people who entered a momentous covenant with God, which we express by accepting the yoke of the Torah and mitzvot. As we stood at the feet of Mt. Sinai, God made His proposal, “And you shall be for Me a kingdom of priests and a Holy nation,”[5] and we joyfully accepted, replying in unison, “We will do and we will listen.”[6]

The festival of Sukot, the Time of our Rejoicing, is the festival of the Jewish People. Culminating the three pilgrimage festivals and following the days of personal and communal repentance and atonement, we gather together on the Festival of the Ingathering, into a sukah that has room for every one of us, as stated by the sages, “The Jewish People is worthy of sitting in one sukah.”[7] Similarly, on Sukot, we hold together the four species that represent all four different types of Jewish individuals. From the “righteous” etrog (citron fruit) who is involved in studying the Torah and observing mitzvot, down to the simple aravah (willow branch) who remain as part of the fold of the Jewish people despite the fact that he has neither Torah nor good deeds. We love them all, and all of them rustle together in fraternal love in a tangle of green leaves. When we emphasize the warm inner circle of love within the Jewish People, we are also able to relate in a rectified way to the gentile nations, who also participate in the festival of Sukot.[8] Sukot has a special “Land of Israel” fragrance, since the roots of the Jewish People are planted firmly in the Holy Land that has been given them as an eternal inheritance.

This festive threesome is the essence of every Jew’s environment: faith in God, Torah and mitzvot, and the relationship to the Jewish People as a whole.

Three Types of Repentance for Three Types of Jew

Ours is a generation of teshuvah (return to Judaism) and teshuvah is one of the keys to redemption, as Maimonides states: “The Jewish People will only be redeemed through teshuvah, and the Torah has promised that in the end the Jewish People will do teshuvah at the end of their exile, and they will immediately be redeemed.”[9] Teshuvah must encompass everyone, and nobody is exempt from it, because “There is no righteous individual on earth who does [only] good and never sins,”[10] and we must all do teshuvah for our weak points.

In our context, the three pilgrimage festivals are accompanied by three different types of teshuvah. In general, teshuvah relates to the time dimension, as in the Biblical phrase, “The annual return” [תְּשׁוּבַת הַשָּׁנָה) [11), because time is always changing and advancing and woe is he who remains stagnant instead of improving with time; such as someone who is immersed in sin (עֲבֵרָה), which in practice means that he is immersed in his past (עָבָר). Within the year, the three pilgrimage festivals are three pulses of teshuvah and the pilgrimage to Jerusalem is an elevation of teshuvah: on Passover one should return to one’s essential faith in God; on Shavuot one should return to the Torah and mitzvot; and on Sukot we need to return to the Jewish People as one unit. Then we return to Passover, the beginning of the cycle that turns and rises in a spiral, because there is always some way to advance further, reaching an ever deeper and more genuine connection to our faith in God, the Torah, and the Jewish People.

Just as the pilgrimage to Jerusalem each year encompasses all avenues of the Jewish People, so too these three types of teshuvah are relevant to each and every one of us and to all of us as a whole. However, from our present perspective, each of the three pilgrimage festivals is particularly suited to one specific faction of the Jewish people.

Let’s begin with Shavuot (the next in line on the calendar) – this is the festival of the Jew who refers to himself as “secular” (or a “traditional” of the non-committal style). The truth is that the very definition of “secular” is not correct – and Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson was stubbornly strict about avoiding this term – because every Jew, in whatever situation he is has a holy Jewish soul, and there is no Jew who is absolutely empty of Torah and mitzvot. Nonetheless, someone who is referred to as such belongs in particular to the teshuvah of Shavuot. Perhaps he defines himself as a believing Jew, or as someone who is very attached to the Jewish People, or simply as someone with a heightened sensitivity to social justice, a sense of responsibility, or a volunteering spirit. Nonetheless, he needs to understand that to truly be a Jew means observing Torah and mitzvot and taking an active role as a link in the chain of generations from Mt. Sinai to the present day. The lifeblood of the Jewish People as a nation is the Torah, “Our nation is not a nation without its Torah,”[12] and our belief is not something abstract or theoretical but affects the minutiae of everyday life.

Let’s now turn to the festival of Sukot. This is the festival for the Chareidi Jew [this term actually rings true, since the prophet mentions favorably, “those who are fearful to His word” [החרדים אל דברו) [13) nonetheless the current usage of the term is accompanied by somewhat negative associations]. Even those who are fearful of God’s word need to do teshuvah. Even if you are full of faith in God, a Torah personality who observes the 613 mitzvot with all your 248 limbs and 365 sinews, don’t be deceived into thinking that all is well, because, with all due respect to the wonderful community that you belong to, it is only one segment of the whole puzzle of the Jewish People, and for the time being there is a wall that divides between the different factions. In practice, you may have despaired of the Jews to your right and those to your left. You might not see how to make the Torah available on the public arena, which is why you seclude yourself within your community, saying, “when there will be a religious majority in the State, then… but for the time being…” Even if all the answers are correct, in practice there is a certain detachment between Jews and they can’t yet all sit together in one big sukah. In fact, they claim that you are not a partner in “sharing the burden.” Sure, there is a genuine problem sharing part of the “burden” as it is defined by the current leadership. However, one should acknowledge this deficiency and aspire to fill in the missing pieces, reconnecting all four of the four species, because when all is said and done, the goal is not to rectify just my own faction, but eventually to rectify the entire Jewish People with each and every one of us playing a role in this enterprise, “All Jews are responsible for one another.”[14] The repentance for the Chareidi then is not simply to agree to sit together with other Jews that they disagree with, but to begin to take a greater responsibility for all fellow Jews (no matter what their present level of observance, background, etc…).

Let’s now return to the first festival of our annual cycle: Passover. This is the festival of those who are referred to as “religious nationalists” (here too, the term is not a particularly successful one, because the correct form of nationalism is an integral part of the Torah, so why do we need to emphasize it separately?) This might be a Jew who studies Torah and meticulously observes mitzvot, and who has a strong attachment to the Jewish People as a whole. However, whether consciously or unconsciously, he is liable to tend towards the warped perspective of perceiving the institution of the State of Israel, with all its actions and emissaries, as the sacred epitome of all that is good and just under all circumstances. This type of Jew needs to celebrate Pesach in particular, doing teshuvah by instilling into his consciousness the simple realization that faith in God is above everything and that any institution or ruling power is judged and measured by its loyalty towards God and His Torah. This immediately gives rise to the fact that we must not suffice with what we have, but act to create a rectified Jewish state that has its foundations in faith in God who has chosen the Jewish People as His own.

Joining together all three types of teshuvah: return to God, return to the Torah, and return to the Jewish People as a whole, will result in one great teshuvah that will bring with it the ultimate redemption, once and for all.

From Rabbi Ginsburgh’s class, 18th Nisan 5774


[1] See Zohar III 73a.

[2] Exodus 5:2.

[3] See Zohar II 41:a; Likutei Torah Parashat Tzav, 12:2.

[4] Exodus 14:31.

[5] Ibid 19:6.

[6] Ibid 24:7.

[7] Sukah 27b.

[8] See Sukah 55b.

[9] Hilchot Teshuvah 7:5.

[10] Ecclesiastes 7:20.

[11] II Samuel 11:1.

[12] Rabbi Saadia Gaon, Sefer Haemunot Vehadeiot, article 3

[13]  Isaiah 66:5. See also, the author’s introduction to Sefer Hachareidim.

[14] Sanhedrin 27b.

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