The following is an excerpt from
The Thirteen Petalled Rose: A Discourse on the Essence of Jewish Existence and Belief
Repentance is one of the ultimate spiritual realities at the core of Jewish faith. Its significance goes far beyond the narrow meaning of contrition or regret for sin, and it embraces a number of concepts considered to be fundamental to the very existence of the world.
Certain sages go so far as to include repentance among the entities created before the world itself. The implication of this remarkable statement is that repentance is a universal, primordial phenomenon; in such a context it has two meanings. One is that it is embedded in the root structure of the world; the other, that before man was created, he was given the possibility of changing the course of his life. In this latter sense repentance is the highest expression of man’s capacity to choose freely – it is a manifestation of the divine in man. Man can extricate himself from the binding web of his life, from the chain of causality that otherwise compels him to follow a path of no return.
Repentance also comprises the notion that man has a measure of control over his existence in all dimensions, including time. Time flows in one direction; it is impossible to undo or even to alter an action after it has occurred and become an “event,” an objective fact. However, even though the past is “fixed,” repentance admits of an ascendancy over it, of the possibility of changing its significance in the context of the present and future. This is why repentance has been presented as something created before the world itself. In a world of the inexorable flow of time, in which all objects and events are interconnected in a relationship of cause and effect, repentance is the exception: it is the potential for something else.
The Hebrew word for repentance, Teshuvah, has three different though related meanings. First, it denotes “return,” a going back to God or to the Jewish faith. Second, it can mean “turning about” or “turning to,” adopting another orientation or direction in life. Third, Teshuvah signifies “response.”
The root meaning is return to God, or to Judaism, in the inclusive sense of embracing in faith, thought, and deed. On the simplest, most literal level, the possibility of return can only exist for someone who was once “there,” such as an adult who retains childhood memories or other recollections of Jewish life. But is it not possible for someone to return who was never “there,” who has no memories of a Jewish way of life, for whom Judaism is not a personal but a historical or biological heritage, or no more than an epithet that gives him a certain meaningful identity?
The answer is unequivocally in the affirmative, for – on the more profound level – repentance as return reaches beyond such personal configurations. It is indeed a return to Judaism, but not to the external framework, not to the religious norms that man seeks to understand or to integrate into, with their clear-cut formulae, directives, actions, rituals; it is a return to one’s own paradigm, to the prototype of the Jewish person. Intellectually, this paradigm may be perceived as a historical reality to which one is personally related, but beyond this is the memory of the essential archetype that is a part of the soul structure of the individual Jew. In spite of the vast range of ways in which a Jew can alienate himself from his past and express himself in foreign cultural forms, he nevertheless retains a metaphysically, almost genetically, imprinted image of his Jewishness. To use a metaphor from the world of botany: a change of climate, soil, or other physical conditions can induce marked alterations in the form and the functioning of a plant, and even the adoption of characteristics of other species and genera, but the unique paradigm or prototype persists.
Reattachment to one’s prototype may be expressed in many ways, not only in accepting a faith or a credo or in fulfilling certain traditional obligations. As he liberates himself from alien influences, the penitent can only gradually straighten himself out; he has to overcome the forms engraved by time and place before he can reach his own image. He must break free of the chains, the limitations, and the restrictions imposed by environment and education. If pursued aimlessly, with no clear goal, this primal search does not transcend the urge to be free; without a vector, it can be spiritually exhausting and may never lead to a genuine discovery of the true self.
In this respect, not in vain has the Torah been perceived as a system of knowledge and insights that guide the individual Jew to reach his own pattern of selfhood. The mutual relationship between the individual Jew and Judaism, between the man and his God, depends on the fact that Judaism is not only the Law, the prescribed religious practice, but is a life framework that embraces his entire existence; furthermore, it is ultimately the only framework in which, in his aloneness and in his search, he will be able to find himself. Whereas potentially a man can adapt himself, there exists, whether he acknowledges it or not, a path that is his own, which relates to him, to his family, to his home.
Repentance is a complex process. Sometimes a man’s entire life is no more than an ongoing act of repentance on several levels. It has been said that a man’s path of spiritual development, whether he has sinned or not, is in a certain sense a path of repentance. It is an endeavor to break away from the past and reach a higher level. However, notwithstanding the complexity and the deeply felt difficulties involved, there is a clear simplicity in the elemental point that is the point of the turning.
Remoteness from God is, of course, not a matter of physical distance, but a spiritual problem of relationship. The person who is not going along the right path is not farther away from God but is, rather, a man whose soul is oriented toward and relating with other objects. The starting point of repentance is precisely this fulcrum point upon which a person turns himself about, away from the pursuit of what he craves, and confronts his desire to approach God; this is the moment of conversion, the crucial moment of repentance.
It should be noted that generally this does not occur at a moment of great self-awareness. Though a person may be acutely conscious of the moment of repentance, the knowledge can come later. It is in fact rare for repentance to take the form of a sudden, dramatic conversation, and it generally takes the form of a series of small turnings.
Irrespective of the degree of awareness, several spiritual factors come together in the process of conversion. Severance is an essential factor. The repentant cuts himself off from his past, as though saying: “Everything in my life up to this point is now alien to me; chronologically or historically it may be part of me ? but I no longer accept it as such.” With a new goal in life, a person assumes a new identity. Aims and aspirations are such major expressions of the personality that renouncing them amounts to a severance of the old self.
The moment of turning thus involves not only a change of attitude, but also a metamorphosis. When the process is fully realized, it includes a departure from, a rejection of, and a regret for the past, and an acceptance, a promise of change in the future. The sharper the turning, the more deeply conscious it is, the more prominent will these aspects be – a shaking free of the past, a transfiguration of self, and an eager thrust forward into a new identity.
Repentance also includes the expectance of a response, of a confirmation from God that this is indeed the way, that this is the direction. Nevertheless, the essence of repentance is bound up more with turning than with response. When response is direct and immediate, the process of repentance cannot continue, because it has in a way arrived at its goal; whereas one of its essential components is an increase of tension, the tension of the ongoing experience and of yearning. As long as the act of repentance lasts, the seeking for response continues, and the soul still strives to receive from elsewhere the answer, the pardon.
Response is not always given; and even when it is, it is not the same for every man. Repentance is a gradual process: final response is awarded not to specific isolated acts but to the whole; the various components, the desire to act, the performing of the deed based on anticipation, the yearning, disappointment, and hope, are rewarded, it at all, by partial answers. In other words, a response to turning is given to a man as “something on account,” the rest to be paid out later. A person generally hears the longed-for answers not when he puts his questions, not when he is struggling, but when he pauses on a summit and looks back on his life.