The greatness, the centrality, of teshuvah


Teshuvah, the process of returning to the path of Torah observance, is discussed throughout Rabbinic literature. In particular, Talmud Bavli, Yoma 86a-b presents a number of salient aspects of the power of teshuvah and its unique contribution to Jewish spiritual life, three of which I would like to examine.

“Great is teshuvah for it brings refuot (healing) to the world,” wrote Rabbi Chama b’Rebbe Chanina. “As the text [Sefer Hoshea 14:5] states: ‘I will heal their backsliding; I will love them freely, for My wrath has turned away from him’.”

Rabbi Chama b’Rebbe Chanina is teaching us that heartfelt teshuvah has the power to completely transform the relationship between the Almighty and the Jewish people from one of great anger to one of ahavah rabbah — overwhelming love.

Teshuvah, therefore, has the ability to bring about a reconciliation between the Master of the Universe and our people. Surely, one cannot imagine a more far-reaching refuah than this. In addition, I believe this idea significantly expands the Shemoneh Esrai’s Birkat Refuah to include both physical and spiritual ailments:

“Heal us (re’fa’anu), O L-rd, and we will be healed; help us and we will be saved; for You are our praise. Grant complete cure and healing to all our wounds; for You, Almighty King, are a faithful and merciful healer. Blessed are You L-rd, who heals (rofe) the sick of His people Israel.”

The next ma’amar transitions from teshuvah as spiritual refuah to teshuvah as the causal factor in bringing forth the Geulah (Ultimate Redemption):

“Rabbi Yonatan said: ‘Great is teshuvah for it brings the Geulah to the world.”

In my estimation, Rabbi Yonatan’s insight inspires great hope. After all, we have been waiting for over 2,000 years for the Mashiach to arrive and rebuild the Beit HaMikdash. During this time, we have suffered, and continue to suffer, the trials and tribulations of a world often gone mad with anti-Semitism and the desire to exterminate the Jewish people. Beyond a doubt, it is truly comforting to know that teshuvah has the power to finally bring the Redeemer to Zion and end the bitter years of Galut.

This deep-seated desire is given voice in the Shemoneh Esrai’s Birkat Geulah: “O [Hashem] behold our affliction and wage our battle; redeem us speedily for the sake of Your Name, for You G‑d are the mighty redeemer. Blessed are You L-rd, Redeemer of Israel.”

Our third ma’amar introduces the concept that an individual’s teshuvah can literally change the world: “Rabbi Meir was known for saying: ‘Great is teshuvah, for even as a result of one person undergoing this process [in heartfelt authenticity], the entire world can be forgiven. As the text [Sefer Hoshea 14:5] states: ‘I will heal their backsliding; I will love them freely, for My wrath has turned away from him (mimenu).’ It does not say ‘mai’hem’ — from them, but rather, mimenu — from him.”

The Rambam echoes Rabbi Meir’s line of reasoning when he writes: “If one performs one mitzvah, he tips his balance and that of the entire world to the side of merit, and brings deliverance and salvation to himself and others. As the text states: ‘A righteous man is the foundation of the world,’ (Sefer Mishle 10:25) he who acted righteously, tipped the balance of the entire world to the side of merit and saved it.” (Sefer Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah III:4)

In my view, Rabbi Meir’s ma’amar, coupled with the Rambam’s formulation, enables us to comprehend the true greatness of teshuvah, as these sources teach us that even one person who undertakes the teshuvah process has the ability to tip “his balance and that of the entire world to the side of merit and bring[s] deliverance and salvation to himself and others.” This must surely be one of the reasons why Chazal (our Sages may they be remembered for a blessing) composed Birkat Teshuvah as found in the Shemoneh Esrai:

“Cause us to return, our Father, to Your Torah; draw us near, our King, to Your service; and bring us back to You in whole-hearted teshuvah. Blessed are You L-rd, who desires teshuvah.”

May the time come soon and in our days, when the entire Jewish people will stand shoulder to shoulder as one, and recite Yirmiyahu’s stirring verse: “Hashiveinu Hashem alecha v’nashuvah, chadash yameinu k’kedem” — “Help us to return to You, Hashem, in teshuvah and we will return and renew our days as of old.” (Megillat Eichah V:21) V’chane yihi ratzon.