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Repentance Beyond Sin
By: Dr Norman Lamm

The following comments are inspired largely by the writings of the founders of the ChaBaD school of Hasidism, but they do not necessarily follow them entirely and, indeed, depart from them in certain details. I hope that they will prove of interest--and usefulness. --N.L.

It is customary to associate teshuvah (repentance) with sin. A person transgresses and he then rues his deed. The proper response is teshuvah, repentance. The halakhic analysis of teshuvah is highly sophisticated and articulates well with the psychology of the penitent, accompanying him on the various stages of his "return" to his pre-sin state.

However, sin does not exhaust the entire teshuvah phenomenon, for were it so, how would we account for the fact that the Talmud and Midrashim recommend teshuvah every day of one's life and that the truly righteous are described as those preeminent souls who are in a state described as kol yamav bi'teshuvah, spending all their lives in repentance? It is stretching the point to answer that the greater the person the more aware he is even of the most minor infractions. Moreover, the Talmud does posit a category of tzaddik gamur. Is such a totally blemishless individual to be denied this unique and inspiring mitzvah of teshuvah?

The most compelling answer is offered by R. Shneur Zalman of Lyadi, author of the immortal Tanya and founder of HaBaD Hasidism. He differentiates between two kinds of repentance which he terms a Lower Repentance (teshuvah tataah) and a Higher Repentance (teshuvah ilaah). The former is the kind of repentance we are most acquainted with-the confession, contrition, resolution, etc, that follow upon sin. This teshuvah may take the form of abjuring evil in any and all its many disguises (thus, the negative commandments), or that of the active pursuit of the good and the noble and the holy (the positive mitzvot). The choice is as much a function of individual temperament as ideological preference. But both are motivated by the consciousness of moral or spiritual failure.

The Higher Repentance has nothing at all to do with sin or defeat. It is the reaching out for God in an attempt to overcome the human condition of being separate and alienated from Him. Man's soul is the divine "spark" within him, and this neshamah strives for teshuvah or, literally, "return" to its Source. In other words, teshuvah ilaah represents a genuinely spiritual yearning, and is unrelated to psychology or disobedience-the realm of teshuvah tataah. The return, in the former, is not to one's own prior, pristine, pre-sin state, but to one's ontological origin, prior to his very existence separate from his Creator.

Both these forms of repentance bespeak a high level of spiritual maturity, but the difference in focus results in qualitatively different experiences. Thus, the Higher Repentance is thoroughly rational: the striving to reunite that which once was one. The Lower Repentance, however, is irrational, almost absurd. It seeks to undo the past, declaring that the past transgressions never occurred or have even been transformed into virtues (zekhuyot). It is a violation of causality and, indeed, common sense-although without it, we would be condemned to an inflexible, fatalistic, brutish existence. The divine forgiveness which is the shining goal of teshuvah tataah defies our reason, and the human reaction to such irrational divine pardon is fear or awe, sheer amazement, as we are overwhelmed by the divine indifference to mere reason and His overruling of necessity and causality (ki imkha ha-selichah le'maan tivarei).

In the major elaboration of repentance in the Torah, that of Nitzavim, both forms of teshuvah are mentioned, but there is a clear separation between them. Thus, verses 1-6 apply to teshuvah tataah, while the following four verses, 7-10, refer to teshuvah ilaah.

R. Shneur Zalman maintains that the Higher Repentance is addressed to God as the Ein-Sof, as the Infinite beyond all relationship, and is achieved through the study of Torah. The Lower Repentance involves an encounter with God in His self-revelation via the Sefirot, the Ten Emanations of His attributes, and proceeds through performance of the mitzvot. This is a most reasonable view, in light of the role of man in both forms of teshuvah. In the sin-driven Lower Repentance, a human being strives to reintegrate his personality the wholeness of which has been shattered by sin, and it stands to reason that he should appeal to God in His role of personality, i.e., the Ten Sefirot. This reintegration of one's personality is an expression of the psychological dimension of sin and repentance--and this is characteristic of the mitzvot, with their positive and negative modes of conduct both expressing and influencing one's will and emotions.. When it comes to the Higher Repentance, however, which is the yearning to rejoin the Source of all being, it is not man's psychic state that moves him but his spiritual fate, his metaphysical and meta-psychological search for his ontological origins. In this stance, therefore, he addresses the Ein-Sof proper, that inner and ineffable essence of Divinity which is beyond personality, beyond the Sefirot, beyond relationship, beyond even divine transcendence itself. This more exalted form of teshuvah finds its channel only in the study of Torah, the realm of the "Light of the Ein-Sof."

Which of these two forms of repentance is superior? The question may be irrelevant; both are vital in the development and growth-perhaps very existence-of a religious person.

In the Nitzavim passage, as we mentioned above, the progression is from Lower Repentance to Higher Repentance, implying that the latter is the more significant goal for which the former is the necessary precursor. Yet an analysis of the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah tends to the reverse conclusion. Thus, Rosh Hashanah hardly speaks of sin at all. Its most cogent and significant message is that of the majesty of God-malkhuyot-and the sounding of the Shofar, the symbol of the Sinaitic revelation. The Shofar is the wordless cry of the supplicant aching in his spiritual solitude and calling out to his Creator with whom he seeks not reconciliation (for it is not sin that alienates him from the Creator but his very humanity) but reunion, reintegration, the overcoming of the "real" world which creates the distance between Creator and creature, between the divine and the human. Reconciliation after sin is the theme of Yom Kippur, and the whole range of Lower Repentance is evident throughout the day: viduy is recited time and again, the shame and embarrassment attendant upon chet is pervasive, the plea for pardon, for selichah u-mechilah is repeated again and again. The progression from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur is thus one of teshuvah ilaah to teshuvah tataah, the opposite direction from that mentioned in Nitzavim, and one which, by the same token, would indicate the higher level of teshuvah ilaah over that of teshuvah tataah.

Perhaps the answer lies in the perspective taken. The Torah is, as it were, the divine point of view: God's anthropology. Here the Higher Repentance is the ultimate desideratum. The cycle of the year, the precedence of Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, reflects the human experience and therefore the human perspective, and so the final goal is teshuvah tataah, the Lower Repentance, for this more directly affects one's conduct and therefore his daily life. Or, perhaps, the priority of Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, and the different forms of repentance they represent, is meant to instill in us an awareness of the ultimate goal of all our aspirations, indeed all of our lives, before we proceed to the "practical" task of mending what we have broken in the course of our imperfect existence of the past year.

Both of these exalted experiences should be with us, especially during this season of repentance, buttressing our spiritual courage and our determination to master our studies and, even more important, our very selves. May we succeed in thse noble endeavors, and may our study of Torah and performance of the mitzvot be enhanced by the consciousness of their respective spiritual achievements, and thus inspire us to higher aspirations in both realms.

May all of, as we enter the new year 5759, succeed in both endeavors, and may the Ribbono shel Olam grant each of us, all our loved ones, all Israel, and all humanity, a year of peace and prosperity, of reconciliation with Him and with each other. And may our ultimate goals be so lofty that we can never fully achieve them--and yet so inspiring that we never despair of so doing.

Originally published in Hamevasser August 1998.

Dr. Norman Lamm, is a distinguished rabbi, philosopher and teacher. He is the author of 10 books and many articles in academic and popular journals. His two most recent volumes are The Shema: Spirituality and Law in Judaism and The Religious Thought of Hasidism: Text and Commentary