Repentance and Forgiveness – Two Sides of One Coin: Reframing the Past and Changing the Future

This article was the basis for two learning session (links to the video clips at the bottom of the article) we held prior to Rosh HaShanah.  During this learning, we tried to better understand the deeper meaning of Teshuvah, the Hebrew word for Repentance (among other meanings as well).  It may be perceived as a preface to understand one of the cornerstones of the High Holidays liturgy, Unetaneh Tokef

Various Meanings of the Root Shin Vav Bet (ש ו ב)

First is to return something back to its origin – possession, lost and found, changing a situation to its ‘status quo ante’ – the state of affairs that existed previously.

The second use of this root is to denote a response. It might be a response to a question – an answer.  Or it also might be a response to something someone else said – a comment, an argument.

The third meaning is again: when something is repeated more than once or twice, we use the Hebrew word SHUV (Samuel 1, 26:21):

Shaul said, “I am in the wrong, again, my son David.

וַיֹּ֩אמֶר֩ שָׁא֨וּל חָטָ֜אתִי שׁ֣וּב בְּנִֽי דָוִ֗ד

The fourth meaning is repentance, and going (back) to observance of the Jewish faith and to HaShem.  Usually, it goes together with the verb “turn back, repeat” in repentance (Talmud, Sanhedrin 105a):

The prophet said to the Jewish people: [go back in] repentance.

אָמַר לָהֶן נָבִיא לְיִשְׂרֳאֵל חִזְרוּ בִּתְשׁוּבָה

Deuteronomy 30:1-3 is a perfect example of the use of the root ש. ו. ב.. In its multiple meanings.  This repetition, even though has different meaning each time the root is used adds significant depth and meaning to these verses:

When all these words and things, befall upon you—the blessing and the curse that I have set before you – you will return them into your heart [take them to heart] amidst all the various nations to which the LORD your God has banished you,

You will return-repent to the LORD your God, and will attentively listen to his voice, heeding to His commandments that I am enjoining upon you today – you and your children – with all your heart and soul,

then the LORD your God will return to him [take back, accept] your return-repent and will have mercy on you; He will return you to be together [as and where you have been in the past] from all the peoples where the LORD your God has scattered you.

וְהָיָה֩ כִֽי יָבֹ֨אוּ עָלֶ֜יךָ כׇּל הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֗לֶּה הַבְּרָכָה֙ וְהַקְּלָלָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָתַ֖תִּי לְפָנֶ֑יךָ וַהֲשֵׁבֹתָ֙ אֶל לְבָבֶ֔ךָ בְּכׇ֨ל הַגּוֹיִ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֧ר הִדִּיחֲךָ֛ יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ שָֽׁמָּה׃

וְשַׁבְתָּ֞ עַד יְהֹוָ֤ה אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ וְשָׁמַעְתָּ֣ בְקֹל֔וֹ כְּכֹ֛ל אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִ֥י מְצַוְּךָ֖ הַיּ֑וֹם אַתָּ֣ה וּבָנֶ֔יךָ בְּכׇל לְבָבְךָ֖ וּבְכׇל נַפְשֶֽׁךָ׃

וְשָׁ֨ב יְהֹוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ אֶת שְׁבוּתְךָ֖ וְרִחֲמֶ֑ךָ וְשָׁ֗ב וְקִבֶּצְךָ֙ מִכׇּל הָ֣עַמִּ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֧ר הֱפִֽיצְךָ֛ יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ שָֽׁמָּה׃

The Origin of Teshuvah

According to Talmud (Nedarim 39b), Repentance was created before the creation of the world:  Repentance was created before the world was created, as it is written: “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever You had formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God” (Psalms 90:2), and it is written immediately afterward: “You return man to contrition; and You say: Repent, children of man” (Psalms 90:3).

Rabbi Sacks explains that God was creating the antidot before the problem for which the antidot is there to cure.  On the Sixth Day of Creation, God formed the human being in His own Image and His Likeness (Genesis 1:26-27).  We may be dust of the earth, yet within us IS the breath of God.  God’s breath IS our freedom to make choices and act upon them, for better or worse.  The antidot God prepared preemptively to the bad choices we may do is Teshuvah, Repentance.

Rabbi Steinsaltz in his “Thirteen Petalled Rose” elaborated on the significance of this.  ‘The implication of this 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 enables 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.’

Rambam adds that to the same extent that man sins consciously and of his own free will, man should turn to repentance consciously and of his own free will.

I would add that Repentance oi universal and not just given to the Jewish People; after all, it was created before Man, and as such apply to all humanity.

Rambam on Teshuvah in His Mishneh Torah

But sins between man and man (one who injures, or curses, or offends one’s neighbor) are ever not absolved unless one makes restitution and begs the forgiveness of his neighbor.  One should repeat the plea for forgiveness in public several times.  If the other remains obstinate, one may pass on, for the sin then rests upon the other who refuses forgiveness.

It is forbidden for man to be ill-natured and unforgiving, for he must be easily appeased.  When a sinner implores him for pardon, one should grant the sinner pardon wholeheartedly and soulfully and not be vengeful and grudge-bearing.

One who committed a sin against a friend, and the friend died before he asked his forgiveness, should bring ten adults at his grave and there say: “I have sinned against the Lord God of Israel and against this man (naming him), and I have done against him thus and such (naming the sins).”  That is in addition to make restitution to the deceased heirs to the tribunal (community).

It is, nevertheless, a grievous sin to say to the Ba’al Teshuvah (repentant): “Remember your former conduct” or even to mention similar subjects so as to put one to shame. 

It is necessary for every man to behold himself throughout the whole year in a light of being evenly balanced between innocence and guilt, and look upon the entire world as if evenly balanced between innocence and guilt.  Thus, if one commit one sin, one will overbalance oneself and the whole world to the side of guilt and be a cause of its destruction.  And in a similar fashion, if one performs one Mitzvah, one will overbalance oneself and the whole world to the side of virtue, and brings to all redemption.

Rabbi Sacks on the Three Phases of Repentance that Lead to Forgiveness

Rabbi Sacks refers to the Story of Yosef and his brothers, when they come to Egypt for food.  The brothers, not recognizing Yosef, are in jail because Yosef’s challis (that he himself planted) was found in Binyamin’s satchel.

The first phase of repentance is admission and remorse.  The brothers say to one another (Genesis 42:21): “Truly we are guilty [aval ashemim anaḥnu] because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen.”  The words “aval ashemim anaḥnu”, reverberate throughout our prayers on Yom Kippur. Taking responsibility to our wrongdoing, and demonstrate remorse represent the first stage of repentance.

The second phase is confession.  Yehudah is the lead in the process (ibid 44:16): “What can we say? How can we prove our innocence? God has uncovered your servants’ guilt.”  Yosef, in response, puts them to the ultimate test, to see if they truly repent.  He puts them in a similar situation to his own, by enabling them to chose freedom and leave Binyamin behind in jail.

Yehudah shows that he is already at the third phase of repentance: Behavioral Change.  The circumstances repeat themselves and create an opportunity to commit the same offense again.  Yet, Yehudah refrains from doing so because he has changed (ibid 44:33):  “So now let me remain as your slave in place of the lad.”

Then, comes forgiveness.  Yosef reframes the past as he reveals his identity to his brothers and forgives them for their past transgression (ibid 45:4-5).  “I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.  So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God.” 

Rabbi Soloveitchik on the Two Aspects of Sin and Teshuvah

There are two aspects to the effect of sin on the human being: liability and defilement.  The most obvious one is the burden of culpable liability.  This liability entails with it a punishment, restitution, penalties.  Sin also imposes on the sinner a state of “impurity of sin” that makes a mark on the sinner’s personality.  The sin removes the Divine halo from one’s head, impairing one’s spiritual integrity, a “metaphysical” corruption of the human personality.  As a result of the sin, man is not the same person one was before.

The process of Teshuvah also has two aspects.  The first is Kapparah כַּפָּרָה – – expiation, or acquittal from sin.  The second aspect is Taharah – טָהֲרָה – catharsis, or purification. 

As a result of a sin, an indemnity must be offered and paid to withdraw the liability claim.  The Hebrew for indemnity payment (also for ransom) is KOFER – כֹּפֶר – the very same root of Kapparah.  Kapparah (acquittal, expiation) is the result of the payment of this “ransom” which releases and redeems man from further punishment.  The moment acquittal is granted and punishment wiped from the books, man’s liability is terminated.

The Taharah goes further.  We need to recognize that the Sin does not come out of nothing; it is an outcome of certain environment and conditions that make it happen.  One needs to distance oneself from that environment, conditions and temptations that enable the sin to happen.  For Taharah one needs to completely move away from the Way of Sins, the thoughts that led one to sin.  It is a complete morphosis of the “old” person and the creation of a “new” personality – a new person.

The Duplication of “Adonai, Adonai” in the Thirteen Attributes of God

We recite verses Exodus 34:6-7, the 13 attributes of God, so many times during the High Holidays:

Adonai! Adonai! Compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness;  Extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; [yet He does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.]

יְהֹוָ֣ה  יְהֹוָ֔ה אֵ֥ל רַח֖וּם וְחַנּ֑וּן אֶ֥רֶךְ אַפַּ֖יִם וְרַב חֶ֥סֶד וֶאֱמֶֽת׃ נֹצֵ֥ר  חֶ֙סֶד֙ לָאֲלָפִ֔ים נֹשֵׂ֥א עָוֺ֛ן וָפֶ֖שַׁע וְחַטָּאָ֑ה וְנַקֵּה֙ [לֹ֣א יְנַקֶּ֔ה פֹּקֵ֣ד עֲוֺ֣ן אָב֗וֹת עַל בָּנִים֙ וְעַל בְּנֵ֣י בָנִ֔ים עַל שִׁלֵּשִׁ֖ים וְעַל רִבֵּעִֽים׃]

The Talmud (Rosh HaShanah tractate, 17b:6) explains: ““The Lord, the Lord,” and it should be understood as follows: I am He before a person sins, and I am He after a person sins and performs repentance…”

Rabbi Soloveitchik expands and explains the Talmudic statement.  The first call out of God’s Name, before the person sins, is the God that the person is distancing away from when a sin is enacted (Isiah 59:2): “But your iniquities have been a barrier Between you and your God separating you form Him, your sins have made Him turn His Face away and refuse to hear you.”

The second call out of God, is the God that stays with us all the time, no matter what we do.  During the Ne’ila service of Yom Kippur we acknowledge:

“You reach out Your hand to transgressors, and Your right hand is extended to receive those who [return] repent.”

אַתָּה נוֹתֵן יָד לַפּוֹשְׁעִים, וִימִינְךָ פְשׁוּטָה לְקַבֵּל שָׁבִים.

The transgressor is trying to release oneself from the shackles and binding ropes of the sin.  He is working hard at it but does not have the required strength to get out.  He needs help, a hand to pull her out. That is “You reach out Your hand to transgressors.”  Then, that person, already on his feet, already starts to stumble along.  How many obstacles are on the way? Numerous and countless.  Just as a parent open the arms when the baby starts walking, ready to embrace the infant before the fall, so is the Right Hand of God stretched out to receive those who are making T’shuva.

Thirteen Attributes of God According to Rabbi Cordovero


Rabbi Moshe Cordovero – RAMAK – (1522-1570) uses two different verses as the 13 attributes of God.  In the introduction to his book “Tomer Devorah” (The Palm Tree of Deborah) he writes (his words are in italics font): 

It is written:   ‘Let us create Human Being in our form-shape [close to be in our own shadow] and our likeness [acting like us, mirroring us, imaging us] (Square parenthesis add meanings from the Hebrew that do not translate in one word).  So it is proper for man to imitate the acts of the Supernal Crown (The Crown is the Highest Sephirah, that “represents” God; All the ten Sephirot are the attributes, emanations, the ways in which the Divine Providence manifests itself in the worlds).  The thirteen highest attributes of mercy hinted at in the verses (Mikha 7:18-20):

1) Who is a God like You, 2) Bears iniquity 3) And remitting transgression; Who has not maintained 4) Against the remnant of His own People 5) His wrath forever, 6) Because He loves graciousness!

7) He will again have compassion on us; 8) He will cover up our iniquities, 9) You will hurl all our sins into the depths of the sea.

10) You will keep faith with Jacob, 11) Loyalty to Abraham, 12) As You promised on oath to our fathers 13) in days gone by.”

מִי אֵ֣ל כָּמ֗וֹךָ נֹשֵׂ֤א עָוֺן֙ וְעֹבֵ֣ר עַל פֶּ֔שַׁע לִשְׁאֵרִ֖ית נַחֲלָת֑וֹ לֹֽא הֶחֱזִ֤יק לָעַד֙ אַפּ֔וֹ כִּֽי חָפֵ֥ץ חֶ֖סֶד הֽוּא׃

יָשׁ֣וּב יְרַחֲמֵ֔נוּ יִכְבֹּ֖שׁ עֲוֺנֹתֵ֑ינוּ וְתַשְׁלִ֛יךְ בִּמְצֻל֥וֹת יָ֖ם כׇּל חַטֹּאותָֽם׃

תִּתֵּ֤ן אֱמֶת֙ לְיַֽעֲקֹ֔ב חֶ֖סֶד לְאַבְרָהָ֑ם אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּ֥עְתָּ לַאֲבֹתֵ֖ינוּ מִ֥ימֵי קֶֽדֶם׃

These verses are read in the Haftarah of Shabbat Shuvah (Shabbat Return, the Shabbat between Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur) and on Yom Kippur itself, concluding the reading of the book of Yona. 

In ‘Tomer Devorah’ Rabbi Moshe Cordovero explains in details how to act according to each of these 13 attributes which are connected to the Sephira of Keter (Crown).  Furthermore, he also elaborates the meaning of the rest of the 9 Sephirot and how to further imitate God emanations.  Let us explore only a few of them.

Who is God like you?

God is referred to as a Patient King, that is insulted by the sins of Man, and yet, bears this insult in a manner that is beyond Man’s understanding.  The Divine affluence is constantly and continually pouring into Man and enables Man’s existence and actions.  Even though Man uses it for sin, that divine power is not withheld from Man in any way.  It is in the power of the Divine to arrest the flow of the affluence.  Yet, the Holy One, Blessed be He, bears this insult and suffering while He continues to empower man to move his limbs even though man uses the power in that movement for sin. 

This is a virtue man should make his own: be patient and allow oneself to be insulted to that extent and yet not refuse to bestow one’s goodness to the recipients.

It is important to note that sin here is not necessarily intentional.  It may be “missing the mark,” another meaning of the Hebrew word, ḥet.

That Bears Iniquity

The former attribute refers to acts that are not intentional, not done in malice.  HaShem acts in the same way even towards those who transgress intentionally.  He bears the sin and endures it until the sinner repents Or the Righteous Judge brings suffering or death upon the sinner.   

From which Man should learn the degree of patience in bearing his fellow human being yoke and the evils done by him even when those evils still exist.  He bears with his fellow until the wrong is righted or it vanishes of its own accord.

And remitting transgression

The Holy One, Blessed be He, IS the one that grants pardon on sins.  It is as if He washes away the sin, as it is written (Isiah 4:4): ‘When the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion.’  ‘And remitting transgression’: means that He pours out clean water, goes over and washes away the sin on His own initiative, by Himself.  From this one can learn the depth of shame in sinning: for if the King is the One that cleanses the filthy garments of the sinner, the sinner would be ashamed and encouraged not to sin again.

Man, imitating God, should be proactive in expunging and washing clean the insult, injury, that caused by another human being. 

How do we translate it into our own actions?  Rather than wait for our fellow to come and ask forgiveness from us, we should seek them and forgive them even before they come and ask for it.  After all, we assume that the person that wronged us did it by mistake, inadvertently.  Their actions were with all the good intentions. They probably might not know that their actions offended us.  Obviously, they are not aware that they need to ask for our forgiveness.  The cows will come home way before that person will realize the need for asking our forgiveness.  

The first step is easy.  We remember very well all the smallest details of those incidents that hurt, offended and wronged us. 

The next step is to forgive ourselves.  We forgive and letting go the anger, the resentment and the negative feelings that we bear because of that incidence. We bear no grudge and the desire for vengeance is no longer there.  This ‘self-forgiveness’ enables the room for the final step, the hardest of them all.

This is when we can act and approach the person that wronged us.  It requires the full and complete honesty with oneself as with the other.  After all, if we are not honest with ourselves, we are not really ready to forgive.  We are still left with the hurt feelings and the grudge.  The fellow human that wronged us is still left in the darkness of lack of knowledge what went wrong in the relationship and unable to better oneself. 

Approaching this step full-heartedly eases the burden from our own soul, and opens the door to renewed and better relationship.

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