The Pain and Pleasure of Teshuva


By Ariella Bracha Waldinger

582749main_sunrise_from_iss-4x3_946-710In our monthly Rosh Chodesh gathering of women at our home recently, the question was asked, “What is teshuvah?” In Jewish tradition, teshuva is translated as a return to the original state of balance in our relationship with HaShem and our fellow man. Teshuva is a concept of repentance whereby we atone for our sins through several stages: recognizing and admitting our wrongdoings; feeling sincere remorse and regret; a verbal expression of our wrongdoings; and doing everything in our power to undo any damage that has been done. The Torah mandates that if a specific person has been wronged, the offender must ask that person for forgiveness in order to complete their teshuva. The final stage is resolving to never commit the wrong again.

Some say teshuva is painful and others say it is pleasurable. The truth is most of our lives we operate from the pain and pleasure principle. The pain and pleasure principle was originally addressed by Sigmund Freud, a renowned Jewish psychiatrist who presented this idea in his “Project for a Scientific Psychology” in 1895. He suggests that everything we do is motivated by two fundamental desires: one is to gain pleasure and the other is to avoid pain.  How does this pain and pleasure concept show up in the teshuva process?

In an enlightening and inspiring book on the topic of teshuva titled, “Sparks of David” by Rabbi David Hertzberg zt”l, the author elaborates on a commentary of Rav Shlomo Carlebach zt”l on the book, “Orot HaTeshuvah” by Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohein Kook zt”l. Three giants of Torah knowledge expound on the concept of teshuvah. I treasure this book because it simplifies the concept of teshuvah and claims it as the most natural process of being Jewish. Rav David, the author, states that most people go back to doing the same things year after year because they do not understand what true teshuvah is. He says most people relate to teshuvah as a negative experience i.e. painful, when in fact, it is the most natural thing to do i.e. pleasurable. In truth, it is an incredibly joyful experience which brings an extraordinary sense of personal renewal.

Rav Kook wanted to put an end to the myth that there is a limit to how much teshuva one can do. He specifically wrote the book, “Orot HaTeshuva (The Lights of Repentance) to show us clearly that teshuva is the most joyous experience in the world and is ongoing.  Rav Kook goes on to explain that we cannot feel that teshuva is something we are being forced to do because he says it is the most natural means for a person to return to being who they really are as a Jew. Once a Jew is in that new place, he will feel great about himself and that is ultimately the whole point of teshuva. Rav Shlomo once asked a man, “Why are you so sad?” He answered,” Because I am doing teshuva!” The Rav goes on to explain that if the man is so miserable doing teshuva, then he is obviously not doing teshuva. The mitzvah of teshuva should give us so much joy that there is no question in our mind that this is what we want to do, so that we can return to the “Land of our Soul” as Rav Shlomo Carlebach loved to say. Reb Shlomo saw teshuva as causing our souls to become incredibly alive. Rav Kook says the whole idea of teshuva is about reconnecting.

The Ba’al ShemTov said that one of the signs of our reconnection is how much we love other people. That’s the real test. He explains that the closer one gets to HaShem, the more we see that everyone is made in G-ds image. If we are disconnected from Hashem then we don’t really feel a connection to other people. Rav David says that if I am doing teshuva and it keeps drawing me further away from people, and I don’t have any way to relate to them anymore, my teshuva is flawed.

Another factor in the teshuva process is guilt. It is not Torah mandated that we constantly walk around feeling guilty and beating ourselves up over our guilt. This is considered unhealthy and destructive and is in fact counter-productive. On the other hand Rav Shlomo says that the ability to feel guilty and the ability to fix oneself go hand in hand. He continues, saying that the biggest malady of the ba’al teshuva world is that they are so obsessed by all the things they did wrong, they become depressed and this defeats the whole purpose of teshuva. Rav Shlomo reminds us that we cannot remain stuck in old sins for which we keep repenting year after year like a broken record. Rav Kook says we have to speak directly to HaShem and we have to be filled with joy for the privilege to do so. He also says we have to know what to fix. The point is to take stock, do teshuva and move on. We are supposed to use our guilt to admit the sin which then makes us a better person and lifts us up. What could be better?

Rav David states very strongly that we must know and accept that the essence of teshuva is that when I come to G-d, He is loving and compassionate and He forgives me in one second if I ask with all my heart. Rav kook says that the Torah promises that those who return from transgression will be forgiven. The words of the prophets are filled with lofty ideas in regards to teshuva because no one is perfect and G-d understands this better than anyone.

So why is teshuva a positive experience? As Rav David says, if I do it, I am becoming a better person and that feels great. Then I am imbued with amazing desire, strength and belief knowing I CAN turn to HaShem and He forgives me. The end result of teshuva is extremely dramatic, as we begin to understand who we really are, what we have done, what we are supposed to be doing and how it affects us and the entire world on a cosmic level. This entire experience of teshuva has the ultimate power to transform our sins into merits as Rav Kook says and “to reach the most beautiful, awesomely gorgeous heights like touching spiritual lightning.”

I recommend this 235 page book titled,” Sparks of David” by Rabbi David Herzberg which I have been quoting. It can be purchased at Pomeranz bookstore in Jerusalem for $15.95. It is another great companion for the artful work of teshuva.

My dear friends, I bless you with the deepest longing to get on board that teshuva train and have the ride of your life as you connect to your inner landscape and claim all its magnificence. Ariella Bracha



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