Tuesday, October 4, 2011

תשובה Teshuva, I Can't Relate to The Word as "Return"

This philosophical-linguistic question was brought up by me at a class I took on תשובה Teshuva in Pardes, taught by Rabbi Reuven Grodner. It has been bothering me for a very long time. When I first became religious, I had never heard of BT's, Ba'alei teshuva or even simple "teshuva."  The term/phrase I heard in NCSY, in the middle 1960's was simply "becoming religious."  Yes, that's what I did.

תשובה Teshuva is generally explained as from the Hebrew root שב "return."  תשובה Teshuva is translated as "repentance."
1. deep sorrow, compunction, or contrition for a past sin, wrongdoing, or the like.
2. regret for any past action.
No doubt that for some people, repentance is a return to a more Torah observant or moral life after "lapses." But I didn't come from a Torah observant family.  For me to return to something in my past I'd be shedding mitzvot, not adding to them.

Don't get me wrong.  I grew up in a strongly Jewish home.  My parents were always members of a synagogue and that includes today, living in an "American," non-Jewish old age home in Arizona, they are members of a shul.  My sister makes every effort to "take them to services."  I graduated a Conservative Hebrew School, Oakland Jewish Center, Bayside, NY, but I had no idea of kashrut, Shabbat and most of the Holidays.  My religious grandparents both died when I was very young, so I didn't have religious experiences growing up.

One thing I want to make clear is that my parents have always been scrupulously honest, caring, good citizens, neighbors etc.  During World War Two, when my father served in the United States Navy, he was known as "the Jew" and proud of it.  For my parents, the good they've always done make them "good Jews."

For me personally, in the past forty-five years plus since I first began making an effort to live a Torah life, most of what I've been learning has been totally new.  So, how can תשובה Teshuva  mean "return?"  To what, where am I supposed to be returning? 

All I can think of is the "story" that as fetuses in the womb, we "learn" everything in Torah, and it empties from our minds as we are born. I can't accept that, because babies are spiritually more like angels.  They don't sin.  That's not because they choose not to; it's because they're incapable.  It can't be that the ideal we wish to attain is "incapability."

I picture my spiritual self more as a many-armed creature trying to climb up to a goal of Jewish spiritual perfection, but not all of the "arms" are on the same level. Some a still far down and have a very long way to go/grow.

As Rabbi Grodner taught us during the courses I took the past four Mondays, man has free will.  We choose whether to obey G-d or disobey, and we also choose whether or not to repent and ask G-d's forgiveness.

Shannah Tovah
Gmar Chatima Tovah


Sara said...

Hi Batya, The term Teshuva as return, means to return to God, as stated "Shuva Yisrael ad Hashem Elokecha" Return to Hashem. It makes it so much more beautiful to understand the meaning of the hebrew words and makes so much more sense.

Sara said...

Actually, to add to that, the reason why we understand teshuva to mean repentance, is because if we truly want to be close to Hashem and to return to Him, then we will want to do His will. In addition, our sins create barriers between us and Hashem, and therefore, if we truly want to be close to Him, then we will be careful not to sin. Therefore, if we want to be close to Him and return to Him, then we will examine our deeds and choose to live our life the way we should be.

Hadassa said...

I learned something slightly different about the returning-to-baby status.In a nutshell, it's not a matter of being incapable, or infallible or lacking in free will, but rather a longing to return to the status in which one knows all of the Torah.

Batya said...

Sara, to return means that you had once been there and left. In my conscious life I had never been there, in a world of Torah.

Hadassa, that doesn't make me feel any better.

I can understand repentance as a striving to a greater spiritual level according to G-d's laws. It's an "aliya," going up. for me it's a new world, not an old familiar one, except for the feeling that it's comfortable, where I need to be.

Keliata said...

IMO--teshuva can also be considered humility. There is a very short psalm (I can't recall the exact one) in which King David compares himself as a baby depending on Hashem for nurishment.

Maybe humility is a form of teshuva; relying on Hashem and his wisdom. For some it is a return but...I think everyone should be a bit more humble.

I can't recall the Hebrew word for humility. Different no doubt from teshuva I am sure.

Batya said...

Keli, why humility. To repent we use our G-d given powers for good.

Keliata said...

I'm not sure myself Batya:( I have always felt that in order for me to repent and do good I had to humble myself and recognize that Hashem and the Torah.

Just my own personal opinions and experiences...humility is hard and to admit wrong, turn to Hashem and accept His truth of what is good requires humility. Maybe that comes befor Teshuva.

Then again, Jews have a spark of the divine in our souls so maybe good is in us to begin with, we ignore it for a while and have to return.

I don't know. I guess I don't fully understand teshuva, only that it typically applies to the non-observant returning to Hashem.

Batya said...

Keli, teshuva is a lot more complex and "active" than trying to change one's personality. Teshuva is reflecting on one's past, finding the mistakes/sins and trying to correct them. And after that making sure we don't do the same sin/mistake in a similar situation.

Anonymous said...

I think that the term baal teshuva was intended for someone who came from a frum home, sinned and did teshuva for it. The rest of us are tinok shenishba.

Baal tshuva can also be someone who has found the answer.

Batya said...

a, I think that's what it means in terms of linguistics and halacha, but as "slang" it means anyone who has adopted a Torah Life.