How Not To Do Teshuva

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Maimonides, in his presentation of the Laws of Repentance (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuva 1:1) states that the actual mitzvah of teshuva, in requesting forgiveness from God, consists of four parts:

1) identifying the exact nature of the transgression
2) expressing regret, including embarrassment, for this behaviour
3) committing to never again repeating this incorrect action and
4) verbally enunciating these details, even just to oneself.

What we learn from this is that the concept of teshuva consists of both a contemplation of the past and a consideration for the future; in fact, a unified perception of life. This is a combined dimension that is, unfortunately, often not recognized.
There are individuals, for example, who feel terrible about some past behaviour, even feel intense regret for these incorrect actions, but still do not change their behaviour, repeating, thereby, this experience again and again. As such, any self-perception of some sort of repentance emerges solely, in this person’s mind, in this personal self-recrimination – the remorse over what one did and, thus, who someone is.
There is no connection with any commitment or consideration of change, of refraining from such negative actions. Even more so, change is not even contemplated, as there is a further belief that people cannot really change. The perception is that one is simply who one is. There is, thus, only regret without change – a view of the past without consideration of the future.  
Then there are individuals who may arrive at some decision that one’s behaviour is no longer appropriate and, as such, will decide to change it, but without any accompanying regret for past behaviour. It is just that the person now believes this past behaviour will no longer sail and, thus, wishes to change it. Any self-perception of repentance emerges solely from this transformation in performance. Regret for the behaviour that is now rejected is not existent for the perception is still that it was inevitable and thus acceptable given the past circumstances. The perception is simply that new circumstances demand new behaviour. There is only change without regret – a consideration of the future without a view of the past.
The fact is, though, that the true standard of teshuva demands both regret and change. What is so wrong, though, with either the teshuva of solely regret or of solely change? In the regard to the former, we can say that, still, the person is acting inappropriately but what is so wrong with the latter, after all the bad behaviour is no longer existent? The issue is what is being said about the self.
The Hebrew word teshuva is inherently tied to the concept of return; teshuva is a return to our essential, true self and a return to God. It is thus not solely about action. It is about seeing who I truly am. This is where both of these forms of incomplete attempts at repentance fail.
The one who only feels regret but does not change often further believes that people really cannot change. That is why change is often not even considered. This is why the regret does not even lead to a contemplation of change. This person has but one vision of the self and it is locked in. It is thus even futile to attempt change; transformation is believed to be really impossible. Such a person thus believes that the most that can be demanded of him/her is an acceptance of his/her inherent weakness as a self. Teshuva actually demands a belief in a better self.
The one who changes behaviour but without regret also suffers from a lack of belief in a better self. The lack of regret indicates that any change in behaviour is not because there is a fundamental transformation in how the person understands, in essence, himself/herself but because something – peripheral and/or circumstantial -- just changed. I liked this yesterday; now I don’t but, in that I liked it yesterday I have no regrets – in fact, can have no regrets for that’s who I was. There is no perception that one should not have liked this yesterday, that yesterday one should have acted differently. Regret indicates a recognition that a better self was already existent in the person; the problem was that he/she was not in touch with it. Teshuva demands that we recognize that the better self toward which we should strive is already within us.
There is a famous story told of Rabbeinu Saadia Gaon that he used to, every day, roll down a hill in penitence for not being the person yesterday that he was today. The story always perplexed me: shouldn’t this be the very purpose of growth, to be someone better today than who someone was yesterday? Rabbeinu Saadia was teaching us a very important lesson – that better person is actually already within us. Our problem is that we don’t sense this and ache toward it.
Life involves bringing this true self into daily existence through our behaviour. As such, our constant endeavour must always be to bring our actions in line with our true and better self – this is the commitment to change. In this process, there must also always be disappointment when we do not act in line with our true selves – this is the demanded feeling of regret. Teshuva is that process of motion leading to a connection with that true and better self that is within. In meeting this standard, we must necessarily look both to the future and the past to unite our lives in the recognition of this true and better self.
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht is the Founding Director of Nishma, which fosters the critical investigation of contemporary issues. For further info, see and You can follow Rabbi Hecht on Twitter @NishmaTorah.
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