The diverse world of teshuvah


If you ask most Jews, “What is the name of the next holy day after Rosh Hashanah,” they would probably respond with, “Yom Kippur.” They would answer in this fashion, since it is the popular name for this Yom Tov even though the appellation, “Yom Kippur,” is nowhere to be found in Tanach. Instead, on two occasions in Vayikra, we encounter the expressions, “Yom HaKippurim” and “b’Yom HaKippurim:”

“But on the tenth of this seventh month [Tishrei], it is a day of atonement (Yom HaKippurim), it shall be a holy occasion for you; you shall afflict yourselves, and you shall offer up a fire offering to the L-rd.” (23:27)

“You shall proclaim [with] the shofar blasts, in the seventh month, on the tenth of the month; on the Day of Atonement (b’Yom HaKippurim), you shall sound the shofar throughout your land. (25:9)

My rebbe and mentor, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zatzal (the Rav), was intrigued by the Torah’s use of the plural construct “kippurim” (“atonements”) rather than “kippur” (“atonement”). As such, he asked, “Why does the Torah refer to the day in the plural, as Yom ha-Kippurim?” (This, and the following quotations of the Rav, are from Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “Darosh Darash Yosef: Discourses of Rav Yosef Dov Halevi Soloveitchik on the Weekly Parashah,” edited by Rabbi Avishai C. David, pages 258-260)

The Rav’s initial response sets the tone for his overall analysis: “The answer is that one may do teshuvah [the process and act of repentance] in many ways, and G-d accepts all of them.” This statement is conceptually based upon the following Talmudic passage:

Reish Lakish said: Great is repentance, for because of it, premeditated sins are accounted as errors, as it is said: ‘Return, O Israel, to the L-rd your G-d, for you have stumbled in your iniquity.’ (Hoshea 14:2) ‘Iniquity’ is premeditated, and yet he [Hoshea] calls it ‘stumbling!’ But that is not so! For Reish Lakish said [at a different time] that repentance is so great that premeditated sins are accounted as though they were merits, as it is said: And when a wicked man repents of his wickedness and performs justice and righteousness, he shall live because of them.” (Yechezkel 33:14) That is no contradiction: One refers to a case [of teshuvah] derived from love [teshuvah me-ahavah wherein sins are accounted as merits], the other to one due to fear [teshuvah mi-yirah wherein sins are accounted as errors]. (Talmud Bavli, Yoma 86b)

The Rav summarizes and expands upon this passage in a manner that significantly informs our understanding of the varieties of teshuvah:

“One may do teshuvah in many ways, and G-d accepts all of them. Teshuvah may be sincere, turbulent, or exultant. Whether it is teshuvah me-ahavah – repentance motivated by love – or teshuvah mi-yirah – repentance motivated by fear – G-d in His mercy accepts it. The plural phrase, “Yom ha-Kippurim” reflects the diverse world of teshuvah whether it arises from reflection, joy or sadness.

I believe the Rav’s phrase, “the diverse world of teshuvah,” does a great deal to advance our comprehension of teshuvah and, by extension, Yom HaKippurim. Teshuvah is not a “one size fits all” experience. Instead, just like the Jewish people is comprised of many different kinds of individuals, teshuvah is pluralistic in nature. As such, Yom HaKippurim itself, wherein “the mitzvat ha-yom (the mitzvah of the day) is teshuvah,” (p. 258) is equally multifaceted in nature. Therefore, no two people share the exact same experience of this exceptionally holy day, since for some, teshuvah me-ahavah is the order of the moment, and for others, teshuvah mi-yirah. The key is that the Master of the Universe accepts all varieties of teshuvah, as long as they represent a heartfelt desire to re-encounter and reconnect with Him.

The prophet Hoshea declared long ago, “Return, O Israel, to the L-rd your G-d, for you have stumbled in your iniquity.” (14:2) With Hashem’s help, and our fervent passion to reunite with Him, may this Yom ha-Kippurim be the time when we undertake the teshuvah process, each in our own unique way, and thereby merit the fulfillment of the verse, “You are children of the L-rd, your G-d.” (Devarim 14:1) V’chane yihi ratzon.