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Teshuva and Joy

Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
Dedicated in memory of Matityahu Moshe Ben Shlomo Mermelstein z"l

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At first glance, one might assume that teshuva expresses only grief, guilt and anxiety. And yet, can it be that teshuva – one of the major axes of divine service – is wholly morose and depressing, with nothing to provide encouragement or to ennoble? My intuitive response is: Chas ve-shalom, impossible! Within the context of Yom Kippur, there is evidence to suggest that the sun breaks through and there is light again.


Prima facie, the emotion of joy is entirely absent from the process of teshuva.[2] As we scour our tradition’s sources that deal with teshuva, their substance and tone present quite the opposite portrayal of the penitent’s psychological state. We begin, of course, with the Rambam and his classic formulation in Hilkhot Teshuva:

Among the paths of repentance is for the penitent to constantly call out before God, crying and entreating, to perform charity to the best of his ability, to distance himself far from the object of his sin…to change his behavior in its entirety to the good and the path of righteousness, and to travel in exile from his home…because it causes a person to be submissive, humble, and meek of spirit. (2:4)

Similarly, the Roke’ach, Rabbi Elazar ben Yehuda of Worms, the last major member of Chassidei Ashkenaz, composed a prayer for a person who wants to accomplish teshuva properly. He stands before God and says:

And I cry with the tears of my heart, streams of water flow forth from my eyes, for the fact that I did not observe Your Torah; the pain and crises of my heart have widened, and I have changed my attire to sack…and I admit my sins before You with the sharp travails of my heart (tzarat libbi)…and I bemoan my sins…. May my bitter tears extinguish Your wrath, extinguish with the blood of my melted heart the fire I have enraged in You…and may the pouring out of my soul wash away my transgressions like water. (Ha-Roke’ach ha-gadol, Hilkhot Teshuva, p. 30, s.v. “tefillat ha-shav be-kol kocho”)

In this excerpt, part of a much longer, heart-rending prayer, the Roke’ach speaks of wellsprings of tears flowing from his eyes, of utter anxiety and sadness. The whole spirit of the piece is the sense of deep mourning and tragedy.

Rabbeinu Yona, in Sha’arei Teshuva, lists some of the primary principles of teshuva.[3] The third one is yagon, the sense of mourning and tragedy: “He should think with deep anxiety and mourning how terrible it is that a person has countermanded the orders of his Creator, and see to it that there is much sadness (yagon) in his heart…and gasp in bitterness.” He continues in this vein about the significance of yagon, and starts the next paragraph, “The different levels of teshuva and its gradations are a function of the extent of bitterness and the intensity of the sadness.”

These citations – drawn from a wide variety of sources and traditions, differing both geographically and by religious temperament – all speak in the same voice: joy is not a concomitant characteristic of teshuva.

The Experience of Sin and Teshuva

If we consider the experience of confronting sin and the urge and effort to redress it, we will confirm our intuition concerning the place of joy in teshuva. This is powerfully expressed in the personal plane by King David, after the prophet Natan forced him to face his transgression. Mizmor 51 conveys the devastating sense of experiencing and confronting sin:

Have mercy upon me, O God…erase my transgressions. Cleanse me abundantly from my iniquity, and purify me from my sin. for I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sins are ever before me. Against You alone have I sinned, and done what is evil in Your sight…. Indeed, I was fashioned in iniquity; with sin my mother conceived me…. Hide Your face from my sins; erase all my iniquities. (Tehillim 51:2–11)

Just as there is no room for joy in this description, joy is likewise absent from the metaphors used to describe sin and teshuva. First, sin is often referred to as a spiritual disease – a disease not the less dangerous and debilitating for being, if not self-induced, at least self-enabled.

Second, sin is often described as tum’a, defilement. In the Bible this term has a dual sense; at times it refers narrowly and technically to a particular halakhic status, and at other times it refers to a general kind of spiritual defilement from sin.[4] Yechezkel (36:25), for example, speaks of how God promises that He will cast pure water upon us and purify us from all the defilements, and the Torah states that on Yom Kippur “You shall be purified before the Lord” (Vayikra 16:30). In addition, we pray on every Shabbat and Festival, “Purify our hearts to serve you with truth.”

Third, beyond the medical and halakhic metaphors, sin is regarded in religious and psychological terms as a failure, both to oneself and to God, which engenders deep shame. The sinner feels ashamed of himself that he was unable to withstand temptation and maintain his standards, and he is ashamed to confront God. Chazal speak of this shame in a positive sense.[5]

Fourth, we often speak of the response to sin in terms of grief and mourning. Megillat Eikha (3:39) states, “Over what shall a living man grieve (yit’onen)? Each one over his own sins.” Yit’onen derives from onen, one who experiences the initial shock immediately after a death, prior to burial, and refers to the sense of grief that is felt at that time.[6] Over what does the sinner feel grief-stricken? His is a threefold concern, relating to past, present, and future. A person asks himself how could he have done such a thing, and he feels defiled. He experiences an almost visceral sense of revulsion, like one who hasn’t showered for a month, or like a person who suddenly feels insects crawling all over him.[7] This is with respect to the past.

In the present, there is a loss of the most valuable and cherished relationship a person can have. The Rambam describes the sinner’s alienation from God as a kind of natural consequence: “Only yesterday [before he repented] this sinner was divided from God, as the verse states (Yeshayahu 59:2), ‘Your iniquities have been a barrier between you and your God’” (Hilkhot Teshuva 7:7). What can be worse for a person than to be cast off from the face of God, to have no access, no relationship?

With regard to the future, the sinner is terribly anxious. He fears that perhaps the alienation is not a temporary phase and that there has been a permanent rupture in the relationship; this greatly aggravates his concern about the alienation. Moreover, he is concerned about possible punishment for the sin. So the mourning touches various bases: revulsion with regard to the past, alienation with respect to the present, and anxiety with regard to the future.

A fifth aspect of the experience of sin is the transgressor’s sense of feeling trapped. As Tehillim graphically expresses:

From where shall I flee from Your spirit and where, from Your face, can I escape? If I go heavenward, You are there; if I want to descend to the netherworld, there You are. If I take wing with the dawn to come to rest on the western horizon, even there Your hand will be guiding me, Your right hand will be holding me fast. (Tehillim 139:7–10)

There is no fleeing, no escape.[8] And while this sense of entrapment appears in a different context in the verse, it would nevertheless greatly exacerbate the experience of sin.

Finally, the experience of sin is one that is conceived in terms of disintegration. One who sins has “a contrite and crushed heart” (Tehillim 51:19), a personality which is no longer a single unit, but broken.[9]

In sum, as we survey the experience of sin and therefore teshuva, there are many strands running through it: a sense of being ill, defiled, and a failure. There is grief and anxiety about the past, present, and future, and a feeling of being trapped and broken. We certainly do not encounter joy, and probably do not expect to.

The Possibility of Joy in Teshuva

And yet, can it be that the world of teshuva – one of the major axes of divine service – is wholly morose and depressing, with nothing to provide encouragement or to ennoble? Does the sun never pierce the clouds of guilt-induced crisis?

Speaking for myself, my intuitive response is: Chas ve-shalom, impossible! Within the context of Yom Kippur, there is evidence to suggest that, at some point, the sun breaks through and there is light again. In the Shulchan Arukh, the ruling is that on the night after Yom Kippur one should eat a semi-festive meal, for it is a bit of a Festival (Rema, Orach Chayim 624:5).[10] And to speak from my own interactions with the Rav z”l, if anybody needed something from him, the best time to speak to him was the night after Yom Kippur, when he was in the best mood of the year. But these instances are both after Yom Kippur, after sin has been dismissed and abolished and we have enjoyed the grace of God. That is not the primary time of the mitzva of teshuva and not the occasion of sin, so it does not quite count as relief within the gloom of sin and repentance.

If we look for some expression of joy in the midst of Yom Kippur itself, we find it in the Musaf service. Near the end of Ammitz Ko’ach (nusach Ashkenaz), after the descriptive account of the Temple service itself has been fully presented, there is a passage that describes the response of Klal Yisrael to the completion of the service:

With purity and cleanliness they will be cleansed and purified; they will be renewed like the new angels of morning…. They will utter from their throat the exaltations of God, glad song with their tongue, new song with their mouth. They will rejoice with trembling, serve with awe the Holy One of Israel, who sanctifies the holy people, to express, to sing, to drum, to sound the cymbal, to conduct the instruments…. [They will be] drawn to approach His gates with glad song, and attaining joy and gladness forever. Joyous and celebrating with His Name all day long, happy with the gladness of His Presence.

The description of joy – not just an inner joy, but festive, almost raucous, celebration: song, dance, use of instruments – takes place in the midst of Yom Kippur, before the day has atoned for our plethora of sins.[11]

But if we are looking for a sense of joy within the process of ­teshuva, this too is small consolation. Our concern is not so much with the result: of course, if forgiveness is attained, who wouldn’t be happy? The question, however, is not how we respond to the conclusion, but to the process. Is our awareness of sin wholly charged with what ­Calvinists would describe as “religious melancholia,” a type of spiritual depression? Is teshuva the kind of semi-clinical, phased phenomenon described in James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, joy appearing only at the ­culmination of the process? Or is there some saving grace, some element of joy inherent in the process that is licit and perhaps even demanded, despite the pervasive anxiety and the sense of tension? My personal, intuitive answer is an emphatic yes, but I need to elucidate my sources and reasoning.

The notion that some element of simcha, joy, can be conceived within the context of sin and teshuva has halakhic ramifications. The halakha is that if yom tov comes in the midst of shiva, the yom tov abrogates the shiva. This is unlike Shabbat, where private mourning, devarim she-betzin’a, is still in effect. What about Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Kippur? The Tannaim debate this (Mo’ed Katan 19a), and we rule that these days also abrogate shiva. The Rav z”l assumed that this could only be if joy were part of the character of the day, and therefore, in experiential terms, a day could not be both one of mourning and one of joy. Apparently, then, the Tannaim thought that joy applies on Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Kippur.[12]

Similarly, the Rosh (Rosh Ha-shana 4:14) quotes a version of prayer that we, today, have abandoned. In the holiday Amida, after “Atta vechartanu, You have chosen us,” the second part begins “Va-titten lanu Hashem Elokeinu be-ahava, You have given us, Lord our God, with love.” On the regalim, we continue with the phrase “mo’adim le-simcha ­chaggim u-zemanim le-sasson, Festivals for celebration, holidays and times for joy,” but we omit these words on Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Kippur. The Rosh quotes Ge’onim who did have this version, reflecting the fact that the High Holidays were part of a complex of joyful holidays. Apparently, for these Ge’onim some form of joy is not only a desideratum but a conscious aim of these days, a part of their reality.[13] Of course, Chazal stressed the awesome moment and sense of anxiety of these days sufficiently to exclude the recitation of Hallel.[14] This fact notwithstanding, these Ge’onim saw that the element of simcha could be part of the definition of a day that is pervaded by and devoted to teshuva.

Joy as Part of Avodat Hashem

To put it differently, the possibility that an element of simcha should relate to teshuva cannot be foreclosed, and I say this with respect to three distinct elements, each progressively more focused. First, the Rambam, after his account of Simchat Beit Ha-sho’eva (Hilkhot Lulav 8:15) and the great festivity that characterized it, concludes with a more general statement about joy with regard to divine service:

The happiness with which a person should rejoice in the fulfillment of the mitzvot and the love of God who commanded them is a great service. Whoever holds himself back from this is worthy of retribution, as the verse states (Devarim 28:47): “Because you did not serve the Lord, your God, in joy and good-heartedness”…. There is no greatness or honor other than celebrating before God, as the verse states (II Shemuel 6:16): “King David was dancing wildly before the Lord.”

The joy and love of God that a person experiences during the performance of a mitzva is, itself, a great avoda, a great expression in the service of God. The proof text that the Rambam cites is from the tokhacha, the rebuke passage of Devarim, and comes after a long list of frightful things that are going to occur should the people sin: “Because you did not serve the Lord, your God, in joy and good-heartedness and plentitude” (Devarim 28:47). This is normally taken to mean that when things were going well, you did not worry about God, turning to Him instead only in times of crisis. The tokhacha is therefore saying, inasmuch as you didn’t worship God, and you revolted when you were in a state of prosperity and joy, now you will suffer and be forced to turn to Him under conditions of desolation and desperation. Rabbeinu Bachya,[15] however, explains the verse differently. It is not that you didn’t worship God when you were prosperous; on the contrary, you worshipped Him – but it was lackluster and mechanical worship, lacking all simcha. Presumably, Rabbeinu Bachya is basing himself on this statement of the Rambam,[16] who apparently sees in this verse a source for the concept that the ­simcha that is to accompany a mitzva is an avoda in itself. Now let us ask ourselves: if, indeed, our avoda must be done with joy, would this not apply to mitzvot such as teshuva as well?

Thus, the first link between teshuva and joy relates to avoda generally. We can now go a step further, relating to avoda more narrowly. Chazal understood the term “avoda” as it appears in the Torah in a variety of ways: at times, it refers to the whole world of our relationship with God,[17] while in other contexts, such as the verse in Keriat Shema, “and to serve Him with all your heart and soul” (Devarim 11:13),[18] Chazal took pains to establish a separate category of mitzvot that are defined as avoda in a more specific sense. After rejecting the possibility that the sacrificial order is meant, since that was addressed elsewhere, two answers are offered: one is “le-ovdo zo tefilla,” the other is “le-ovdo zeh talmud,” service of God as manifest in prayer and in Torah study. There are thus three mitzvot that have been singled out to be avoda: sacrifices, Torah study, and prayer.

Pondering this midrash halakha, we can ask ourselves: how exclusive is this club of mitzvot? If we seek the entry card into this distinctive group, we would say these are mitzvot that involve not just a particular performance, but rather entail the totality of one’s relationship to God, particularly the meeting with the Shekhina and one’s submission and servitude. This is what prayer is all about, and Chazal deemed Torah study a vivifying and pervasive experience as well.[19] If these are the general criteria, then teshuva, which involves not only the depth and intensity of one’s relationship with God, but the very existence of the relationship itself, must qualify as avoda as well. And if joy is essential for avoda in general, how much more so should it be part of mitzvot that are more intensively avoda! Just as joy needs to accompany prayer and Torah study, as we recite in the birkhot ha-Torah, “Please make the words of the Torah sweet in our mouths,” joy must likewise accompany teshuva.

The first two respects related to teshuva as part of larger categories. But what is the nature of joy in relation to teshuva specifically? Here we come to a third dimension: I think it is endemic and inherent within the experience of teshuva – not only of its denouement, but of the process itself, isolated from its benefits. A midrash[20] addresses a stark contradiction between two verses in Tehillim:

One verse states, “Serve the Lord with joy” (Tehillim 100:2), but another verse states, “Serve the Lord with fear” (Tehillim 2:11)! Rabbi Aivo taught, when you stand in prayer, your heart should be glad (“yehei libbekha same’ach”), for you are serving the most-high God.”[21]

Rabbi Aivo distinguishes here between two components of the experience of prayer. The first has to do with the content of the mitzva: in prayer, you position yourself before God, addressing Him, praising and thanking, petitioning and imploring Him. Together, these elements exemplify yira, the sense of awe, of which the Rav on many occasions spoke so fully and richly, based on Rashi and the Ramban. It is the sense of “omed lifnei Ha-Melekh”; you stand before the Royal Emperor, Melekh Malkhei Ha-Melakhim. But there is also the context: that of your standing before God; you – little you, a shokhen batei chomer, one housed in earthly matter[22] – are addressing Him, engaging in a dialogue with the King of Kings! Reflecting on the fact that you are, as it were, ushered into the presence of God, is a source of infinite joy.

You can also rejoice over the fact that you have been created as a spiritual being with talents and abilities which the rest of the created world does not have. Your life can be given over not simply to animalistic experience and mundane matters; you have the capacity for avodat Hashem.

If it is true of prayer that “your heart should be glad,” I submit it is doubly true of teshuva. Of course, I am not suggesting for a moment that a person should be happy that he was a sinner and now is able to come to God to repent. But after a person has lapsed, and has the experience that “just yesterday he was hated before God, distanced, cast out, abominable,” if he has the opportunity to do ­teshuva and once again be “beloved” (Hilkhot Teshuva 7:6), will he not be enthralled, just as you rejoice in prayer, to be in the presence of God? Can there be any greater source of joy than your opportunity to be chozer bi-teshuva, a penitent, as well as actually being one? The sinner has access, an appointment with God. With all the sense of despondency, defilement, and failure, you are nevertheless “a prisoner freeing himself from prison.”[23] Shall we not rejoice at the privilege accorded us?

Ne'ila: Expressing Appreciation for Teshuva

Recognition and appreciation of this opportunity, let alone reveling in it, is not a daily experience. In the blessing in the Amida, we take teshuva for granted and only ask God to accept us and encourage us to do ­teshuva. Expressions of appreciation for the fact that there is such a thing as teshuva appear primarily in the Ne’ila service, and there it appears at two levels.

Shortly before the concluding passage of the silent Amida, we highlight the uniqueness of our spiritual existence, at the human plane as opposed to the animal. In terms reminiscent of the nihilistic chapters of Kohelet, we first express that man is worthless, devoid of significance, equated with the animal,[24] and then we do an about-face:

[Nevertheless,] You set man apart from the beginning (atta hivdalta enosh me-rosh), and You considered him worthy to stand before You, for who can tell You what to do, and if he is righteous what can he give You?[25]

Here we distinguish humans in universal terms from the animals, because teshuva is a universal category, not a uniquely Jewish one, as we know from Yona and Nineveh and from the way Chazal speak of the teshuva of Adam. We say, “You set man apart from the beginning” by granting him power “to stand before You”; even before teshuva is mentioned in this prayer (though it is, of course, its context), we highlight the fact that God gave man a permanent appointment to enter into His presence.[26] We simply express appreciation for the fact that God has singled us out, as part of the human race, from the world of the animal.

But then our words in Ne’ila turn to Yom Kippur, which, unlike the predominantly universal Rosh Ha-shana, is much more national in character: “And You have given us, Lord our God, with love, this Yom HaKippurim…for You are the forgiver of Israel.” And then we speak of the particular chesed with regard to teshuva, and the opportunity that we, as members of Knesset Yisrael have been given, to be chozrim bi-teshuva. “Happy is your portion Israel! Before whom are you purified, and who purifies you? Your Father in Heaven” (Mishna Yoma 85b).

In both cases, “to stand before You,” even in excruciating spiritual pain, in anguish and anxiety, is the source of simcha. Even if at some point you wish you could get away, even if you wish you were not a Jew, this is only a delusion; this is what the yetzer ha-ra wishes. The oved Hashem in you does not wish that at all. Though the spiritual and psychological pain can be terrifying, we are nonetheless joyous, as we are profoundly appreciative of the ability to stand before God and engage in teshuva.

Relating the Terror and the Joy of Teshuva

There are various models to define what the interactive relationship may be between what we have described as the terrifying content and the joyous context in the process of teshuva.

Rav Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the first rebbe of Chabad, relates to this issue in at least two different places. In Likkutei Amarim,[27] the central text of the Tanya, he writes:

All the abovementioned particulars regarding the diverse joys of the soul do not preclude the person from considering himself shameful and loathsome, or from having a contrite heart and humble spirit, at the very time of the joy. For the sense of shame…is occasioned by the aspect of the body and the animal soul, while his joy comes from the aspect of the divine soul and the spark of Godliness that is clothed therein and animates it, as has been discussed above (chapter 31). After this manner it is stated in the Zohar (II:255a; III:75a), “Weeping is lodged in one side of my heart, and joy is lodged in the other.”

The kind of humility and self-effacement that the Ba’al Ha-Tanya had been advocating previously in that chapter is not inconsistent with a sense of joy, because each relates to a different element of the human personality. Humans are conjoined of matter and spirit, the animal and the human. The self-effacement relates to the animal part of him, whereas the joy, the celebratory element, relates to the spiritual, to the divine spark that is in him. He quotes the Zohar that two elements coexist within the heart, weeping and joy.

To be sure, in the Iggeret Ha-teshuva,[28] the Ba’al Ha-Tanya expands upon this theme and refers to this passage from the Zohar as well, but he takes the cutting edge off its message by creating a temporal division:

Joined to this is the faith and confidence, the heart being firm and certain in God that He desires goodness, and is gracious, and merciful, and generously forgiving the instant one pleads for forgiveness and atonement of Him…. Not the faintest vestige of doubt dilutes this absolute conviction.

Here the joy derives from the faith and conviction that God “is gracious, and merciful, and generously forgiving.” The penitent can, at the same time, cry and be joyous: today we cry, but our tears are mixed with joy, because we know that tomorrow we are going to dance.

Reb Tzadok Ha-kohen of Lublin conveys something of this same notion, though not quite in the sequential vein. Reb Tzadok relates to a sinner who, filled with despair, doubts whether he is deserving of the promise by Chazal that if a person wants to initiate self-purgation, he will receive divine assistance (Yoma 38b):

The advice against this kind of inner doubt is the simcha and inner confidence that certainly God, in His great compassion and kindness, will accept him as having performed complete ­teshuva before Him, [while at the same time] he is filled with great bitterness over his sin. This [combination] is perfectly modeled after the tekia-shevarim-terua-tekia that is blown on Rosh Ha-shana, for it is known that the tekiot represent simcha, and the shevarim-terua represents the groan and the wail…. This is why it is stated, “A song of David, when Natan the prophet came to him” (Tehillim 51:1), for this [the joyful song even though Natan was accusing David of a terrible sin] is the flat (peshuta) tekia sound that is sounded before the terua, representing the simcha and song, confident that God will answer him…. And it is also truly a complete teshuva, for at that very moment, simultaneously, [he is surrounded by] the light and the revelation, and this is the joy that follows [the tekia].[29]

Reb Tzadok is saying that the way to relate to this inner doubt is to conjoin two elements: on the one hand, the experience of teshuva and the anguish that accompanies it, and on the other hand, the conviction that one will be answered and that God will be understanding and forgiving. He does not describe these elements as being two successive stages as the Ba’al Ha-Tanya does, but as two simultaneous facets of the teshuva experience. The inner core of the experience, its specific focus, is indeed the bitter pill of sin; yet it is embedded in the external framework of the positive relationship to God. So there is something here of the message I have been trying to convey: according to Reb Tzadok, one who comes to engage in teshuva feels despondency and a sense of tragedy regarding the terrible thing he did, but this is counterbalanced by the certainty and the joy that God will accept his teshuva.

Reb Tzadok presents an interesting analogy to tekiat shofar. The halakha is that the simple, flat sounds (peshuta), what we call tekiot, both precede and follow the inner part, the terua, a sound that suggests anxiety and tragedy.[30] Like the structure of the teshuva experience, the shofar blasts have a surrounding framework, and an essence within that framework. Although tekiot are ineluctably sequential, conceptually it’s a sandwich: the peshuta is the flat sound of joy and celebration, as it is written: “God (Elokim) ascends with a terua, and the Lord (shem Havaya) with the [tekia] sound of the shofar” (Tehillim 47:6). While the inner core is the terua – the sense of sin as indicated by the divine name of justice, the outer tekia reflects the intimate, compassionate name of Hashem. A person partakes of and experiences that “sandwich,” which is the nature of teshuva and its interaction with joy.

Reb Tzadok adds one element, partly by way of referring to ­mizmor 51, which we cited above. The psalm is historically situated when Natan the prophet comes to King David to rebuke him over his sin with Bat-Sheva. Yet it counterintuitively begins, “Mizmor le-David,” a term that usually suggests some of kind of joy or singing. But what did Natan tell him? That his behavior was utterly immoral and reprehensible! So why the simcha? Reb Tzadok says King David’s confidence that God would answer him is the prior tekia, and the rebuke is the middle part, the terua. The tekia after the rebuke, according to Reb Tzadok, is “the light and the revelation” piercing through the clouds, which is coterminous with the teshuva. The grief and the joy are simultaneous, unlike in the Ba’al Ha-Tanya, which, as I read him, sees the relationship of the two as more mechanical and segmented.

Better One Hour of Teshuva

After our excursus into the various types of joy relevant to teshuva, what is the message with which we are left? Of course, the deep sense of disintegration, of “shivron levav” underscored in mizmor 51, is unavoidable in teshuva; indeed, we speak often of God being close to and healing the brokenhearted.[31] While few of us can avoid thinking of and hoping for teshuva’s future benefits,[32] we can also find the simcha in today’s ­teshuva, irrespective of the benefits that will be conferred as a result of it. As the midrash states, the very fact that you can stand before the Holy One, blessed be He, is of inestimable benefit.

C. S. Lewis once wrote that the message he had learned from the British Idealists, a nineteenth-century philosophic school, was that “It is more important that Heaven should exist than that any of us should reach it.”[33] The same is true of teshuva. While we all hope and pray to reap the fruits, it is – from an ultimate, spiritual point of view – more important that the world of teshuva exists, along with the simcha from acknowledging that fact, than that we should ever get there to reap the benefits.

But we don’t need to look only at C. S. Lewis and the British Idealists; this idea is stated in a mishna in Avot. Rabbi Ya’akov states:

Better one hour of teshuva and good deeds in this world than the entire life of the World-to-Come; and better one hour of the spiritual bliss in the World-to-Come than the entire life of this world. (4:17)

Two modes of existence and experience are contrasted. In metaphysical terms, even momentary experience of the spiritual bliss of basking in the Divine Presence is superior to the totality of all kinds of joys and pleasures a person can have in this world. But in moral terms, this world, where you will be challenged and where you will respond, is preferred to the next world, where you are going to be metaphysically pampered; a single hour of teshuva and good deeds now is weighted over all of the World-to-Come. In other words, the hour of meeting Him and standing before Him is so much more meaningful than all the dividends and fruits that we are going to reap. “Your heart should be glad for you are serving the most-high God.”

What sort of teshuva earns such adulation? Chazal refer to teshuva me-ahava, teshuva out of love, in contrast to teshuva mi-yira, out of fear. As the Rambam understands the distinction (Hilkhot Teshuva, chap. 10), performance of a mitzva out of love means doing it li-shmah, with no regard to the reward. Teshuva me-ahava is thus teshuva in which one engages for the encounter per se, for the mutual love that is the theme of Shir Ha-shirim. The depth and intensity of this relationship is for us an aspiration; and on the part of God, it is a pure gift than which there is none greater.

So do we have joy in teshuva? We do not have the type of joy that is oblivious to the tragedy, that disregards the pain, and that tries to paper over the failure. All of those agonizing elements are present. But transcending all is the fact that we are there, to confront, to be challenged, and to respond. And we are there to feel the full power and glory of the momentous encounter between ourselves and God in the experience of teshuva, and in particular teshuva me-ahava, which is the purest and noblest form. True, Judaism does not prohibit thinking about tomorrow’s benefits, but we can still idealize the li-shmah aspect of teshuva and recognize it to the point where it informs the nature and experience of our teshuva.

Yom Kippur – the time of the renewal of the covenant of “The King has brought me into His inner chamber” (Shir Ha-shirim 1:4) – is precisely the moment of the encounter, the marvelous opportunity which is given to us. While we hope and strive to purify ourselves, first and foremost, we are eternally grateful for and animated by the very opportunity to stand lifnei Hashem, before God.

[1] Excerpted with permission from Rav Lichtenstein’s book, Return and Renewal: Reflections on Teshuva and Spiritual Growth, eds. Michael S. Berger and Reuven Ziegler (Jerusalem: Maggid, 2018). This sicha was delivered as the Hausman/Stern Kinnus Teshuva lecture at the Gruss Institute in Jerusalem, Tishrei 5767 (2006), and was adapted by Michael S. Berger from a transcript by David Raphael.
[2] When I speak of joy, I refer neither to festive celebration as such, nor to hedonistic experience, but rather to emotional and spiritual gratification, pleasurable and satisfying in its own way, but still very different from some of the elements that we associate with joyous celebration. For those who have read C. S. Lewis’ autobiography Surprised by Joy, the term joy would have far richer associations, but these too I leave to the back burner. (Lewis’ title is derived from the title and opening line of one of Wordsworth’s sonnets, “Surprised by joy – impatient as the wind,” written in the aftermath of the death of his three-year-old daughter, Catherine.)
[3] Sha’arei Teshuva 1:3, paragraphs 12–13.
[4] One can easily extend the halakhic distinction between two kinds of tum’a, that which emanates from within a person, and that which is externally generated or stimulated, to sin as well: some violations are primarily internally motivated, while in the case of other transgressions, though the individual is personally culpable, the role of external pressures or temptations is particularly salient.
[5] Based on the verse, “That His fear (yirato) may be upon your faces (peneikhem) so that you not sin” (Shemot 20:17), the Gemara (Nedarim 20a) identifies boshet panim (shame) as the root element of a pervasive yirat Elokim (awe of God) that prevents sin.
[6] I am applying here the two stages with respect to mourning that the Rav z”l so eloquently articulated: the initial shock (aninut) and the gradual return to normalcy over a long period of time after the finality of burial (aveilut). Likewise, I believe, with regard to sin, there are two stages of response to it.
[7] It is not for naught that, in Sefer Chassidim, the scenarios suggested for teshuvat ha-mishkal, penitential actions commensurate with a sin, include sitting in a tub of freezing cold water and having ants crawl all over you. The sinner is revolted by his actions and by himself.
[8] The refrain “Yachbi’enu,” recited in Selichot for the third day of the Ten Days of Repentance, similarly captures this sense of entrapment.
[9] This sentiment is echoed in the Selicha of Adam ki fokdakh, recited on erev Rosh Ha-shana: “Turn, Master, to the sadness of spirit, see the brokenness of heart.”
[10] Later posekim quote a midrash on the verse “Go, eat your bread in gladness…for God has already accepted your works” (Kohelet 9:7) to support this position. Tosafot (Shabbat 115b, s.v. ve-amai) say in the same vein that after Yom Kippur those who serve God are in a celebratory spirit, having found grace.
[11] The Yerushalmi (Yoma 8:7) and the Tosefta (Yoma 4:17) say that the atonement that is not effected by offerings but rather by the essence of the day, itzumo shel yom, takes place at the moment of sunset.
[12] The Sha’agat Aryeh dealt with this issue as well in a responsum (102), but approached it from a different perspective. In his view, the sanction of melekhet okhel nefesh be-yom tov, cooking on holidays, is based on the mitzva of simcha; since melekhet okhel nefesh is permitted on Rosh Ha-shana, obviously the mitzva of simcha applies on Rosh Ha-shana. This approach, of course, does not help with Yom Kippur, which is arguably more critical to our subject.
[13] A question naturally arises: according to the Rav’s position that simcha applies to Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Kippur, why do we omit this phrase on those days? While I don’t recall whether the Rav ever related to this question, I don’t think we need to be too concerned about it. There are two issues: one is the character and purpose, as it were, of the day; the other has to do with whether a particular mitzva applies. The question of aveilut addresses whether there is simcha altogether on Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Kippur. Once the day is defined as a yom tov, then the mitzva of simcha applies, and so aveilut is suspended. On the other hand, the formulation we have in tefilla rests on the day’s purpose, whether it was given for the realization of sasson ve-simcha or for other goals. As such, the Amida on Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Kippur need not include the phrase relating to simcha.
[14] The Gemara (Rosh Ha-shana 32b; Arakhin 10b) justifies the lack of Hallel on Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Kippur by asking: How could one recite Hallel when the books of life and death are open, and each person is being judged? Nonetheless, an element of simcha can and does exist there.
[15] Commentary on the Torah, Devarim 28:47, s.v. tachat.
[16] Rabbeinu Bachya has a small encyclopedia, Kad Ha-kemach, that is a collection of midrashim organized by topic. In his discussion of simcha (letter samekh, simcha, s.v. ha-simcha ha-zot), he says that the simcha which accompanies a mitzva is more significant than the mitzva itself! That refers to a particular kind of simcha of course, not the kind of simcha engendered by non-mitzva considerations. But it is a radical statement nonetheless.
[17] There are verses which speak in that vein, for instance, “You will serve God and He will bless your food and your drink, and I will remove illness from you”
(Shemot 23:25). Presumably, that refers not to any particular avoda or mitzva, but to the whole range of our relationship with God.

[18] Sifrei 41, s.v. u-le-ovdo.
[19] For example, “Even when one person sits and studies Torah, the Divine Presence is with him” (Berakhot 6a).
[20] Midrash Tehillim Shocher Tov on mizmor 100, piska 2.
[21] The midrash does offer a second answer based on a chronological distinction between this world and the next, but that is not to our present purpose.
[22] Based on Iyyov 4:19.
[23] Based on, and in contrast to, Berakhot 5b.
[24] “Man has no preeminence over the beast, for all is vain” (Kohelet 3:19).
[25] The Rav wrote about this extensively in Halakhic Man, Part I, chap. 10.
[26] Though we are discussing Ne’ila, the universal element is present in other penitential prayers as well. Thus, even the introductory paragraph to the Yud-gimmel middot ha-rachamim, the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, which focuses on the covenant between God and the Jewish people, nonetheless makes the point, “oseh tzedakot im kol basar va-ruach, You perform righteousness with all flesh and spirit,” highlighting the universal dimension of repentance and forgiveness.
[27] End of chapter 34.
[28] Chapter 11, near the beginning.
[29] Tzidkat Ha-tzaddik, Part III – Tikkun Ha-berit, no. 129.
[30] Rosh Ha-shana 33b–34a; Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayim 590:1.
[31] Tehillim is replete with references to God’s relationship to such crushed spirits:

“True sacrifice to God is a contrite spirit; God, You will not despise a contrite and crushed heart.” (51:19)

“He heals their broken hearts and binds up their wounds.” (147:3)

“God is close to those who are brokenhearted, and those who are crushed of spirit, He will redeem.” (34:19)[32] Even within mizmor 51, so focused on the oppression of sin, King David notes the joy rooted in hope and faith in the fruits of teshuva: “You will make me hear gladness and joy; bones which You had crushed will rejoice” (verse 10), and “Return to me the gladness of Your salvation, and Your generous Spirit will support me” (verse 14).

[33] Surprised by Joy (London, 1955), chapter 13.


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