Between Teshuva and Repentance
The origin of words is often a good indicator of their deeper meaning. This is surely the case with the well-known Hebrew word “teshuvah,” often rendered in English as penitence or repentance. Yet the etymology of each term in this pairing is decidedly different and reminds us of what is always lost in translation. Both English words derive from a Latin root meaning “to regret,” whereas the Hebrew term comes from the root “to return.” The contrast is pronounced: etymologically, the English concept stresses a state of mind, the Hebrew, an action to be taken.
In his treatment of teshuvah Maimonides builds on the difference. To regret a misdeed is only a step in the process of teshuvah, which does not culminate until we find ourselves in a situation akin to the one in which we stumbled. It is at that moment, when we overcome the temptation that did us in in the first place, that we have fully completed all the stages of teshuvah. Remorse without such a return to the circumstances that once compromised us earns us less than God’s total forgiveness. Maimonides offers a vivid example: “We speak of a man who commits a sinful act with a woman and after some time finds himself alone with her again in the same place. Neither his love for her nor his bodily vigor has diminished. But this time he turns away without sinning. This person is an exemplar of wholehearted teshuvah (Mishnah Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah 2:1). And to capture the force of the concept, I would translate teshuvah as “turning,” a turn that we effect to recover a measure of our pristine purity and potential.
The earliest articulation of this nuanced notion of teshuvah is the denouement of the Joseph story which we read this week and hence the reason for my detour. Behind Joseph’s cunning was the intention to determine whether his brothers had actually changed. He was not prepared to settle for a profusion of words or feelings. Only their behavior in a scene reminiscent of the one in which they eliminated him from the family would yield a true test of the current state of their character. Drawing Benjamin into the plot and entangling him in a felony had recreated circumstances in which his brothers, if unrepentant, could once again do away with the apple of their father’s eye. It is unlikely that Joseph would have let them, but the brothers gave him no need to intercede. They had been transformed by the endless grief they had inflicted on Jacob.
Brought back forcibly to Egypt, they confront Joseph mortified and helpless. They are ready to indenture themselves to stay in Egypt along with Benjamin who is already implicated, proof enough of their change of heart. But Joseph persists; only the one who is guilty will be enslaved.
And then Judah, the brother who originally proposed the sale of a distraught Joseph to a passing caravan (Genesis 37:26-27), steps forward to plead for compassion, the last resort of the powerless. This time Judah displays the courage, maturity and selflessness that were lacking then. Indeed, had he not personally assumed responsibility to Jacob to return Benjamin safely (43:9)? Judah makes it painfully clear that the loss of Benjamin would destroy his father, and this time acknowledges, what he repressed earlier: that a special tie existed between Jacob and the two sons of Rachel. Jacob and Benjamin are quite inseparable because “his own life is so bound up with his,” a poetic phrase that in Hebrew resonates with tenderness (44:30). Judah could not bear to witness this tragedy, and acting as Benjamin’s guarantor and Jacob’s son, he beseeches Joseph to enslave him and let the boy return to his father.
Our theologically informed narrative is now complete. Judah’s plea and offer convince Joseph that the inner transformation of his brothers since they fell upon him is as profound as the change in the circumstances of his outer life. Overwhelmed with emotion, Joseph reveals himself with words of forgiveness: “Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you (45:5).”
I can think of no finer instance of Maimonides’ view of what constitutes teshuvah in its fullest sense. The second time, we find no trace in Judah of the raw passions that drove him to assault Joseph. At that time, he showed utter indifference to the sentiments of his father, even walking out on him as he mourned, violated the taboo against marrying a native Canaanite, and was not averse to cavorting with a prostitute. We lack the evidence that might account for his change of heart. Nor can we glimpse the effort it took. But the achievement stands out in bold relief and vindicates the later rabbinic postulate that those who have strayed and turned back are of a higher order than those who never strayed at all (B.T. Berakhot 34b). Or in the words of Maimonides again:
Let those who have done teshuvah not imagine that they are far removed from the ranks of the righteous because of their sins and transgressions. On the contrary, they are loved and cherished by God as if they had never sinned. Moreover, their reward is great because they have tasted of sin and withdrawn and subdued their passions. Our sages have opined that where those who have done teshuvah stand, there is no room for the unblemished righteous. Which means that they outrank those who never sinned because they have had to struggle more with themselves. (M.T. Hilkhot Teshuvah 7:4).
In retrospect, this would privilege Judah over Joseph. Joseph, as a callow youth, may have been cocky and naive, but always a model of steadfast virtue. His struggles were with a fate that was inexorable rather than with flaws that were personal. Judah, in contrast, abounded with imperfection. Yet he grew through adversity, wrestling with himself as much as with others. A lifetime in pursuit of self-restraint not only made him an eminently worthy ancestor and namesake of all Jews, but also was in consonance with a value that would emerge as the essential thrust of Judaism itself.