This past summer, the governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, got himself into some hot water on the campaign trail. Discussing gender equality and the obstacles to equal opportunity, he said: “We’re not going to make America great again. It was never that great.” Cuomo’s statement naturally initiated a tornado of debate, with critics accusing him of a lack of patriotism, and defenders extolling what they saw as his refreshing honesty in looking back at our country’s past. Now, those of you who are getting familiar with my style might already suspect that I’m going to argue that both sides in this debate are right — that they’re both capturing a truth that we should take to heart. Seeing the value in two seemingly incompatible views is indeed my go-to mode, it is the core of what it means to learn Torah as taught to me by my teachers at Yeshivat Ma’aleh Gilboa and elsewhere. But I am not going to say that about the Cuomo debate. No. Today, I want to tell you that both sides of the debate were wrong — not necessarily from a historical or political perspective, but from the religious-ethical vantagepoint provided us by the lens of teshuvah — that word we commonly translate as “repentance.”
Teshuvah may well be one of the most deceptively simple concepts in the whole of the Jewish canon. We dumb it down, turn it into children’s songs, teach about it in Jewish elementary schools. But teshuvah is unbearably difficult, and the seeming elusiveness real teshuvah can be downright tragic.
One of the best-known stories in the Talmud, immortalized in part by its inclusion in Milton Steinberg’s novel As a Driven Leaf, captures the drama and moral complexity of teshuvah. The archetypal heretic, the former Rabbi, Elisha ben Avuya, abandoned the beliefs and practices of Rabbinic Judaism. So absolute, so virulent was his rejection that he becomes known in Rabbinic tradition as Acher — literally, the “Other.” One Shabbat, Acher was teaching his student, Rabbi Meir, , while riding on his horse — in violation of the laws of Shabbat. R. Meir walks beside him. At a certain point, Acher tells his student to turn back, since they are about to travel beyond the permissible distance allotted for Shabbat walking, beyond the tehum. R. Meir takes advantage of the moment, of the resonances of his teacher’s advice, beseeching his teacher: “You too turn back,” using a Hebrew verb that shares a root with our word teshuvah, and which thus carried a double meaning. Elisha ben Avuyah’s crushing response: “I have already told you that I have heard, from behind that curtain, “All my children, return — other than Acher.”
The Divine Voice, it seems, has already decreed that repentance is not possible for Elisha ben Avuyah. The notion that teshuvah is impossible is shocking, even heretical. The medieval commentator, the Meiri, was so bothered by it that he claimed that the voice Elisha heard was in his own head, his own imagination deluding him. But most of us have more sympathy for Elisha ben Avuya’s perception of his situation. Yes, every so often, we succeed in effecting the change we want to make real in our lives. But more often, thinking about teshuvah is a depressing, mortifying process even to countenance. I say, This is the year I will stop yelling at my kids. Except that, I said that last year also. And the year before. This is the year I will get to shul on time; this is the year I’ll go to the gym; this is the year I’ll take on a serious volunteer commitment. Whatever it is, we know that we’ve made these commitments before; the possibility of teshuvah feels remote to the point of nonexistence. We get Elisha ben Avuyah; everybody can return, repent, do teshuvah. Everybody except for me.
How do we overcome the powerful forces of inertia, the hopelessness and despair that result from so many failed attempts? How do we do teshuvah? That question, I submit to you, is essential both for our personal lives, as well as for our communal and national well-being.
Teshuvah comes from the Hebrew root for “return.” To speak of teshuvah is to depict the process of “repentance” as movement. But, it is, counterintuitively, a movement backwards — to return is necessarily to turn back. This turning back has two meanings. As the haftarah this coming Shabbat demands of us, we must return to Hashem, to God. But many thinkers have also described teshuvah as a returning to our true selves. I’ll call this, for the time being, the Rav Kuk approach, since Rav Avraham Yitzhak Hakohen Kuk, the first chief Ashkenazi rabbi of mandatatory Palestine, is often cited as a proponent of this way of thinking about teshuvah, though I’ll explain later why I think that’s not quite right. Rav Kuk writes : “The primary teshuva, that which immediately lights the darkness, is when a person returns to their self, to the root of their soul.” (Oros haTeshuvah 15:10). We are returning to where we already were, even if a long time ago. Teshuvah in this model is not an act of making progress, but rather a motion of undoing; it is actively peeling off the layers of ethical muck and spiritual decay that have glommed on to our beings, getting back to the who that we used to be.
Such a notion of teshuvah can be incredibly inspiring: The change I want to make is not so great, it does not seem unattainable, because I’ve already been there. There was a time when I was much better at praying regularly, and with greater kavvanah, than I am now. (For the record, that time was roughly the day before my first child was born). I can think back on who I was, remember how I did it, and work to be that person again.
But the notion of return, can also be inauthentic. There was a time in my life when I was far happier with my prayer life, but I’ve never been great at giving tzedakah. There’s no earlier version of me who was less anxious about finances, more generous in my giving, no model of myself that I can look to to make the goal of being a more generous person seem more attainable. TO tell me that that’s who I was in the past is dishonest, and it therefore does more harm than good.
Perhaps that’s why the Rambam describes the process of teshuvah in terms that have nothing to do with the meaning of the word. The Rambam describes the kinds of acts that teshuvah demands; among other things, the person repenting should “distance themselves from the matter in which they sinned, and change their name, as if to say, ‘I am another, I am not the person who did those things,’ and change all of their actions for the better…” (hilkhos teshuvah 2:4). I want to linger over the Rambam’s explanation for changing one’s name and flesh it out a bit. You have done something deeply abhorrent, for which you feel total and absolute regret. The Rambam says you now change your name as if to say that you are someone else.
What happens to the old you, the person who actually did do that thing? The Rambam does not say, but in a sense, he is articulating a vision of teshuvah that demands the destruction of your past self. This can be a very problematic vision of repentance, not least because, though this is certainly not the Rambam’s intention, it can combine with other self-destructive tendencies to produce tragic ends. I want to be crystal clear here: the Rambam’s vision of teshuvah in no way shape or form advocates literal violence towards one’s own self. It does, however, in symbolic and metaphorical ways, require the undoing of one’s previous sense of self. Like the Rav Kuk model, there’s something powerful, perhaps even beautiful in such a vision of repentance and renewal. But it’s a model dangerous to our bodies and to our psyches. It also sets an impossibly high bar to set for what it means to seek to do better — we cannot, in truth, utterly separate the who we want to be, from the who that we have been.
Both the Rav Kuk, and the Rambam models of teshuvah are valuable. The image of repentance as an act of return can inspire us. The Rambam’s demand that we call out the evil in our own, individual pasts is a necessary step to begin the process of teshuvah. But the actual work of becoming our best selves can be successful only if we find some other path, one that demands neither delusions about who we have been, nor a metaphorical excision of our past from our current self.
I therefore want to offer another way of thinking about the work that we’re trying to do here, one for which I’m thankful to my friend, Rabbi Jason Rubenstein, rabbi and Jewish chaplain at Yale University, for articulating. This model has its roots in the teachings Rav Yitzhak Hutner, a 20th century thinker I’ve referenced before here at Ohr Kodesh.
Rav Hutner directs our attention to Rambam’s explanation for blowing shofar: “Even though,” the Rambam writes, “blowing shofar is a scriptural decree,” without any reason given, “there is a hint of it, as if to say: Uru uru yesheinim misheinatkhem…These are the ones who forget the truth amidst the vanities of the moment.” The shofar is meant to be an alarm, waking us from our spiritual slumber. That’s an image that has understandably taken root in the Jewish psyche. The shofar as alarm clock is an almost instinctive, even tedious, metaphor. But Rav Hutner is intrigued by the Rambam’s peculiar formulation, that the those who are sleeping are those who have forgotten the truth in the vagaries of the current moment. What does the Rambam mean by “forget?”
Rav Hutner compares this forgetfulness to a halakhic ruling that one must show particular honor to a Torah sage, even if they have forgotten their Torah. What is it about such a person, currently undistinguished — whatever they’ve learned, they’ve forgotten — what merits them the status of a Torah sage?
Torah, says Rav Hutner, leaves a mark. Imagine you’ve had a piano in your living room for 20 years, sitting on the carpet. But now, the kids are out of the house, no one’s playing it, and another family in the community could use a piano. So you give it to them. You know what happens next; the footprints of that piano are there on the carpet for ages, even though the piano itself is gone. That is the nature of Torah; even when the Torah itself is no longer there, its mark remains. The Torah scholar who, at this very moment knows not a whit of Torah, has been indelibly marked by the presence of Torah in their life.
Rav Hutner compares the relationship between the impression of something and the thing itself to the relationship between a sleeping body and a body in action. The body in action is the very stuff of life itself. To be alive is to be an active agent. The sleeping body, says Rav Hutner, is merely the image of life; it’s what remains when the activity of life has departed. Such is the Torah sage who has forgotten their Torah. They are a sleeping Torah, a remainder, which needs to be awakened.
There is an impression in each of us, stamped on us in our primordial past, passed down through the generations, mother to son, father to daughter. The shofar calls us to take that impression and to wake it from its slumber, to transform it from an impression into the thing itself, to transform a cultural memory into a personal truth.
Rav Hutner says that the shofar actually stands in opposition to the words of Torah. When God gives the commandments, the dibbrot, at Sinai, the Torah speaks of two voices, two kolot. The call of the shofar only increased — קול השופר הולך וחזק (Exod 19:19). By contrast, the words of the commandments themselves were קול גדול ולא יסף — a mighty voice, but one that did not continue, a voice that ceased at a particular moment in time. Both voices are necessary for revelation — the voice of the shofar, which never ceased, and the voice of the commandments, the dibbrot, which is finite.
What does Rav Hutner mean in calling the commandments being finite? Certainly not that they do not apply to all time. Rather, words, the commandments, communicate in rational terms, they represent only what you actually know, only what you’ve already raised up to your conscious mind, the values you’re already living. They are therefore finite. But the shofar — wordless, emotive, and therefore infinite — accesses places deep within you, places that have not yet been made real, but which exist only as impulses, as inarticulate desires. They are a real part of you, but parts that you have to work to bring to life. Truth be told, I think that’s what thinkers like Rav Kuk actually mean when they talk about returnig to your true self — not to someone you’ve already been, but to someone you’ve always had the potential to become.
Teshuvah, then, is the act of taking what is present only in potentia and making it real. Want to be better at tzedakah? Then don’t lie to yourself and say you used to be good at it. Nor should you beat yourself up, shaming the failure that you’ve been up until now. Rather, search for that mark of generosity, made on you by the Torah, by your ancestors, by the best parts of your history, that mark which already exists within you. Let the shofar awaken that mark, that shadow, and revivify it into the real thing, until you yourself are a great giver of justice, a baal tzedakah.
Unhappy with your prayer life, with the room you’re making or not making for learning Torah, for serious engagement with ideas that challenge you and improve you? Unhappy with the balance you’re making or not making between work and family? Do not choose between the two extremes of radical self-flagellation or a ridiculous denial of the truth that you’ve always been bad at this. There is no mythical past in which you perfectly balanced your spiritual needs and your professional ones. There is no perfect version of you to which you are returning. But: There is a spark, an impression — your desire to improve is evidence of precisely such a sleeping reality within you. The call to teshuvah, the call of the shofar, is precisely the call to awaken that sleeping reality and bring it to life.
The Rabbinic work Avot deRabbi Natan tells us that the human being is a microcosm of the world itself (31). And so it is that the work of teshuvah that we do individually, also applies to our world, and to the communities and nation in which we live. And that’s why I think both Gov. Cuomo’s supporters and his detractors got it wrong.
Yes, both sides have great thinkers on their side, both express truths about teshuvah. Those who were gratified by Cuomo’s statement that America was never that great, who expressed satisfaction at a public figure finally ‘fessing up to the fatal sins in our history, were essentially expressing a model of teshuvah that the Rambam would have understood. They see a black mark in our past, and they want to exorcise it, to shame it, to declare ourselves utterly other than it — they want to kill the past to move forward into the future. The Rambam’s model is important; we have to be able to name our past transgressions if we want to be better in the future. But for many of us, it is not the most helpful map to actually becoming better; only a first step. Calling out our past evils in an attempt to cut the cords that tie us to who we have been is not likely to produce real teshuvah for most of us.
But those who were outraged by Cuomo’s confession, those who want return to America’s former greatness, are also misguided. At best they follow in the steps of the tradition that views repentance literally as teshuvah, as return — return to a past greatness, even if that does not reflect the reality of who we ever were. I say that “at best” this is the basis for their response, because I fear that many are actually engaged in something even worse — not setting up a mythical past of moral perfection for us to return to, but rather denying that there has even been a fall from that idealized expression of our origins — denying the need for any kind of repentance, whatever we call it or however we describe it.
We are asked by our modern political discourse, then, to choose one of these sides: Maimonidean disgust with our past, or a pollyannish claim of perfect origins. Rav Hutner’s model of teshuvah, however, provides another path. We look to our mythical origins without lying to ourselves about who we have been. Rather, we search for those buds of excellence that never blossomed, the greatness that never was, but always could be. We look to those kernels of magnificence not to delude ourselves, never to ignore the wrongs we have committed, but to use them to build and improve and take seriously our failings in the past. The shofar calls us to awaken, not the finite versions of ourselves that exist in this moment in time, or at some point in the past, but rather, to bring to life that which is always, already, possible.