Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God, for you have fallen because of your sin. …Hosea 14:2
This week is “Shabbat Shuvah,” the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The time when we are supposed to step our efforts to perform teshuvah. Teshuvah literally would mean to return, as in turn to God, understood as repentance. And normally we think of repentance as being stimulated by sin, as in the quote from this week’s haftorah, when the prophet Hosea tells the people “Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God, for you have fallen because of your sin.”
But is teshuvah only motivated by wanting to repair damage, does it always have to be grounded in sin?
Neot Deshe, a Torah commentary from a Mussar (ethical) perspective by R. David Shneur, brings an interesting alternative based on a verse in last week’s Torah portion.
When all these blessings and curses I have set before you come on you and you take them to heart wherever the LORD your God disperses you among the nations, and when you and your children return to the LORD your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today… …Deuteronomy 30:1-2
He points out the verse when all of these things have happened — “blessings and curses” — you shall return to the Lord your God. We usually think of teshuvah as being motivated by pain, distress, an awareness of sinned having gone astray. So we then do teshuvah to try and get back to being right with God. But what would it mean to do teshuvah in the wake of blessings, or an awareness of blessings?
We talk about two sides to a relationship with God — yirah, fear/awe, and ahavah, love. Teshuvah from pain and distress is teshuvah coming from a place of yirah, of wanting to either stop pain in the present, or to prevent pain in the next world, punishment for the sins. But love is greater than fear, so teshuvah coming from a place of love is greater than teshuvah coming from fear.
What’s teshuvah coming from love? It’s when you feel grateful for the things that God has given you, and you resolve that you want to do better so as to please God. It’s not unlike a kid wanting to do a good job so that his or her parents will be proud of him.
Teshuvah isn’t only about fixing damage and repairing sins. It also has a positive dimension — working on improving one’s character traits, on being a better person. And the drive to become a better person comes more from love than from fear.
As we come into the “home stretch” before the grand and awesome Day of Judgment, Rosh Hashanah, don’t let your only motivation be fear. Remember to turn to God out of love and blessings as well. If God has been gracious to you and you know you don’t really deserve it (and who among us does?) you can resolve to do even better, out of a sense of love and gratitude.
May your holiday be filled with love and joy, and may you be judged for nothing but blessings in the year to come.