Shabbat Shuva- Which is the Right Way to Do Teshuba?
Teshuba (repentance) comes in different forms. One kind is what we might call "Humpty Dumpty Teshuba." This means that a person breaks himself, destroys himself, dissects his character and his conduct throughout the past year to identify every flaw, and then rebuilds himself by correcting those flaws. This is the Teshuba of the great Sadikim. They rigorously introspect, leaving no stone unturned, and push themselves relentlessly to correct every spiritual defect.
This Teshuba is not recommended for the vast majority of us. At some point during the first stage – of breaking ourselves down and finding every misdeed and every flaw – we would despair and never proceed to the second stage, of rebuilding ourselves. Ordinary people, like us, would feel so distraught and discouraged by what we reveal that we would simply lack the emotional fortitude to improve ourselves. We would just give up.
What, then, is the proper method of Teshuba for people like us?
The Torah tells in the Book of Bereshit that Adam chose names for all the animals on earth. In his remarkable wisdom, he was able to identify the essence of every creature, and choose an appropriate name. His name – Adam – which is the term forever used in reference to the human being, was chosen by God. What does this word mean? Oddly enough, it is derived from the word "Adama" – earth, or dirt.
Is this the essence of man – dirt? Could God not have come up with a more flattering word to use in reference to people, the crown jewel of creation? Was this the best He could so?
The answer is that yes, this is precisely the essence of man, the extraordinary quality that sets men and women apart from the animal kingdom.
Earth has the unparalleled ability to transform into something infinitely greater than what it is at the present. In its current state, it is valueless and even revolting, but with some work, it can turn into delicious, life-sustaining food. And this is the essence of man. Animals undergo physical changes as they get older, but essentially, they remain the same throughout their lives. The human being, however, is dynamic. He is capable of growing, changing, transforming, becoming something far, far greater than what he is now.
In short, dirt represents unlimited potential. And this is what every human being is – a walking mass of enormous potential.
This is where Teshuba must begin for people on our level. When we recognize that this is what we are, we feel encouraged, not crushed; we feel empowered, not helpless. If we focus our attention on our flaws and failings, we will fall into deep depression and not bother to make any attempts to change. But once we internalize the message of "Adam," once we understand that we are, by our very essence, capable of growing into something greater, then we will not despair. We will feel excited by the prospects for change, by what the future could hold. We will commit ourselves to making even a few small strides forward, understanding that they will gradually lead us to great accomplishments.
The most effective method of Teshuva for us is to remember that we are full of potential. Regardless of a person’s current standing, he can become something great. People of any profession, of any background, of any stage of life and of any current level of observance can rise to greatness – just like a pot of malodorous dirt can turn into a magnificent, fragrant flower.
And believing in ourselves, in our potential, is the first and most critical step toward repentance.