14 Teshuvah Myths

Teshuvah is a unique mitzvah. Like anything grand and special, also Teshuvah has been burdened with a fair share of myths obscuring its true image. Some myths mistake Teshuva to be only for “real” and “big” sins and sinners, but fail to realize that no sin is small enough to go without fixing, while another group of myths elevate Teshuvah to the level of angles, forgetting only that angels don’t need it…

Teshuvah also means answer, perhaps it is so because it’s Hashem’s answer to the average human being who is torn between the desire to be good and his selfish nature.

Seldom does selfishness not lead to sin –whether subtle or coarse– and even more seldom is overcoming that drive and fully living up to his G-dly calling.  It’s the 613th mitzvah which can fix any of the other 612.

Teshuvah is a unique mitzvah. Like anything grand and special, also Teshuvah has been burdened with a fair share of myths obscuring its true image.

Some myths mistake Teshuva to be only for “real” and “big” sins and sinners, but fail to realize that no sin is small enough to go without fixing, while another group of myths elevate Teshuvah to the level of angles, forgetting only that angels don’t need it…

In the following paragraphs, in time for Yom Kippur – “a time of teshuvah for all” – a number of these myths will be explored and we will attempt to arrive a fresh perspective on the great old mitzvah of Teshuvah.

Many of them don’t need to be “busted” as classical myths usually need, most of them are not completely untrue; some are exaggerations, some are misappropriations and some are simply misunderstandings of true statements and facts.


“What is the Essence of Teshuvah?” Myths

Myth #1: Teshuvah is for sins

Source of myth: confusing symptoms for the cause

Who needs to do Teshuvah? Well, obviously, someone that sinned.

Are you sure? Before you decide, listen to this verse from Tehillim: “אווילים מדרך פשעם, ומעוונתיהם יתענו” One interpretation of the verse is the following: “They are fools. Why? Because they maitian a sinful approach, yet they afflict themselves for their sins.”

This describes a situation which many find themselves in; you feel bad for your wrongdoings, you try all different things to fix it but you keep going back to it. Why? – Because averios are not isolated acts caused by random temptations; they are symptoms of a much deeper ailing, a “culture of sin” which is cultivated by  a flawed understanding of Hashem, man and our relationship. So, as much as you try to repent and regret and fix your ways, it’s useless. Sin should be seen as a form of addiction. Many addicts to harmful substances can tell you that they regret every time they fall yet they can’t help it until the start a recovery process which delves deeper into the person and uncovers what leads him to behaving so and deals with that as the the real issue.

Let’s repeat that: Teshuva is not about fixing this or that fault, it’s about changing our approach and lifestyle.

See next myth for the recovery secret.


Myth #2: Teshuva means repenting

Source of myth: Inadequate translation

Three words synonymous with the yamim noraim, Teshuvah, Tefillah and Tzedakah, are inadequately translated. Let’s limit ourselves to our subject matter – Teshuvah.

The classic translation for Teshuvah is repentance. While the translation isn’t outright wrong, it is highly inadequate and does little justice to the full extent of Teshuvah.

Repentance is only one of three steps towards Teshuvah; regret for one’s sins is the first step of doing Teshuvah, yet it must be supplemented with (a) a firm resolution to never commit it again, and (b) must be verbally articulated (to G-d, not to anyone else in most cases) – viduy.

What is Teshuva itself? The exact translation for Teshuvah is “return.” Our neshama, being a part of Hashem, finds itself distanced from Him after we commit a sin, doing Teshuvah means to return and restore that feeling of closeness. To truly “return” to Hashem we must uproot the notion that allowed it happen in the first place, – a warped perspective on our relationship with Hashem in which one becomes insensitive to spirituality and doesn’t see himself subjected to Hashem’s will which allows him to act in a manner of prikas ol, lawlessness of some sort.

True Teshuva requires serious work and soul searching. Contemplating these themes time and again until they become part of you and define the way you think. When the notion of me being Hashem’s servant and doing only what He wants, replaces the previous notion of me acting as I desire, two things will happen: Firstly, I do Teshuvah, I return my soul to its previous state-of-being in which it was close to Hashem; and secondly, I develop a stronger “immunity” from falling into the trap of sin again so I can maintain my Teshuvah.

While a Ba’al Teshuvah certainly needs to change his ways, Teshuva is more a mind-shift than it is a change of behavior. It therefore takes a single moment to do and a lifetime to maintain.

In this light, let’s consider a few more things:


Myth #3: Teshuvah takes a long time

Source of myth: Misunderstanding of the definition of Teshuvah

If Teshuvah means to fix your ways, you would reason that it takes a while to really fix everything you need to fix.

But while you do need to fix your ways, and yes, that usually takes a while, that isn’t Teshuvah, – that’s implementing the way of life Teshuvah requires for it to be maintained (see myth #00); Teshuvah itself takes just one moment, the moment in which you decide to abandon the evil ways and return to Hashem. Teshuvah is like getting on to the right road, it might take a while to reach the destination, but it makes one single moment to get onto the right path.

Or let’s compare it to medicine: to be full you need to eat a satisfying amount of food; and until you finish you’re not full. With medication however, just one drop can make you entirely healthy again.

Source: Zohar זח”א קכט, סע”א ואילך


Myth #4: True Teshuva means you don’t want to sin anymore

We sometimes think that a true Ba’al Teshuvah means someone who uprooted the desire to do aveirah’s and all he ever wants is to what Hashem wants. Right?

– No. That’s a Tzadik, and not everyone is expected yet to be at that level. A true Ba’al Teshuvah means someone that mastered perfect self-control, like the Rambam writes, “[Of who can it be said that he has reached] complete Teshuvah? – Of a person who confronts the same situation in which he sinned when he has the potential to commit [the sin again], and, nevertheless, abstains and does not commit it because of his Teshuvah alone” (Hilchos Teshuvah 2:1).

That’s one of the reasons why Chazal say “in the place that Ba’alei Teshuvah stand, even perfect Tzadikim don’t” – they stay committed even though its a daily struggle, a struggle a Tzadik doesn’t have.

Source: Hilchos Teshuva 7:4


Myth #5: I only need to do Teshuvah if I sinned purposely

“I get it that if it did something wrong on purpose I need to be sorry, I was rebellious and disregarded Hashem. But if I slept in and missed Shma, or  gossiped and absent-mindedly said Lashon Harah, it’s not like I meant to do bad.”

Every decent society fines and punishes people who caused damage by being negligent. How can you punish for something done by mistake?

– You don’t; they are not punished for what they did –that was beyond their control– but for what they didn’t do, for acting careless and not setting up proper preventions. A sin committed “by mistake,” just as much as one committed willingly, are equal symptoms to the same “culture of sin.”  

The fact is that people who care make much less mistakes than does who are careless. The sin of being indifferent and careless requires Teshuvah too.


Myth #6: Teshuvah is only for actions, not thoughts

Source of myth: Underestimating the power of thought

“Only if I actually did something wrong, or failed to do mitzvos, do I need to do Teshuvah, but if I “live by the book” like a religious Jew, I’m OK.”

Well, not quite. Firstly, if you do some soul searching you might be surprised to find some serious matters requiring immediate attention even if you generally “live by the book.”

But regardless, even if one was theoretically clean of wrong-doing, is he clean of wrong-thinking?

What’s wrong with wrong-thinking? – Bad thoughts happen to be worse that sins themselves. Firstly, because many-a-time, your thoughts form your deeds quite sooner than we expect. Even when not, precisely because we tend to forgive and dismiss wrongful thoughts (“c’mon! They’re just innocent harmless fantasies”) they become most destructive: undetected they stay in our psyche and subcutaneously create that “culture of sin,” bad enough in it of itself, which sooner or later translates into action.

To be sure, our Yetzer Harah sends up to bad thoughts the whole time and there is nothing wrong about that, it’s beyond our control.  The sin is accepting those thoughts and willingly failing to stop them “while they’re still young.”

And even if he’s clean of wrong-thinking as well, is your “living by the book” a form of closeness to Hashem, or just a habit developed over time due to being a easy-natured individual lucky enough to be living in the right time in the right place? – A way to tell is to see if you’re Yiddishkeit is constantly growing, or are you stuck in the same place for a while; ‘cause if it’s about getting closer, then it could always improve.

If it’s not improving, you’d better start going back to where you came from, – you’re Neshama didn’t come to the world complacent like this. So maybe Teshuva is an option for Mr. Perfect after all…

Source: הרהורי עבירה קשים מעבירה, ג’ דברים אין אדם ניצול מהם כל יום, Chazal say (Bava Basra 164b) that there are three sins that (almost) no one is “saved” from on a daily basis. Hilchos Teshuva 7:3


“Who needs to do Teshuvah” Myths

Myth #7: FFBs don’t need to become Ba’alei Teshuvah

Source of myth: the emergence of the Teshuva movement which created a distinction between “FFB”s and “BT”s

There is a humorous anecdote about a famous Ba’al Teshuvah who met an old chassid who spent many years in Soviet labor camps for “crimes” associated to maintaining Yiddishkeit in the Soviet Union. When the young man introduced himself as a “Ba’al Teshuva” he responded with astonishment: “Wow! So young? I’ve been working on it for decades and still didn’t get there!”

Jokes aside, much respect is owed and many lessons are to be learned from people who change their lifestyle to become frum and accept the Torah in its entirety. But you don’t have to be previously non-observant to become a Ba’al Teshuvah (even if you are a truly ehrliche Yid – see myth #4 & 5) nor does everyone who took on a religious lifestyle at a later stage in their become a full-fledged Ba’al Teshuvah.

The only requirement for doing Teshuvah is the need to do fix something in the relationship between you, others and Hashem. If that’s the parameter, then I think FFBs and BTs stand an equal chance…


Myth #8: “Real” Teshuva means being perfect

“Ok, I get your point. But real Teshuvah isn’t something anyone could possibly do – you need to become perfect and stay perfect, and no one is perfect…”

Let’s talk about “perfect.” R’ Zushe of Anipoli once said that “Hashem won’t ask me why were you not Avraham Avinu, He’ll ask my why were you not Zushe.” We each have our individual journey and we must proceed in it step by step. True Teshuva doesn’t require me to reach my final destination (which doesn’t really exist) in one shot; it does require of me to be ready to keep growing and never feel that “I did it”!

The moment you feel “I’m finally a Ba’al Teshuvah” is the moment you stopped doing it, your stepped on your heels, For Teshuva is endless.

Always Remember: Teshuva is returning to the Infinite Hashem. Being so, the way is truly endless… It means making sure that tomorrow should be brighter than today, every day.

Teshuvah does mean being perfect – what’s perfect for you. Figuring that out, is something you can’t decide for yourself – you must have a mentor who sees you objectively.

Being the best you can be every day is what counts.


Myth #9: Tzadikim don’t need to do Teshuva

“Tzaddikim need to do Teshuvah?! – That’s ludicrous! Why would a tzadik need to do Teshuvah if he never ever does or even think of ar want to do anything wrong?”

Well, now that we know that Teshuva means to return to Hashem, not to fix problems, we can understand explain this.

Our Neshama becomes distant from Hashem on two levels:

  1. Just coming down to the world, without doing anything, already makes the Neshama “far” by stopping to feel that Hashem is the only reality. This, however, is caused by Hashem Himself for a reason.
  2. Already in the world, the body and the Nefesh Habehamis (the “animal soul”) through our choices, can make matters worse and cause the Neshama to become even more distant and lose the “closeness in deed” it enjoyed even here, by thinking, saying and doing aveiros.

Teshuvah too has 2 levels:

  1. Restoring the Nashama to “mint condition,” – to the state that it was given to us in. Our deeds are corrected and we no longer make it more distant than it already is.
  2. Bringing it even closer to Hashem by creating a deeper connection and improving its standing beyond the way it came here.

Obviously the second level of Teshuvah is something that can only be dome if the first “lower” level was done. This is the kind of Teshuvah Tzadikim do.


Teshuvah & Moshiach Myths

Myth #10: There will be no need for Teshuvah when Moshiach comes

“When Moshiach comes there will be no evil and no Yetzer Harah, so what need would there be for Teshuvah.”

The Zohar states the contrary: “Moshiach will come to make the Tzadikim do Teshuvah.”

I believe that having read myth #8 you can figure out the explanation, when Moshiach will come, he’ll help us all (we’re all Tzadikim in essence, as every Jew’s Neshama is part of Hashem) get even closer to Hashem than we were when he created us.

So when Moshiach comes we won’t need the “lower” Teshuvah, we won’t have any evil to deal with, but the “higher” Teshuvah will be are only occupation!


Myth #11: Moshiach will only come when all Jews are frum

The source of this myth is a misunderstanding of a ma’amar Chazal that says: “The Jews will only be redeemed through Teshuvah. The Torah therefore promised that the Jews will do Teshuvah at the end of their galus and then will be immediately redeemed.”

So what kind of Teshuva is Hashem waiting for to bring the Geulah? Does it mean that the all Jews must return to the full observance of Torah and mitzvos, and until then Moshiach can’t come?

Like you may have noticed reading all these myths, that doing Teshuvah and being frum are certainly related but not necessarily the same thing. We have already established that frum people need to do Teshuvah too, now let’s see if someone could do Teshuvah without becoming frum:

The Gemara says that a person known to be a Rasha is mekadesh a women “on condition that I am a perfect Tzaddik,” she is considered married misafek, for when he said that a thought of Teshuvah may have crossed his mind.

“But isn’t it worthless if he returns to his evil ways?” – Absolutely not! No mitzvah is ever worthless because of future sin! A mitzvah, being an holy act, never “expires” and its net worth is eternal. The troubles Jews went through in the last few generations have left every Jew with one or more thought of Teshuva at least? Haven’t they?

In fact, when we look at the pesukim on which this ma’amar Chazal is based upon, we find two stages of Teshuvah: First, a general Teshuva- “And you will return to Hashem your G-d” – that will bring about the coming of  Moshiach as the Torah teaches further, “And Hashem your G-d will return your exiles… Peoples”;

Only after the Geulah will there be a more comprehensive Teshuvah: “And you will return and again  heed the voice of Hashem and do all his mitzvos.”

Sources: Sanhedrin 97b; Rambam Hilchos Teshuvah 7:5; Kiddushin 49b; Sefer Hasichos 5751 vol. 1  p. 323; Divrei Torah – Munkatch vol. 3 siman 24   

“How Teshuvah is Done” Myths

Myth #12: Fasting is part of Teshuvah

Source of myth: a confusion of Teshuvah and Kappara

Books of Mussar (based on the teachings of Chazal) speak of varying numbers of fasts and tikkunim for doing certain aveiros. But before you start fasting make sure you can handle it  because if it will impede your Torah and Teffilah it is counter-productive (if you’re reading this in 2017 don’t waste time checking, you probably can’t).

But the lack of fasting doesn’t affect the quality of your Teshuvah. Let me explain why: Teshuvah — to return to Hashem — is your job, Hashem’s job is to forgive, which He does immediately if your Teshuvah is sincere.

To be sure, all the Halachic authorities who enumerate the Mitzvos (Rambam, Smag and others) when discussing the Mitzvah of Teshuvah, make not mention of fasting as part of the mitzvah.

So where does the fasting thing come from?

For certain severe aveiros, the Kapparah (atonement) requires yisurim (suffering) which could either be brought upon you by Hashem when He decides, or it can replaced with forms of self-affliction like fasting; that’s how the fasting became affiliated with Teshuvah, because people who took Teshuvah seriously also fasted to speed up the atonement; either to choose the painful treatment themselves rather than Hashem doing it, or just because they wanted to feel clean already.

Fasting also replaces a Korban Olah, which was offered even for “smaller” aveiros or just failing to do a mitzvah. It’s like giving a gift to the king, even after he already forgave you. Just to set the record straight and to bring the relationship back to where it previously was (if the king part is a bit removed from your life, think of your spouse…)

Now that we can’t afford to fast, we can replace it with Tzedakah. Just like a fast replaces a korban, (because it’s a sacrifice of your own “blood and fat”), Tzedakah replaces fasting,being a sacrifice of your own money which could have bought you some things to make your body enjoy and grow.

You can’t afford such amounts of Tzedakah? – then don’t do aveiros…

Source: Iggeres Hateshuva chapters 3-4


Myth #13: Teshuvah is a statement made to the public

Source of myth: confusing laws of Halachic trustworthiness with Teshuvah

Here is how this myth began: for a person to be trusted as a witness in court, for a marriage or to eat food he prepared, he mustn’t be a Rasha, someone who commits sins on a regular basis. So, for example, a person who was known to be involved in a prohibited form of gambling doesn’t regain his status as a trustworthy person until he destroys the instruments used for his un-kosher habit.

Regaining his status is obviously something that the public must be aware of, since it retains to his relationship with the …public! But as far as Teshuvah is concerned, it’s exclusively between him and Hashem, and the moment he regrets his part deeds and commits not to return to them, he did complete and perfect Teshuvah, even if he didn’t yet return items he stole.

Source: Iggeres Hateshuva chapter 1

Myth #14: Teshuvah is sad and bitter

Source of myth: Confusing regret and Teshuvah

To many, Teshuvah is associated with bitterness, crying and sadness. While the tears and bitterness are understood, –it’s only natural that when you regret wrongdoings you feel remorse, and when you feel remorse you cry– we mustn’t forget what our Teshuvah achieves – it get’s us back in touch with Hashem. Shouldn’t that make us rejoice?

The Ba’al Shem Tov once spent Yom Kippur in a town and witnesses a bizarre custom; the viduy was chanted with a lively tune. When he inquired, the rabbi told him a mashal. “Once a great king instructed some of his servants to clean up a rundown orchard of his that has been neglected for some time and make it once again fit for use. The workers were so jubilant for being given the opportunity to do this, so much so that they were emptying the trash with a lively tune on their lips. Isn’t Teshuvah the same thing”? Said the rabbi.

Bitterness prompt a person to correct and fix, and fixing brings joy; sadness leads to depression and apathy. So sadness out and bitterness-leading to joy in!

Source: Iggeres Hateshuva chapter 12