Some Thoughts On Teshuva

I had initially posted this a few days ago, but Josh Waxman pointed out a very careless grammatical error on my part which has since been corrected. Thanks Josh!

Anyone who has spent time in Yeshiva or Seminary during the asseret yemei teshuva has likely played The Mehilla Game, played simply by asking everyone for generic forgiveness and reciprocating with a comprehensive absolution of your own. Given that forgiveness should ostensibly be something personal and individualized it seems contradictory that asking forgiveness has been ritualized to the point of reciting the encompassing tefillah zakkah on Erev Yom Kippur.

In an excellent shiur over Rosh Hashanna, R. Adam Starr of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale questioned efficacy of such sweeping acts of forgiveness.1 On one hand M. Yoma 8:9 states that Yom Kippur does not absolve interpersonal transgressions until the offended party forgives the offender. However, R. Starr also noted M. Bava Kamma 8:9 in which mehilla is not contingent on being forgiven, but on the very act of asking for forgiveness. R. Starr argued that being forgiven is only a part of the process repentance, but to achieve a full teshuva one must work to reestablish the fractured relationship. Consequently, even if there is a complete forgiveness granted, there is no mehillah until there is a confrontation and the offender requests it.

While I agree with essence R. Starr’s shiur I see the two sources slightly differently in that neither Mishna presents a superior model of interpersonal teshuva but must be taken together to be fully appreciated. According to M. Yoma 8:7, Yom Kippur is “mechaper” for personal sins only when the offended party is sufficiently appeased.

עבירות שבין אדם למקום יום הכפורים מכפר עבירות שבין אדם לחבירו אין יום הכפורים מכפר עד שירצה את חברו

M. Bava Kamma 8:7 discusses that even if someone pays restitution for damages, he does not receive mehillah until he asks for it. However, this Mishnah also adds that the one who is being asked of forgiveness should not be an “achzari” – i.e. he should not be stubborn in refusing to forgive.

אף על פי שהוא נותן לו אין נמחל לו עד שיבקש ממנו שנאמר (בראשית כ’) ועתה השב אשת וגומר ומנין שלא יהא המוחל אכזרי שנאמר (שם /בראשית כ’/) ויתפלל אברהם אל האלהים וירפא אלהים את אבימלך וגומר

The difference between the mehillah in Bava Kamma and the kappara in Yoma is that the mehillah could be given out of a sense of obligation or guilt – not to be considered an achzari. Kappara on the other hand takes place “ad sheyeratzeh et chaveiro” – only until there is a genuine appeasement.

We previously discussed the phenomenon where people are expected to forgive. In these cases, the hurt is still there and often the person asking for forgiveness simply wishes to mollify a guilty conscience. According to this reading of the two Mishnayot, while there could be mehilla if it is induced through guilt there would still not be a full kapparah if deep down the other does not wish to forgive.

As R. Starr argued, the complete teshuva for bein adam l’haveiro is really in the restitution of a relationship between people. Simply asking for forgiveness is itself insufficient. To achieve a full kapparah we cannot simply rely on the other person to give mehillah, but we must work to rebuild the relationship, to the point where the other person genuinely wants us to be forgiven. This of course entails more than the conventional lip service of “do you mohel me” but requires thinking outside of ourselves toward the needs and feelings of the people we have harmed.
Granted it’s not as easy, but no one said spiritual improvement would be.

1. Indeed, if this sort of teshuva was in fact effective, then we would be solving the problem of sin’at hinam. This would not just result in a kapparah on an individual level, but in the complete national geulah.

Existential Teshuva And The Incredible Hulk

In this season of teshuva leading up to the yamim nora’im religious discussions primarily focus on personal change. We look to change our practices, ideally becoming more committed to Torah. We seek to change our religious perspectives, hopefully reconnecting with the Divine. For Rambam, this process of change is not simply behavioral, but existential. As we acknowledge and renounce our transgressions we also take measures demonstrating that we have changed to the point where we “are no longer the same person who committed these actions” (Hilchot Teshuva 2:4).

But what does it mean that we are no longer the same person? How does the process of teshuva effect a change so substantive that it alters our fundamental identity? In order to fully understand this transition we must tackle the philosophical question of what is the true essence of our personal identity – to find the essential determinant which makes us “us” such that changing this element constitutes a meaningful change in our identity. While this challenge may seem daunting to lesser minds, it is no match for the discerning duo of The Incredible Hulk…and an Oxford PhD.
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