Seven Levels of Teshuva Introduction
This essay is not to define Teshuva. It is intended to provide practical steps to achieve true Teshuva. It is necessary to understand Teshuva is not repentance as people usually comprehend it. One of the most powerful examples of the difference between Teshuva and repentance can be found in a verse in Jeremiah1, which is read as the Hafatrah on the second day of Rosh Hashanah; “Acharei shuvi, nichamti,” I was filled with regret (over my sins,) after I did Teshuva.” When someone repents they must regret their actions in order to repent. Teshuva precedes regret. It leads to regret. Teshuva and repentance are not the same idea.
Picture two pairs of husbands and wives who have argued: One husband apologizes because he is ashamed that he acted so poorly. He approaches his wife with regret over his behavior because he feels guilty. The other husband apologizes because he loves his wife so much that he regrets that anyone, including him, would treat his wife so poorly. He feels that she deserves better treatment. The first husband is repenting. The second husband is doing Teshuva. The first husband is focused on himself. The second husband is focused on his wife. Repentance centers on the sinner who feels guilty and ashamed. Teshuva is centered on God. We regret that God was treated so poorly.2
The Talmud3 describes the awesome power of Teshuva. The Talmud gives seven examples of the power of Teshuva. The seven illustrations are actually descriptions of seven levels of Teshuva. Each can be found in the service of the High Priest on Yom Kippur, the day of Teshuva. We will provide practical steps one can take for each level in order to proceed to the next and ultimately succeed on Yom Kippur.
The seven images are:
Teshuva is so powerful that it brings healing to the world.
Teshuva is so powerful that it can reach all the way to the Divine throne.
Teshuva is so powerful that it can go against a negative commandment.
Teshuva is so powerful that it can speed and actually bring the redemption.
Teshuva is so powerful that it can take purposeful sins and transform them into mistakes and even into acts of merit.
Teshuva is so powerful that it can lengthen a person’s life.
Teshuva is so powerful that an individual can bring forgiveness to the entire world.
Each one of these descriptions is a step of Teshuva and can lead to the next, higher stage until one has completed his Teshuva. As we said, each can be found in the service of Yom Kippur. This can help us reify what we have studied until we reach the highest step which is to bring forgiveness to the entire world.
It is important to interject at this point that the blessing of Teshuva in the Amidah follows the blessing of Da’as, knowledge and awareness. Teshuva follows understanding. One must first have a personal awareness of the idea before he can to Teshuva. It is not a simple emotional frustration with one’s self. Teshuva is not an expression of my unhappiness with me and my actions. Teshuva is complex. It is deeply partnered with the concept of Free Choice. (Maimonidies discusses the concept of free choice in the laws of Teshuva4.) My objective is to clarify the points, explain the concepts and provide the da’as, so to speak, in order to help you do Teshuva.
The number seven is not coincidental. The seven levels also correspond to the seven shepherds who represent the seven lower sefirot; Abraham-Chesed (kindness), Yitzchak-Gevurah (strength), Yaacov-Tiferet (beauty), Yosef-Yesod (foundation), Moshe-Netzach (eternity), Aharon-Hod (glory), and David-Malchut (kingship). We will show how each level is reflected in the life and personality of theses seven heroes and the sefirot they represent. We will define the sefirot in more detail as we proceed.