With regards to teshuvah – returning to G‑d, atoning for past misdeeds – the common notion is that it wholly consists of tears and intense remorse. After all, if one really feels bad for a wrongdoing, it is only natural to cry.
Let me tell you a story. Before entering a private audience with the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, it was customary to write a note wherein one would detail all that he or she wanted to discuss in the audience, as well as anything for which he or she wanted a blessing.
During one of my private audiences, after the Rebbe read and responded to everything in my note, he lifted his head, looked me in the eyes and asked, "Do you have anything else to ask?"
I would always try to include everything I wanted to discuss or ask in my note, and here the Rebbe is looking at me waiting to hear any other question I might have... My heart began to race; what did I leave out? My mind went blank.
The Rebbe gently asked me a second time, "Do you have anything else to ask?"
The Rebbe responded, "It looks like you do not wish to repent out of happiness!"I was totally shaken, I could not think of anything else.
Then a third time: "Do you have anything else to ask? I want to finish answering all your questions before I begin to speak about matters that I wish to discuss..."
This time I broke down sobbing. I couldn't think of anything in particular to ask... What, then, could I say that is all encompassing? Between tears I blurted out, "Help me, Rebbe, to do teshuvah!"
To which the Rebbe responded, "It looks like you do not wish to repent out of happiness!"
Then the Rebbe immediately turned to the other matters that he wanted to discuss.
Later I wrote to the Rebbe the following question: Isn't crying totally appropriate when you do teshuvah and feel total remorse for past deeds?
The Rebbe responded (paraphrased):
"Every single mitzvah that we merit to do must be performed with joy. Repentance is a mitzvah like any other, and therefore must be done with joy."The Rebbe continued saying that, in fact, repentance is greater than every mitzvah. Its purpose is to correct the transgression of all other commandments, it must fill the spiritual "gap" that the lack of observance engendered. Teshuvah's ability to do so stems from the fact that it emanates from a higher spiritual source than all the others (as explained at length in the chassidic texts). And "the greater the mitzvah, the greater the joy."
The Rebbe explained that according to Jewish law, even a thoroughly evil individual can repent in one moment and then be considered a righteous person. With one simple thought – "G‑d! I want to be what You want me to be" – a person is completely transformed. Though this is only the beginning of the process that leads to total atonement, that does not change the fact that he's already reconnected to the Source. Therefore, the Rebbe wrote, "The ensuing joy must be incomparably greater than the joy involved in the performance of any other mitzvah!"
Where is the Joy?
Repentance – or as teshuvah is correctly translated, "return" – means a commitment to now act as I always should have—i.e., connecting to G‑d and attaining great holiness through fulfilling G‑d's commandments.
When I look at my life, however, I see that I am not deserving of this possibility; why should I be given another chance after I've botched up so badly? Nevertheless, G‑d chose to give me the special mitzvah of teshuvah. I could start observing G‑d's commandments now; I could be connected to G‑d now.
Imagine a child who rebelled against his parents, and then one day returns to them and they greet him warmly and with open arms. Undoubtedly, he'll feel great satisfaction and boundless joy. So, too, when G‑d lovingly greets and welcomes us, His children, after we repent, of course that's cause for rejoicing!
So do we need to feel remorse? Absolutely! That is integral to teshuvah. We need to shed tears, recognizing how our past deeds distanced us from G‑d and from our holy core. But then we need to rejoice and dance, for G‑d is giving us the opportunity to return.
The Rebbe also wrote that I should not take on long-term resolutions. Because in the long term, one does not have the same level of inspiration as at the time of the actual commitment. Once the inspiration disappears, the resolution can quickly follow suit... Therefore the Rebbe advised me to make short-term resolutions, two or three weeks at the most. Then, according to the situation in two or three weeks, to make a new resolution based on the situation at the time.