Psychological Observations on Teshuva
The Gemara Berachos (34b) tells us "Penitents occupy a level that even the completely righteous cannot achieve." While this statement is encouraging and inspiring, what does it really mean and how can it be fair? Why should people who are consistently righteous and moral somehow lose out on access to spiritual achievements made available to former sinners?
Chazal go even further by declaring: "Teshuva is so powerful that it can turn sins into merits." (Yoma 86b)
This teaching, while even more inspiring, is correspondingly, even more troubling. It is one thing to be forgiven, but how can we accept that the very sinful deeds one has committed morph into good deeds? Putting it bluntly, a murderer might be contrite enough to achieve forgiveness, which in and of itself is a tall order, but how could the act of murder be turned into a mitzvah?
Nefesh Hachaim (Gate 1, ch 6) suggests the following mystical explanation:
Man is part of a linked system of spiritual emanations that reverberate up from the lowest to the highest spiritual sphere and back down. Every sin creates a cascade of spiritual destruction that sends impure forces all the way up the spiritual chain into each sphere, while every mitzvah activates a pure force that works its way up the spiritual chain of command. When that occurs a reflective process is aroused and a great spiritual benefit flows back down through each sphere, eventually enveloping the originator of the act, which is the human being, in a positive spiritual force.
Therefore, every sin and every mitzvah essentially occupies the same metaphysical space. That space is either filled with pure or impure force. Thus, when full repentance is achieved, it will include a reoccupation and restoration of the very same spiritual spaces that were corrupted and contaminated by the sin. Given that the restoration can be fully achieved, the result is tantamount and equal to having originally performed a good deed, since all those metaphysical spaces are now filled with this positive energy.
Tzidkas Hatzaddik (40 and 43) suggests a far more radical approach, which frankly, can be misunderstood in dangerous ways: His position is that although one must make every effort to resist sin, and even at the time of what feels to be a temptation that cannot be overcome, he must struggle valiantly to resist. Nevertheless, ex-post facto, it is quite possible that he was facing an urge that was beyond his ability to manage.
While one can never use this as an excuse to duck out of resisting sin, since one must always try his best, Tzidkas Hatzaddik posits that indeed it is possible to be presented with a compulsion to sin that cannot be managed, and effectively be considered an oness (a person under force and not liable). He goes further to deduce that in those cases, the sin is effectively G-d's will, and for all intents and purposes, a mitzvah. The only thing that was actually sinful was that the person's intent was self-gratification instead of carrying out G-d's will.
Therefore, he suggests, when one does full and sincere penitence, he restores this final step and aligns himself with G-d's will, turning all his acts into mitzvos. Clearly, this is a radical position and can easily lead to rationalizing sin and also make morality seem precariously relative. The authors cannot vouch for the acceptance of the Tzidkas Hatzaddik's position in mainstream Jewish thought and encourages the reader to look these sources up and study them further.
However, whether one holds like the Nefesh Hachaim or like the Tzidkas Hatzaddik, there is a psychological way to more easily understand and harmonize both of these approaches:
Human development cannot proceed without failure. For example, an infant learns to talk and walk through a constant process of trial, error and correction. Thus, it is fair to say, a part of learning to walk is falling down, and a part of any learning process is making mistakes. If one looked at sin and penitence as part of a developmental process, then one can be justified in arguing that the learning and growth that can result from the errors of sin pave the way for more moral and correct behavior, when properly implemented. It is through this lens that we can understand how the penitent can occupy a higher spiritual level and indeed sins can be revised into merits. This allows for a new and literal interpretation of the verse in Mishle (24:16): “A righteous man falls seven times and stands up.”
Reprinted from the Jewish Press