This year Rosh Hasha falls out on September 5-6, The holiday entails, not only preparation in terms of festive food and clothing, but spiritual preparation, as well. It is a time when we can make a positive change. And that positive change has the greatest power when it is motivated by love.
What’s love got to do with the power of tshuva? Reish Lakish makes two observations on the power of tshuva [repentance] in Yoma 86B. First he declares: “Great is tshuva, for through it zdonos [intentional sins] are transformed into shgagos [accidental actions].” Then he declares: “Great is tshuva, for through it zdonos are transformed into zchuyos [merits].” The first instance refers to tshuva miyira [out of fear], which only subtracts the offense, while the second refers to tshuva m’ahava [out of love], which transforms the offense into a positive addition. The power of tshuva to erase what we regret having done is a great thing. Yet there is an even greater power to it, one that does not just leave a blank in place of the blot of the sin but that turns it into the mark of merit. The key difference is the motivation for tshuva.
If one’s tshuva is motivated by fear of the negative consequences for deliberate sins, they are effectively erased by reclassifying the zdonos as shgagos. The situation is that of expressing regret for having committed an offense and, consequently, getting the punishment waived. Say, you cut in front of someone in line. Realizing that you behaved badly, you apologize and go to the back of the line. That is sufficient to have your offense erased and not be remembered as a selfish person. But when there is a deeper connection to the one offended, the regret is not only for the action itself but for harming the relationship. For example, lying to someone in your family entails the general offense of the lie plus a betrayal of the trust implicit in a close relationship. Tshuva m’ahavah means that your regret is not just out of concern for the consequences to yourself but for the rupture in the relationship to one you love caused by your action. The desire for tshuva in that case is a desire to re-establish your relationship. That resolution is powerful enough to transform the point of rupture into a new knot of connection.
The transformative power of tshuva is is a classical lesson for the Yamim Noraim [Days of Awe] when we focus on spiritual cleansing to achieve tshuva. In the days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we regard ourselves as beynonim – neither wholly wicked nor wholly righteous – and we seek to tip the balance to the side of righteousness through tshuva. While tshuva meyira removes the negative weight, tshuva meahava actually succeeds in transposing it to the positive side, as the zdonos become zchuyos.