Elul: Transforming Transgressions into Merits

Reish Lakish said: “Great is תשובה (repentance) because it transforms זדונות (premeditated sins) into שגגות (inadvertent transgressions)”. Oh Really? Didn’t he also say? “Great is תשובה (repentance) because it transforms premeditated sins into זכויות (merits)”? There is no contradiction. The first one refers to “Teshuva Meyir’ah” (out of fear of G-d), the other refers to “Teshuva Me’ahava” (out of love for G-d). 

The first statement of Reish Lakish, one of the greatest Ba’alei Teshuva, is quite rational. The Halachic definition for שוגג (inadvertent transgression) is a sin, which was committed deliberately, though with a lack of knowledge or awareness. For instance, on Shabbat one is not considered to be a שוגג if he committed the sin by mistake. Rather, because he didn’t know that it was Shabbat today or that this specific action is prohibited on Shabbat, he performed this prohibited action on purpose. In that sense, one who does Teshuva, is considered to be שוגג. By doing Teshuva one proves that now he has some new awareness that he didn’t have in the past and, as a result, decided to end his sinful ways. Had one known back then what he knows now, he would have never committed those sins. Therefore, it is considered to be שוגג. However, the other statement of Reish Lakish is pretty puzzling. How can it be that every sin turns into a Mitzva? One can have life of unlimited hedonism, sins and transgressions, and yet, all of the sudden, by doing this ultimate Teshuva, every single sin is considered as a Mitzva. What is the sense of that?

Teshuva – Returning or Continuing?

Turn BackRabbi Yoseph Dov Soloveitchik discusses this matter in “Al HaTeshuvah.” There are two ways to repent. One common and perhaps easier way is to forget the sins and open a new page in life. One can make a clean break with the past and eradicate all his memories of the sins completely.  In this kind of Teshuva a person returns back to where he stood prior to the sins. This Teshuva does not develop any new skills but rather gives us a new chance to restart our lives.

The other method of Teshuva however, is absolutely different. In this kind of Teshuva, one does not return but rather continues. Instead of suffocating the fire and desires of the sins, one can uplift and elevate them. Behind every sin there is much negative energy, which was invested in the sin. Sometimes that energy is stronger than the positive energies, which we put in the Mitzvot. The sinner can try to channel and convert that negative energy to Kedusha (sanctity). With the same passion one used to hate, envy and covet, he can now perform the Mitzvot. The evil of transgressions can be transformed into a powerful and steady catalyst for learning Torah. His Torah will be more “juicy” because the strong energies of sin will be now part of his Torah. In that sense, retroactively, every single sin is considered to be a Mitzva because now one knows how to redirect the sinful energy. This method requires one to remember his sins. When a person does Teshuvah, it can bring him closer to Hashem, more than he ever dreamt.

Needless to say, there is no justification for any sin. However, since, unfortunately, everybody carries some sins on their back, the question is how to deal with them. We can escape from sin and change our ways. We can also take our sins with us and channel their passion toward Kedusha. If we are able to do “Teshuva Me’ahava” , we can transform every sin to a merit, as Rabbi Yochanan told Reish Lakish while trying to be Mekarev(reach out to) him : “Your strength should be devoted to Torah.” (Bava Metzia 84a)

Rav Ronen Neuwirth #1Rabbi Ronen Neuwirth is one of the founders of Beit Hillel and the Rav of Congregation Ohel Ari in Ra’anana. He served as Director of the Overseas Department of Tzohar and as the Rabbi of Bnei Akiva of North America. He also served as a Chief Technology Officer (CTO) and is a former captain in the Israeli Navy Special Forces.


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