When you hear the word teshuvah, what do you think about? Perhaps the first ideas to come to mind are that it means to repent or to return to Hashem and His ways. We could add the notion of moving from being far away to being closer to Hashem. Maybe it is associated with becoming ‘more religious’ or ‘more observant’ of mitzvot. While these may all be true, they seem just a little bit vague. In other words, what exactly does it mean to ‘return’ to Hashem or to move ‘closer to’ Hashem or to become more religious? And what does being more observant of mitzvot mean? There’s a lot of mitzvot, so which mitzvot might we be thinking about? Are there particular mitzvot which epitomize teshuvah more than others? If we wanted to, we could create a list of hundreds of things to include in doing teshuvah. But that’s not the point. We want to define the most important features of teshuvah, because if we know what sits at the top of the hierarchy, then everything could more easily flow from there. Instead of focusing on particular details (which may actually result in just the opposite of its intended purpose, G d forbid), we want to focus on the overriding principles. What are they? Do you know?
We need to distinguish between conditions and outcomes. The conditions are those attributes that need to be in place even before we do anything. Think of the conditions as the fuel in the tank. Without the fuel, we’re not going anywhere. The outcomes are the specific actions that we can do in a practical sense to materialize teshuvah, i.e. to get to a destination.
Let’s start with the conditions. It is written in Yeshayahu 6:9-10: וַיֹּאמֶר לֵךְ וְאָמַרְתָּ לָעָם הַזֶּה שִׁמְעוּ שָׁמוֹעַ וְאַל־תָּבִינוּ וּרְאוּ רָאוֹ וְאַל־תֵּדָעוּ׃ הַשְׁמֵן לֵב־הָעָם הַזֶּה וְאׇזְנָיו הַכְבֵּד וְעֵינָיו הָשַׁע פֶּן־יִרְאֶה בְעֵינָיו וּבְאׇזְנָיו יִשְׁמָע וּלְבָבוֹ יָבִין וָשָׁב וְרָפָא לוֹ (And He said, “Go and speak to this nation, ‘Surely you hear, but you do not understand, and surely you see, but you do not know.’ The heart of the nation is fat, its ears are heavy, and its eyes are sealed, lest it see with its eyes, hear with its ears and understand with its heart, so that it will return [do teshuvah] and be healed”). We see here the three conditions for teshuvah: seeing, hearing, and understanding, i.e. internalizing that which is seen and heard in one’s heart. This is elucidated in Likutei Eitzot: Teshuvah 8: כִּי צָרִיךְ הָאָדָם לָשׂוּם עֵינוֹ וְלִבּוֹ הֵיטֵב עַל דְּרָכָיו וּלְהִסְתַּכֵּל עַל תַּכְלִיתוֹ הַנִּצְחִי וּלְיַשֵּׁב אֶת עַצְמוֹ הֵיטֵב הֵיטֵב וְלִשְׁמֹעַ הֵיטֵב כָּל דִּבְרֵי רַבּוֹתֵינוּ הַקְּדוֹשִׁים וְאָז יִזְכֶּה לִתְשׁוּבָה בֶּאֱמֶת (A person needs to focus his eyes and his heart really well on his ways, and fix his gaze on his ultimate purpose and settle himself really well [in this], and pay attention to all of the words of our holy Sages, and then he shall truly merit teshuvah). Seeing relates to having the ultimate purpose of one’s existence constantly in mind, hearing relates to paying close attention to the Torah, whether written or oral, i.e. the words of our Sages, and understanding relates to feeling these truths in one’s heart. So even if you’re already a ‘religious Jew’ and consider yourself well-versed in Torah and in the observance of mitzvot, you can still climb to even higher levels. When faced with the Eternal Infinite, all progress we may think we have made to date is not even a drop in the bucket.
Now that we have outlined briefly the three ‘internal’ conditions for doing teshuvah, we can now move on to the outcomes, the practical, i.e. ‘external’, application of these conditions. There are only two and we read about them in the berachah of teshuvah in the Shemoneh Esreh: הֲשִׁיבֵנוּ אָבִינוּ לְתוֹרָתֶךָ וְקָרְבֵנוּ מַלְכֵּנוּ לַעֲבוֹדָתֶךָ וְהַחֲזִירֵנוּ בִּתְשׁוּבָה שְׁלֵמָה לְפָנֶיךָ: בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ הָרוֹצֶה בִּתְשׁוּבָה (Cause us to return, our Father, to Your Torah, and bring us near, our King, to Your service, and bring us back in complete teshuvah before You: Blessed are You Hashem, Who wants teshuvah). The practical outcomes that we must ‘do’ to put into effect the thoughts and feelings of teshuvah are to learn the Torah and to serve Him. And where does serving Hashem take place? It is written (Devarim 11:13): וְהָיָה אִם־שָׁמֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ אֶל־מִצְוֺתַי אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם הַיּוֹם לְאַהֲבָה אֶת־יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם וּלְעׇבְדוֹ בְּכׇל־לְבַבְכֶם וּבְכׇל־נַפְשְׁכֶם (And if you will truly pay attention to My mitzvot which I command you today, to love Hashem your G d and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul…). So we see that ‘service’ takes place in the heart and soul of every Jew. Commenting on that verse, the Gemara asks (Ta’anit 2a): אֵיזוֹ הִיא עֲבוֹדָה שֶׁהִיא בַּלֵּב הֱוֵי אוֹמֵר זוֹ תְּפִלָּה (Which is the service that is ‘in the heart’? You must say it is tefillah [prayer]). And as is known, when our Sages spoke about tefillah, they were referring to the Shemoneh Esreh.
Why does this berachah start off by calling Hashem ‘Father’ and then switch to ‘King’? It’s not so unusual. After all, we refer to Hashem as both ‘Father’ and ‘King’ in many other prayers, such as Avinu Malkeinu for example. But notice the association of each in this particular berachah. ‘Father’ is associated with learning Torah, and ‘King’ is associated with tefillah. We learn the Torah of our Father, but pray to our King. We’ll return to this point further on.
But don’t we already learn Torah and pray the Shemoneh Esreh? Let’s assume that we do, but to be a ba’al teshuvah, i.e. a Master at Repentance, we need to be involved in Torah more than whatever we are currently doing now, and we need to pray with greater focus and concentration [kavanah] than whatever we are managing currently. There’s always room for growth. And if we focus on improving in just these two areas, we will really become a ba’al teshuvah. Whether we were frum from birth or turned to Hashem later in life, it makes no difference. Unless you’re a tzaddik gamur [a completely religious individual], then you should be striving to become a ‘ba’al’ teshuvah every day of your life, the key word being ‘ba’al’—a master, a professional, an expert. Don’t let yourself fall into the trap—and if you’ve already fallen in, climb out quickly—of thinking like this: “I’ve already got a nice seder of learning Torah and I’m already davening three times a day. I’m already observant, so I don’t need to do teshuvah. That’s for non-religious people. In addition, I’ve got other things to do. I’ve got a life to live. What? You expect me to study Torah in all of my spare time and to concentrate with perfect focus on every letter and word of tefillah? Nobody can do that. Be realistic.” This is a dangerous position to hold because to think that we have arrived is tantamount to proclaiming our demise, G d forbid. Again, when faced with the Eternal Infinite, i.e. the Ein Sof, we haven’t even begun!
Perhaps you’ve already made the connection to the berachah immediately preceding the berachah of teshuvah, the berachah requesting chochmah, binah and da’at [nusach Sephard]: אַתָּה חוֹנֵן לְאָדָם דַּעַת וּמְלַמֵּד לֶאֱנוֹשׁ בִּינָה חָנֵּנוּ מֵאִתְּךָ חָכְמָה בִּינָה וָדָּעַת בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ חוֹנֵן הַדָּעַת (You graciously grant da’at to man [Adam] and teach binah to man [enosh]; Graciously grant us from Yourself chochmah, binah and da’at: Blessed are You Hashem, Gracious Giver of da’at). For those who haven’t made the connection yet, what is it? These three ‘mental faculties’ that are mentioned here correspond to the three conditions upon which complete teshuvah is established—seeing with the eyes, hearing with the ears and internalizing with the heart. So isn’t this beautiful? This explains why this berachah immediately precedes the berachah for teshuvah. We are asking Hashem to bestow upon us these three ‘mental faculties’ so that we will be able to do teshuvah properly.
But what’s the connection between learning Torah and tefillah? Why are these activities the two ‘external’ outcomes that define complete teshuvah? The answer is given in the very first sentence of the very first teaching in Likutei Moharan (L.M. 1:1): דַּע כִּי עַל יְדֵי הַתּוֹרָה נִתְקַבְּלִים כָּל הַתְּפִלּוֹת וְכָל הַבַּקָּשׁוֹת שֶׁאָנוּ מְבַקְּשִׁים וּמִתְפַּלְּלִים (Know! By means of the Torah, all the tefillot and all the requests which we request and pray are accepted). Surprising? Maybe initially, but it makes perfectly good sense. Think of the audacity of someone who dares to approach the King with petitions, but never (or rarely) ever bothers to study his Father’s teachings. Why should the King accept his requests? If he doesn’t accept the Father’s words, why should the King accept his words? (Of course, the Father and the King are one and the same.) Isn’t it just an aspect of middah k’neged middah? As we have written in many articles to date, the entire course of the world is governed by middah k’neged middah. Torah is Hashem speaking to us; tefillah is us speaking to Hashem. And these two activities establish the foundation for a truly meaningful relationship.
For balance, stability and growth, G d gave us two legs to stand on. By way of analogy, we could say that Torah and tefillah are like our two legs. We need both and we need them equally strong. Some of us are very strong in Torah, but very weak, G d forbid, when it comes to prayer. Likewise, others are very strong at prayer, but very weak, G d forbid, in learning Torah. Like any athlete, if you want to improve, you have to strengthen the weakest link. In our case, there are only two links, so it shouldn’t be too complicated to figure out which one is the weaker one. Take a little time to think about it and you’ll probably figure it out quickly enough. At first, spend more time strengthening the weaker leg, and then when you get it up to par, continue strengthening both equally.
In summary, instead of trying to do a thousand things at once, focus on the three conditions and the two outcomes. Pray to Hashem that you would be given eyes to see and ears to hear, that you would be given a heart to internalize what you know, and that you would be able to keep the eternal purpose of your life in mind throughout the day (and night). By the way, these are all really great things to focus on during hitbodedut. Then follow through, i.e. work on improving your learning of Torah and your concentration during Shemoneh Esreh. Man is like a tree (Tehillim 1:3), so allow your growth to happen naturally, organically. Don’t try to force it. You can’t force a tree to grow faster by beating it, screaming at it, shaming it, over-fertilizing it or dumping tons and tons of water on it. On the contrary, those things will either stunt its growth or, G d forbid, kill it altogether. Go organic. That’s the way to grow!