Growing up I didn’t like the word teshuva (repentance), as it engendered images of selichos and fasting into my mind. It basically meant that I had to promise I won’t have a good time anymore and also regret the times when I did have some fun. Upon exposure to Rebbe Nachman’s understanding of teshuva, or for that matter Rav Kook’s world of teshuva (see here), I understood that my perception of teshuva was exactly the opposite of what teshuva really is.
“Before teshuva, a person can’t really sustain himself. It’s almost as if he doesn’t exist in the world…[But] when a person purifies himself through teshuva, then he is preparing his birth into the world, so that he may exist. That’s why teshuva is an aspect of the Divine name אהי-ה, which means I am ready to be”. (Torah 6)
I always thought that the process of teshuva was trying to become a different person, as the Midrash Tehillim (120) says, through teshuva we become new creatures. But with the Rebbe’s lessons, like the one above, I now understand that becoming a new creature doesn’t mean something new was created. It also doesn’t mean that a new me was created. It means that I finally have a right to exist. I don’t need to become anybody else, in fact I can’t be anybody else. Teshuva introduces me to the world. It cuts away all my fraudulence and highlights who I really am. I can’t speak for anybody else but that sounds attractive to me. I don’t want to be you anymore. I’m tired of being you! When I try to be you, I’m not good at it and I’m left feeling unsettled. The only way that I feel satisfaction and pride is when I’m being myself.
Teshuva brings out who we really are, not who we can be. We are each remarkably distinct and delightfully unique. The world doesn’t need another one of him. The world needs just one of you. Each one of us has something creative to contribute and teshuva is the process that accentuates our exceptional creative features. How fasting and reciting penitential poems uncovers the real us is for another discussion, but seeing teshuva as the process of readying myself to fully exist sounds healthy and exciting, not burdensome and depressing.