What is complete teshuva [return or repentance]? When a person has the opportunity to commit the original sin again, and is physically able to sin again, but refrains from sinning—not out of fear, or because of physical weakness, but because of his repentance . . . he is a baal teshuva (‘master of repentance’). Rambam, Hilchot Teshuva 2:1
The stream of world news can become a deadening drone that we want to block out, especially as we prepare for the holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (September 13-23 this year). But now and then an image emerges from the news stream that raises our awareness of eternal matters.
Last week the media ran pictures of Alan Kurdi, a three year old Syrian boy whose body washed up on a Turkish beach. He and two other members of his family drowned in the Mediterranean as they tried to reach a Greek island—the shore of Europe—in an inflatable raft. Many voices in Europe and around the world rose up to call for more compassion and help for refugees from Syria, Iraq and other Middle Eastern hot spots. What struck me as much as the image itself was one particular European voice, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel: “If Europe fails on the question of refugees, its close connection with universal civil rights will be destroyed.”
In a September 6 article in the British journal “The Observer,” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks compared the world’s response to the Middle East refugees today with its despicable response to the Jewish refugees of the Nazi era. Readers might debate whether the comparison is apt, but Rabbi Sacks’ point was clear—the Torah’s command to “Love the stranger because you were once strangers,” still calls us today. He concludes, “A bold act of collective generosity [toward the refugees] will show that the world, particularly Europe, really has learned the lesson of its own dark past and is willing to take a global lead in building a more hopeful future. “
Of course, Europe’s “dark past” regarding refugees is linked to Germany’s even darker past in creating the Jewish refugee crisis of the Nazi era. That’s why Chancellor Merkel’s response is so striking. Through her leadership, Germany has responded with generosity and initiative, pledging to receive hundreds of thousands of refugees this year (and pressuring other European countries to expand their efforts as well)—evidence that Germany “has learned the lesson of its own dark past.”
Rabbi Sacks exhorts us to view the Middle East refugee crisis in light of the commandment, “Love the stranger because you were once strangers” (Deut. 10:19; see also Ex. 22:21, 23:9; Lev. 19:33-34). We have to be careful about making a direct, straight-line application from a Scripture verse, or verses, to a specific current event. One can’t build an entire immigration policy on Deut. 10:19, much less on a photo, not matter how heart-wrenching. But Rabbi Sacks’ point remains: the foundational commandment to love the stranger should guide our formulation of policy. This is so even if policy has to take into account the reality of bogus refugees and those who might abuse their refugee status in ways harmful to the host nation. We should also note the reality that Germany, as well as other potential host nations, including the USA, needs a steady influx of immigrants to sustain its robust economy. Developed countries can formulate realistic, viable immigration and refugee policies that are informed by the ethical principles of Scripture.
The biblical command to love the stranger doesn’t qualify who the stranger is, or what kind of stranger we are to love. Rather, the command is based on our history of stranger-hood in Egypt, where we did not fit in with the values of the host culture. We were flat-out strangers and outsiders, and Hashem commands us to remember that condition and be compassionate to strangers and outsiders. Again, the practical and political ramifications of this need to be worked out, but the starting-point is given in Torah. And our response to Torah will show up in the way we think and talk about the outsiders and aliens in our midst. In preparation for Rosh Hashanah, which is traditionally seen as the anniversary of the creation of humankind, we can remember that the stranger in our midst, even the “illegal alien” among us, bears the image of the divine, and speak of him or her accordingly.
But let’s return to the issue of teshuva or return, which of course is another theme of this season, particularly the Days of Awe from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur (September 13-23). I’m not claiming that Chancellor Merkel was thinking of repentance, or even of Germany’s past crimes, when she proposed her refugee policy. But she did demonstrate the sort of radical change that defines teshuva, according to Rambam, as in our opening reference.
One the greatest of our Jewish thinkers, Rambam or Maimonides (1135-1204) identified three stages of teshuva: recognition of sin, remorse, and resolve.
And how does one repent? A sinner should abandon his sinfulness, drive it from his thoughts and conclude in his heart that he will never do it again, as it says, “Let the wicked man abandon his way, and the evil person his thoughts…” (Isaiah 55:7). Additionally, he should regret the past as it says: “For after I repented, I regretted. When I had been made to understand, I struck my thigh in shame and remorse” (Jeremiah 31:18)…. And let the sinner call to him who knows all hidden things to witness that he will never return to sin that sin again. Hilchot Teshuva 2:2
Notice that the sinner concludes in his heart that he won’t sin again in the first stage, but he still needs to experience profound regret or remorse, and to call on God to witness that he won’t sin again. And Rambam noted that teshuva still isn’t complete until it empowers the sinner to face the very temptation to which he yielded before and not give in. We need to be careful here, because, as Rambam notes later in Hilchot Teshuva, the one who is returning to God needs to distance himself from the thing that triggered the sin in the first place. The recovering gambler doesn’t go to the casino any longer, even just to hang out with his old friends. The gossip stops talking about other people, even in the guise of a “prayer request.” But inevitably in real life, we’re going to have to face the thing that brought us down before, and real teshuva empowers us to face it and bring it down next time, instead of vice versa.
Those who struggle, or work with people who struggle, to overcome the bondage of drug addiction, sexual immorality, lying, or envy know how hard it is to get from the point of admitting the wrong and vowing to never do it again to true freedom. And we know how hard it is to regain the trust of those betrayed through such behaviors. The person who holds up through the very temptation that once brought him down is on the way to freedom and trustworthiness.
The good news about the journey of return is that someone waits to meet us there. “Return to me and I will return to you, says the Lord of Hosts” (Malachi 3:7).
Messiah Yeshua once told a story of teshuva that we need to remember especially during this season.
A son leaves his father’s home, squanders his inheritance, finally comes to his senses and recognizes his sin, feels remorse, and resolves to return to his father’s home. But before he can even get there, “while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with pity. He ran and threw his arms around him and kissed him warmly. His father said to his slaves, ‘Quick, bring out a robe, the best one, and put it on him; and put a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet; and bring the calf that has been fattened up, and kill it. Let’s eat and have a celebration! For this son of mine was dead, but now he’s alive again! He was lost, but now he has been found!’” (Luke 15:22–24, CJB).
Rambam speaks of return that is complete, and Messiah reminds us that it isn’t complete without the return of the one we first offended, the father who turns back to us. During this season of teshuva, we can return wholeheartedly to the one who says, “Return to me and I will return to you.”