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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 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. That is akin to 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 fortshuva 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.
In the course of married life, there are many opportunities for rupture between spouses. They can range from major life decisions, like where to live, to minor ones, like what to have for dinner. Ignoring them does not make them go away. Just as in the process of tshuva, offenses between spouses have to be brought to light so that they can be sorted out. For example, a new husband has an old cereal bowl that he has used as a child at home and in his dorm. As he feels attached to it, he brings it with him to his marital home. In his wife’s eyes, the bowl is a rather battered piece of plastic that is not fit to be seen alongside their beautiful, new set of dishes, so she tosses it. The next morning her husband takes out the cereal and looks for his usual breakfast bowl. When he can’t find it, he asks his wife where she put it. “That old thing? I threw it out! Use one of our nice new bowls.” What she doesn’t realize in being so casual about it is that her husband is upset that she took something that he was attached to and got rid of it without asking him first.
Though he can remain silent about it, avoiding the confrontation would not give his wife the opportunity to clear her transgression. If he explains his point of view, his wife should not say, “ It’s just a cheap plastic bowl!” Instead, she should feel sorry that her husband finds what she did inconsiderate. Her regret attests to the fact that if she had known what the effect would be, she would have acted differently. Consequently, she would be forgiven as a shogeg, one who acts without malicious intent. But she can take it a step beyond that. She can realize that this about more than just the bowl in question; it is about not taking it for granted that her husband would see things her way. Appreciating this and applying it to other situations would transform the zadon of throwing out the bowl into merit as a reminder to check with her husband on future. Likewise, if a husband schedules something for the day his wife expected they would celebrate an anniversary, he can turn the negative into a positive, not by being defensive, but by sincerely apologizing for something she felt diminished their connection and resolving to mark his calendar with the date in future.
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 asbeynonim – 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. Love has the power the transfigure our actions in our relationship with Hashem and with each other, especially with our spouses.