Teshuva Out of Love Vs. Teshuva Out of Fear, Rav Avraham Yisrael Sylvetsky

(Translated from Hebrew)

“He Who opens the gate to those who come knocking in repentance”-

The Teshuva Refuser

While perusing the Book of Yonah and following the development of the story it relates, we cannot but be astonished at Yonah’s stubborn and consistent refusal to incorporate the concept of teshuva into his own life. Our amazement at his refusal to proclaim Hashem’s prophecy for Nineveh is surpassed by that engendered by his ongoing refusal to ‘return’ to his Creator, to do his own personal teshuva, in the face of the vicissitudes brought upon him by Hashem.

A ship about to be broken apart by a storm at sea, its sailors’ naked fear and their heartfelt cries, are not enough to prevent Yonah from sleeping soundly in the bottom of the ship, sunk in his own sins. This is not intentional suicide in order to escape prophesying at Nineveh, as we might think at first glance, but a deep-seated opposition to the concept of teshuva, as will be evidenced from a close reading of the book’s next chapters.

His very soul under water, lost in the bowels of a whale in the depths of the ocean, Yonah calls out to Hashem, pleading, praying, describing the crises and waves that have tried to overcome him, recalling the ‘halls of  Hashem’ and even vowing to bring a thanksgiving offering to the Beit Hamikdash as mandated for survivors of life-threatening danger. All this makes the absence of confession and teshuva for his transgression all the more glaring, and the Abarbanel notes that omission. Was it not incumbent upon Yonah to do teshuva in his hour of suffering? Is it possible to utter his heartfelt tefillah without doing repentance?

Even later on, once he has delivered the prophecy at Nineveh, when Yonah asks for death as the sun’s rays beat mercilessly on his head, he refuses to ‘return’ to Hashem. The Angel of Death’s sword hovers above his neck, but he still refuses to confess and express regret at his wrongful actions. It is hard not to think of the Rambam’s strong words at the start of the Laws of Fasting (Chap. 1, 13) concerning the trait of cruelty that epitomizes those who do not do teshuva despite the troubles and sufferings to which they are subjected. Doesn’t Yonah’s repeated hardheartedness evince a most terrible cruelty – meted out by Yonah to his own self?

The Book of Repentance based on Fear (Teshuva Miyir’a)


In these questions and in the answers to them, to be elaborated on here, lies the central, awe-inspiring content of Yonah’s prophecy.

Leaniyut daati, in my humble opinion, an in-depth study of the Book of Yonah reveals that he is not opposed to the concept of repentance, but to a specific, lower level of repentance, repentance whose source is fear. It can be seen that the entire theme of Yonah’s prophecy, Hashem’s response and the story of  the gourd form an eye-opening lesson on the value of repentance whose source is fear, one that Yonah refuses to accept until he is taught its significance and inner meaning in the chapters of the book carrying his name. Perhaps the reason the Book of Yonah is read on Yom Kippur is to have our hearts understand that teshuva motivated by fear is accepted and desired by Hashem – as will be explained below.

A return to Hashem based on the exercise of free will and personal choice is of great and exalted import. It is accompanied by the uplifting of a soul that sinned and has returned to Hashem after recognizing that sin and how repugnant it is.  It is filled with pure and powerful love for Hashem, is a source of nachat ruach, satisfaction, for the Creator.

Teshuva whose source is fear is not like that. What motivates it seems to be nothing more than a limited egotistical and instinctive desire to survive, an instinct shared with every living thing. It does not stem from exalted feelings of holiness. Man, if he wishes to live, is forced to repent out of fear, in order to avoid passing on to the sufferings of Hell. This level of repentance does not appear to be the result of a conscious, deliberate decision.

It seems that the Prophet Yonah’s understanding and his entire pattern of behavior express revulsion at this utilitarian kind of repentance. Hashem commands Yonah: “Rise and go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it,” (Yonah 1, 2),but are the sack cloths to be donned by its people and livestock in response to Yonah’s words any more than a covering for their fear and trembling at the thought of the city’s destruction, slated to take place forty days from the date of that prophecy?

The storm at sea that threatens to sink the ship causes the sailors to repent, each turning to his own god – “And the sailors feared and called out, each to his own god” (Yonah 1,5), but fear of death alone is not true repentance in Yonah’s eyes. He, descending to the ship’s depths, finds it lacking by definition, since it is ego-based and therefore inferior.

Is that the reason Yonah’s prayer from the depths of the sea, asking to be saved from the calamity that befell him, lacks even the slightest reference to teshuva? This form of repentance, stemming from the fear of death, is of no significance in Yonah’s worldview.


The Gourd (Kikayon)


Hashem’s response is not long in coming. A close examination of the story of the gourd will allow us, with G-d’s help, to understand its deeper meaning. At first glance, the entire story seems replete with contradictions and contrasts. Yonah is angered by Hashem’s reneging on His threat of destruction after Nineveh’s repentance – teshuva based on fear – and wants only to die: “And now, take my soul from me, for it is better for me to die than to live” (Yonah 4,3).

However, immediately afterwards, Yonah stops to rest east of the city, and astonishingly, feels great joy at the sight of the gourd growing above his head:

“And the Lord caused a gourd to grow up over Yonah to shade his head and save him from discomfort, and Yonah felt great happiness.” What is this happiness doing here (to paraphrase Kohelet – ulesimcha ma zu osa), isn’t this the person who prayed to Hashem just a short while ago to take his soul from his body? How does someone who proclaims his death to be preferable to his life suddenly feel joyous at his deliverance?

And if this turnabout is not enough, once Hashem has a worm cause the  gourd to wither and the sun begins to blaze on Yonah’s head once again, he effects another reversal of  his request, going back to the first one: “And he asked his soul to die, saying ‘my death is preferable to my life'”(Yonah 4, 5).

Hashem’s question and Yonah’s answer regarding the gourd: “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant” (Yonah 4, 9) and Hashem’s comparison of the gourd to the city of Nineveh are completely incomprehensible, It seems that Hashem is presenting Yonah with a kal vachomer. Yonah, who has mercy on the gourd which he never tended or helped cultivate is expected to understand that Hashem, who toiled and advanced the large city of Nineveh, would naturally have mercy upon it:

“But Hashem said: ‘You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight.  And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right from their left—and also many animals?’”(Yonah 4, 10-11).

What is the meaning of this comparison? Yonah did not feel any pity for the gourd – didn’t he express compassion only for his own life?  The vine upon which the gourd grew appeared overnight and disappeared just as quickly, but it is not the subject of Yonah’s pity nor of his mercy. It is his own full and cherished life, far from a one-day event, that evokes Yonah’s self pity, and that is the cause of Yonah’s anger – paradoxically, anger unto death.


The Survival Instinct – Its Real Meaning


The story of the gourd and the esoteric dialogue between Hashem and Yonah provide a true and deep lesson about fear-based teshuva, and that is the concept Hashem desires to clarify to the prophet. It seems that all the vicissitudes Hashem brings upon Yonah, the prophet who wishes to die one moment and to live the next, are part of a test to bring him to the realization of his own instinctive desire to live, the root of the concept of teshuva based on fear.

The universal desire to live is the motivation for fear-based teshuva, but from where does this powerful desire to live, pounding in the heart of every living being, come? Why does man ask to remain alive on earth at any price and in any condition? The seemingly egotistical aspiration to remain alive is really the outer manifestation of a lofty and awesome concept.  He who is the source of all life is the One who fills His creatures with an infinite desire to live – lives whose purpose is to reveal the existence of the Creator of all things by their very being. It follows that what is considered a survival instinct is a manifestation of the subconscious innate obligation to reveal the work of Hashem, hence its intense power.

At times, this realization is blurred by an erring intellect and the temptation to sin, so that a man’s choosing to live seems a personal choice that is his alone. That, however, is not the case, and true introspection into one’s inner soul will lead to the understanding that it is the Living G-d beating within man and revealed by the fact of man’s very existence that is the source of the desire to continue to live. That is the deep meaning of fear-sourced teshuva, motivated outwardly by the natural desire to live, but at its innermost level, stemming from the innate obligation to bear witness, by the very fact of living, to the eternal G-d.

This  describes the covenant between Hashem and His handiwork. Hashem, in His infinite wisdom, decreed that His everlasting uniqueness be revealed in the world He created, in accordance with each man’s actions, on whatever level he leads his life. Hashem allowed the way He appears in this world to depend on the lives chosen by those He has created. (see Nefesh Hachayim part 1, chap 9, regarding Shir Hashirim 1,9: “To a horse of Pharaoh’s chariots do I compare you, my beloved” – alluding to the fact that just  as Pharaoh’s horses reversed the normal situation in which a rider leads his horse, because in Pharaoh’s forces the horse led his rider… so I, in this exact way, although I ‘ride’ in the heavens, am led by you on earth and your actions are the way I ‘connect’ to the world, depending on their level and the direction you take…”).

The Prophet Yonah desires to die.  His intellect tells him that his death is preferable to his life, but Hashem shows him that the will to live that beats in his heart is mightier than all his rational calculations, and is not a matter of choice. The very same Yonah who reached the conclusion that his death is better than his life discovers how great his happiness is at the appearance of the gourd provided by Hashem. Yonah is exposed to the massive inner and exalted force, independent of intellect, which exists within him and which creates his longing for life. “This is Hashem’s doing,” this is but the Will of Hashem revealed in man’s elemental desire to survive.

At last Yonah understands the power of a kind of teshuva that although seemingly emanating only from fear, is accepted and welcomed by Hashem.  At last Yonah understands the secret of teshuva that stems from the desire to live – which he felt – and which arose from the turbulence experienced in his innermost self.

This is the reason for the comparison between the gourd and the people of Nineveh. Once Yonah understands the root of the will to live, he can comprehend the validity of the partnership between Hashem and His handiwork.  The gourd is simply a tool to help Yonah avoid the sun so that he can survive. It has no bearing on the essence of Yonah’s life. He did not nurture it or tend it and yet he still feels pity for it because he desires to live. The people of Nineveh are in a different category, as are the other living creatures in Hashem’s world in relation to Hashem. The people of the great city of Nineveh, their children and flocks, reveal He who creates and sustains life by their very existence, and He has made the revelation of His uniqueness in the world dependent upon them.  If they are found wanting, His immanence is found wanting.

 This revelation is the whole objective of creation and the reason Hashem has mercy on His handiwork, waits for them to do teshuva until the day they die – and declares: “And I should not have mercy on Nineveh?”

Teshuva Based On Love – Returning to Hashem


We can now gain a true understanding of the essence of teshuva based on love. It is not on a different plane, not cut off from teshuva that emanates from fear. In fact, the conscious understanding of the real inner essence of fear-based teshuva, as described above, is in itself teshuva based on love.

 In fear-based teshuva, the penitent is convinced that it is his personal will that causes him to repent, that the entire process is due to his desire to survive. In the case of teshuva emanating from love, the repentant person makes the conscious discovery that all his aspirations and his entire life are the revelation of Hashem’s Existence and Will (see Proverbs 15, 4: “All is done by G-d for His sake.”)

The inner consciousness that teshuva from love entails is what converts sins into merits (zdonot lezchuyot). The recognition that all of creation, including man’s sins and failures, are the way Hashem’s Will is revealed on earth, raises even sins to a specific level, their merit measured by their being Hashem’s doing – and “everything the Merciful One does is for the good.” (Brachot, 60)

Rav Tzadok Hacohen of Lublin elucidated this concept in “Tzidkat Hatzaddik” (40):

“The main effort of doing teshuva is until Hashem allows him to understand that sins are a kind of merit. That is, for man to understand and recognize that all the sins he committed were also the Will of Hashem, as Chazal said ‘Three verses etc…'(Brachot 31) and when he attains this immense recognition that all his sins emanate only from the depths of the knowledge of Hashem and His desire…and that since Hashem wanted them, they are all classed as merits, he then merits the total forgiveness of Yom Kippur…”

Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hacohen Kook wrote in this vein in Orot Hateshuva:

“..Until man returns from his sinful ways and plans how he intends to repent, he is still subject to the suffering engendered by his choices and the guilt for everything he has done, and all the evil consequences of those actions are borne by him alone. However, once he comprehends teshuva, all the previous failings in his life, all the deeds of negative value that bore bitter results, are returned to the hands of a Higher Power, Who is behind all our actions…and the evil side of his deeds becomes disconnected from his free will and goes over to the Supreme Authority where everything is good and there is no fear of evil..”

This, then, is the real meaning of the word “teshuva” which signifies a return to the Creator. The greater the recognition that everything stems from Hashem, the more the return to Him is increasingly inclusive, until even the sins return to Hashem since they are also the expression of His Will.

The Maharal in Netiv Hateshuva (towards the end of Chap. 1) writes:

“And Hashem was asked: What is the punishment for a sinner – and the Blessed One says ‘let him repent and be forgiven’, and this explanation is…that everyone is dependent on Him…because they have no independent existence, as we have seen. And this sinner is accepted by Hashem, when he returns to Hashem and abandons his sins, because that is Hashem’s attribute – that he accepts all those extant when they return to him, which is why Hashem said that he should repent and be forgiven, because as far as Hashem is concerned, the sins vanish – and there is more depth to this idea, but it is not possible to explain it any further.”

We have now seen that the difference between the level of teshuva based on fear and teshuva out of love depends on our conscious recognition of the essence of the process of returning to Hashem. (This process parallels that of a tzaddik’s ascension to the level of chasid and yashar through contemplation, found in Mesilat Yesharim and Orot Hakodesh part 3, 114, but beyond the scope of this article.)

The Teshuva of Yom Hakippurim


Breishit Rabba, portion 22:

“‘Cain went out from before Hashem’ – from where did he leave?…Rabbi Chanina son of Rabbi Yitzchak said he left joyfully, as it says (Shmot 4,14): ‘Here, he comes towards you [and when he sees you, will rejoice in his heart.]…,’ Adam met up with him and said ‘What judgment did you receive?’ – and he said, ‘I did teshuva and was absolved’, and as Adam passed by, he said  ‘Is that the power of teshuva and I did not know it…’ – immediately, Adam stood still and said : ‘A psalm, a song for the day of Shabbat…'” (Psalms 92, 1).

This midrash seems incomprehensible. What is the connection between a psalm for the Shabbat day and teshuva, besides their having the same letters of the Hebrew alphabet, that is, in both the words Shabbat and teshuva?

It is apparent that, taking into account what we have elucidated, we can find the unique essence of teshuva in this psalm, and thence gain more understanding of the special aspects of Shabbat and Yom Kippur – the Shabbat Shabbaton to Hashem.

Shabbat is in complete contrast to the six days of the week in which man labors, six days during which he can elevate creation through his deeds, or, sadly, cause its level to descend, days during which he must take care not to cause its destruction. On Shabbat, man returns everything to Hashem’s hands, on Shabbat man succeeds in elevating every tiny detail that results from his choices during the weekdays, offering them to He who creates, activates and causes everything to be according to His Will: 

For you make me glad by Your deeds, Hashem;
I sing for joy at what Your hands have done”(Psalm 92, 5).

Shabbat has the capacity to bring man to see the general objective of a creation activated by Hashem’s Will, to understand that even when evildoers flourish like the grass, it is part of Hashem’s master plan:

 “… Though the wicked spring up like grassand all evildoers flourish, they will be destroyed forever”(Psalm 92, 8).

That is the substance of the psalm for the Sabbath day.

Rabbi Shimshon Refael Hirsch zts”l (Parshat Vayakhel) explains that the reason for the choice of the 39melachotforbidden on Shabbat is that they involve creating something new. That creation is what is forbidden, not just physical labor, because on Shabbat man recognizes the fact that Hashem and not he, is the Creator.  By doing so, man returns all the things he fashioned during the six days of labor to Hashem, recalling that all the world stems from Hashem and is subject to His Will.

This wonderful realization is the inyanof teshuva, its inner meaning. That is why Shabbat is set aside as the special time for teshuva, that is what Adam meant in starting with the words “A psalm, a song for the Sabbath day,” realizing the power of teshuva and its benefits, recognizing that the very word “Shabbat” contains the root “shav”which are an allusion to the power and benefit of a teshuva in which everything returns, shav, to Hashem.

Rabbi Yehuda Halevi in the Kuzari says Shabbat is repentance for the entire week, just as Yom Hakippurim is repentance for the entire year.

This is the essence of Yom Hakippurim, the holy day that can elevate teshuva based on fear to the inner knowledge of teshuva out of love – the Shabbat Shabbaton to Hashem.

The Joy of Shabbat and the Joy of Teshuva


True Shabbat joy, then, stems from man’s putting everything into Hashem’s hands, living in the belief that whatever Hashem does is for the good, so that there is no room for sorrow, but only the desire to thank Hashem and sing praises to His exalted Name. This itself is the utter joy of he who returns to Hashem, as the midrash says about Cain: “And he left joyfully.” The evil deeds become merits due to the power of the return to Hashem, and all of creation sings the song of Hashem’s bounty.

Leaniyut daati, we can now explain a perplexing Tosefot in Moed Katan regarding the obligation to rejoice on Shabbat. Tosefot writes there that the Shalosh Regalim are not counted towards shiva  because we are commanded to rejoice on those days, but Shabbat is counted as one of the seven days of mourning because the Torah does not command us to rejoice on Shabbat.

Some of the Acharonim understood that to mean that Tosefot believes that there is no commandment to rejoice on Shabbat (and that there is only a mitzvah of Oneg Shabbat.). However, it seems problematic to say that, because it is explicitly written in Sifri on Bamidbar 10, 10: “On your days of happiness and your holidays” and “on your day of joy – this refers to Shabbat.”

The psalm for the Shabbat day says the same: “You have gladdened me in Your works…”.   Tosefot in Ketubot 7b also posits that there is no need for a “new face’ on Shabbat to be able to recite the Sheva Brachot (birkat chatanim) because Shabbat itself is considered a new face, “because we increase joy and festive meals in honor of Shabbat” (see Tosefot there).  It is clear, therefore, that we are commanded to be joyous on Shabbat and the Tosefot in Moed Katan is in need of further elucidation.

In light of what we have explained, we can see that there are two kinds of rejoicing. One relates to overcoming sadness and sorrow. The other kind of rejoicing goes much deeper, does not erase or overcome sorrow but recognizes the place of sorrow in the creation of the universe as part of a general process in which everything, including evil and that which causes sorrow, is part of Hashem’s plan, leading to the ultimate goal of creation.  A person who understands that, sees no place at all for sadness, as it says “Joy and happiness are in His place” (Divrei Hayamim I, 16,27).

Shabbat and Yom Tov epitomize these two kinds of joy. On Yom Tov, we are commanded to rejoice, meaning that we must eliminate all sorrow and sadness in order to keep the Torah’s commandment – “And you must be only joyful” (Dvarim 16,15). On Shabbat we do not overcome or eliminate anything, we recognize the rightful place of sadness in the world and are happy in a natural way in Hashem’s works as described in  Psalm 92.  The Tosefot are careful to stress this, writing (ibid) “It does not command rejoicing on Shabbat,” that is, there is no mitzvah in the Torah as there is on Yom Tov, but there is joy.

In this way, we can understand Tosefot’s response to why Shabbat, as opposed to Yom Tov, is counted as one of the seven days of mourning. Yom Tov, when we are commanded to overcome sadness of every kind and rejoice, is not counted as one of those seven days, because that would contradict the mourning and eliminate it.  Shabbat, on which Tosefot says “Rejoicing is not written about it” is not a day of imposed joy. The joy of Shabbat stems from accepting the rightful place of sorrow in creation without negating it, so that unobtrusive expressions of mourning are the rule on Shabbat and allow it to be counted as one of the days of shiva.  Sorrow is part of the wider picture of creation, as we have seen.

The deep and natural joy that epitomizes teshuva is a result of recognizing its inner significance, that of returning everything to Hashem’s hands. This recognition allows for teshuva that stems from fear, teshuva miyir’a,to find its rightful place, as we learn from the Book of Yonah, and continue from there to understanding the heights of teshuva that stems from love, teshuva meahava.

Dedicated to the memory of my beloved uncle, Rabbi Dr. Chaim E. Schertz, with whom I spent many fruitful and happy hours in Talmudic, halakhic and spiritual discourse.

Rav Avraham Yisrael Sylvetsky is a Ra”m in Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav  Jerusalem and heads the yeshiva’s “Rebirth of Zion” Rabbinic Leadership Kollel for selected outstanding Torah Scholars. His most recent work, a definitive treatise on the halakhic implications of ascending the Temple Mount, can be read at the Merkaz HaRav website. Rabbi Sylvetsky’s late father, Dov, a YU alumnus and founder of the Emunah College of Technology in Jerusalem, was the brother in law of Rabbi Chaim Schertz.

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