There’s a new dance craze every few years. Each decade produces a faddish flurry of movement. From the Charleston to Flossing to whatever’s next, every dance move needs a name; but if you want to do the Teshuva, you’ll need a rabbi to show you how. Teshuva is the Hebrew word for repent, or return. In its various forms the root of teshuva is used nearly a thousand times in the Old Testament. When Adam is fated to return to the ground (Genesis 3:13) at the end of his days, the root word is introduced for the first time. Throughout the Old Testament the connections between “return” and “repent” run deep and strong. When Jesus told the parable of the Prodigal Son, every Jewish listener understood the depth and significance of the words, “I will arise and return to my father.”
Rabbi Maimonides was a 12th-century teacher and Torah scholar who quite literally wrote the book on teshuva, The Laws of Repentance. For centuries Christians and Jews alike have leaned on Maimonides’s work, discovering the elements of regret, confession, penance, and even restitution that comprise the ingredients of repentance. Indeed, if teshuva were a dance, Rabbi Maimonides has laid out the steps.
The famous teacher located repentance in the act of confession. No one will confess unless they first regret their actions and want to take concrete steps to return to the kind of life they had before sin worked its destruction in their hearts, their, minds, their families, and their communities.
Regret is the first step in the great dance of repentance; confession is the second step. Regret motivates the return; confession completes the return; and the return is affirmed by those who hear the confession and provide absolution. (Christians who worship in the traditions of high church, such as the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican denominations understand these terms much better than others.) This last part, the welcome—the celebration—is what makes a dance out of repentance. Giving (and receiving) absolution is not some sour-faced, shame-filled religious ritual designed to make us feel bad about ourselves. Jesus understood the joy of repentance when he told us there’s more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than there is over 99 who do not need to repent.
The Old Testament teshuva contained community context as well, where repentance was done together, acknowledging the sins of the community. In a ceremony known as Yom Kippur, the nation-wide day of repentance and atonement, the high priest over the entire community of Israel would confess the sins of the nation. Their regrets brought them together; their confession brought their sins to light, and—together—Israel determined to return to the traditions of Moses.
The Old Testament teshuva dance also contained an individual element: when I alone have sinned, I need not wait until the national day of mourning and confession—I could bring a sacrifice to the priest and confess my individual sin. The first two steps of the dance are here again: regret brings me to the priest; confession begins the cleansing. But here, in the individual repentance of my personal sin, there was one more step in the dance: restitution—to return of what was stolen or damaged as a result of my actions. Moses, the Lawgiver of Israel, laid out these steps for the people of Israel:
When a man or woman commits any of the sins of mankind, acting unfaithfully against the Lord, and that person is guilty then he shall confess his sins which he has committed, and he shall make restitution in full for his wrong and add to it one-fifth of it, and give it to him whom he has wronged. (Numbers 5:6-7)
The individual teshuva dance is three steps: return to the priest, confession of sin, and restitution to make the damaged person whole.
Regret. Confession. Restitution. These are no longer in vogue, even among the religiously-minded. And to be sure, this three-step teshuva is the Old Testament picture of repentance. In God’s great economy, this picture of repentance is transformed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Still, “Rabbi Jesus,” a thousand years before Rabbi Maimonides, was making all things new—including repentance.
In Jesus’s ministry, how important is the call to repent? It’s the very first word of the good news. Jesus calls us to repent no less than our brothers and sisters in the Old Testament age. And yet, the Lord carefully preserves these three steps and invites us into a dance grander and greater still.