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Nitzavim: Prehistoric Teshuva. September 28, 2019

Rabbi Randall Konigsburg


וּמָל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶת-לְבָבְךָ וְאֶת-לְבַב זַרְעֶךָ לְאַהֲבָה אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשְׁךָ לְמַעַן חַיֶּיךָ.

Then the Lord your God will open up your heart and the hearts of your offspring to love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul, in order that you may live. [Deut. 30:6]



Six things preceded the creation of the world … Torah, and the throne of glory were created, the creation of the fathers, Israel, the Temple and the name of the Messiah came up only in God’s thoughts. Rabbi Ahava ben Rabbi Ze’era said: So too repentance.

[Bereshit Rabba1:4]


What can it mean that repentance preceded the creation of the world? Surely before the creation of human beings, repentance would be pointless. … Although this teaching makes no chronological sense, it does point to a profound spiritual message. … God wanted to provide the mechanism for overcoming transgression even before any transgressions could be committed. … Teshuva is built into the structure of the universe, like the laws of gravity or thermodynamics. The world that God created is a world in which redemption has been assured from the beginning. There is a moral structure to human life, not only in the sense that the struggle between good and evil in the world has a predetermined end. By putting teshuvah first in the order of creation, God made certain that goodness and redemption would prevail in the end. … It is not just that humans need teshuva to overcome their (future) transgressions; it is that human life as we know it is impossible without the assurance of teshuva. …

Certain sages go so far as to include repentance among the entities created before the world itself. The implication of this remarkable statement is that repentance is a universal, primordial phenomenon; in such a context it has two meanings. One is that it is embedded in the root structure of the world; the other, that before man was created, he was given the possibility of changing the course of his life. In this latter sense repentance is the highest expression of man’s capacity to choose freely – It is the manifestation of the Divine in man. [Adin Steinsaltz, Strife of the Spirit p.103]


The possibility of doing teshuvah represents radical freedom – freedom from the past, freedom even to alter the meaning of past events, to turn our faults into merits. Repentance is the most powerful force in human life, precisely because it enables us to remake ourselves into different sorts of creatures, to become morally and spiritually “new creations.” This kind of freedom is a metaphysical force, something that defies the ordinary laws governing life on this planet, laws that preclude the possibility of moving backward in time of undoing what has already been done. Teshuvah, then, must precede creation, for it embodies a kind of freedom that could only exist outside the bounds of the created world.


When we do teshuvah, we participate in a kind of supernatural existence, that connects us with God, who also is radically free. In just this sense, repentance entails a kind of imitatio dei. The more we engage in teshuvah, the freer we are, the more we actualize that freedom, the more we are like God, who is perfectly free. From this perspective, the meaning of this teaching that teshuvah existed before creation is that it is the manifestation of divine freedom, the quality of God’s that humankind is meant to emulate.


Teshuvah is a prerequisite for human life. It was present before the beginning of time – assuring us that there is a path to redemption, enabling us to transcend in the moral realm the laws of causality that operate in the physical realm, providing us with the common ground for our freedom and God’s.

Because teshuvah was present before creation, the very structure of the world is conducive to the healing of our moral brokenness. Far more than the safety net that catches us when we fall, teshuvah is the divine force within us that makes us free and the assurance God has given us that our moral striving is not for naught.

[Dr. Louis E. Newman, Repentance: The Meaning and practice of Teshuva, Jewish Lights Press 2010, p. 188-190]


Think About It:

If Teshuva predates creation, are we forgiven even before we sin? Why would this be absurd?

How does Teshuva make us free?

What does the creation of Teshuva teach us about why human beings were created?



Income, status, education, attractiveness – all good to have – are of limited worth in ensuring happiness. Lauded and coveted in films and magazines, achievements and acquisitions are at best supporting actors in life’s drama. What makes for lasting happiness is a sense of meaning and connection to family, friends and community.

    Just as Judaism encourages a healthy skepticism toward our own glory as individuals, it also opposes exaggerating the importance of much that our society esteems. Recategorizing wealth, education, status, popularity, and power from goals to means is one of the tasks that Judaism has struggled to achieve across millennia. The goals remain righteousness, goodness, justice, and caring. Anything less becomes idolatry. Teshuva on a social level presumes a turning away from these overvalued means and restoring the primacy of decency and goodness.   [Bradley Shavit-Artson, It’s A Mitzvah: Step by Step To Jewish Living, Behrman House/Rabbinical Assembly, 1995; page194-5]



Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Saturday, September 28, 2019.

Sat, July 2 2022 3 Tammuz 5782