Process Not Perfection: Is My Teshuva Meaningful If I Keep Sinning?
This article first appeared on meaningfulminute.org
“Is Hashem going to forgive me if I know I will end up doing the aveira again?”
“I’ve done Teshuva so many times, and I keep falling into the same old patterns. Is my Teshuva even meaningful anymore?”
“If someone wronged me and then apologized only to wrong me again in the same exact way, I will not be so quick to forgive them. Now imagine this pattern repeating itself consistently for years and years. Only a fool would continue to forgive the perpetrator. Hashem is not a fool; why would He forgive me?”
I have received different variations of this question repeatedly every year during Elul. It’s a good question, and it deserves a good answer. It also speaks to the pain and frustration we feel around our relationship with Hashem. The honest person is deeply aware of their inadequacies. They cannot fool themselves into thinking this is the last time they will ever do an aveira. Perhaps they will make some progress, and the regret they experience is undoubtedly honest. But what they want most is an authentic relationship with Hashem, and they know they are not showing up as required by halacha. How can we be in a real relationship with Hashem when we are consistently going against His will?
The Purifying Impact Of An Incomplete Teshuva
Any serious treatment of Teshuva must begin with an examination of the Rambam. On a surface level, the Rambam seems to imply that until one never does the aveira again, they have not done Teshuva.
אֵי זוֹ הִיא תְּשׁוּבָה גְּמוּרָה. זֶה שֶׁבָּא לְיָדוֹ דָּבָר שֶׁעָבַר בּוֹ וְאֶפְשָׁר בְּיָדוֹ לַעֲשׂוֹתוֹ וּפֵרַשׁ וְלֹא עָשָׂה מִפְּנֵי הַתְּשׁוּבָה. לֹא מִיִּרְאָה וְלֹא מִכִּשְׁלוֹן כֹּחַ. Who has done a complete Teshuva? A person who confronts the same situation in which he transgressed when he has the potential to do it again and, nevertheless, abstains and does
not do it because of his Teshuva alone and not because of fear or a lack of strength.
כֵּיצַד. הֲרֵי שֶׁבָּא עַל אִשָּׁה בַּעֲבֵרָה וּלְאַחַר זְמַן נִתְיַחֵד עִמָּהּ וְהוּא עוֹמֵד בְּאַהֲבָתוֹ בָּהּ וּבְכֹחַ גּוּפוֹ וּבַמְּדִינָה שֶׁעָבַר בָּהּ וּפָרַשׁ וְלֹא עָבַר זֶהוּ בַּעַל תְּשׁוּבָה גְּמוּרָה. For example, a person engaged in illicit sexual relations with a woman. Afterward, they met in privacy, in the same country, while his love for her and physical power persisted, and nevertheless, he abstained and did not transgress. This is a complete Baal-Teshuva. (Rambam
Hilchos Teshuva 2:1)
It seems that only someone who never commits the aveira again is considered a complete Baal Teshuva.
Furthermore, the Rambam continues and says that for one to do Teshuva, Hashem will testify that he will never do the aveira again.
וּמַה הִיא הַתְּשׁוּבָה. הוּא שֶׁיַּעֲזֹב הַחוֹטֵא חֶטְאוֹ וִיסִירוֹ מִמַּחֲשַׁבְתּוֹ וְיִגְמֹר בְּלִבּוֹ שֶׁלֹּא יַעֲשֵׂהוּ עוֹד…וְיָעִיד עָלָיו יוֹדֵעַ תַּעֲלוּמוֹת שֶׁלֹּא יָשׁוּב לְזֶה הַחֵטְא לְעוֹלָם What constitutes Teshuva? That a sinner should abandon his sins and remove them from his thoughts, resolving in his heart, never to commit them again…[He must reach the level where] He who knows the hidden will testify that he will never return to this sin again. (Rambam Teshuva 2:2)
Finally, the Rambam says that one must verbally confess to his sin and state the matters he has resolved in his heart. The Rambam has some choice words for the person who says vidui but does not truly resolve in his heart to abandon his sin.
כָּל הַמִּתְוַדֶּה בִּדְבָרִים וְלֹא גָּמַר בְּלִבּוֹ לַעֲזֹב הֲרֵי זֶה דּוֹמֶה לְטוֹבֵל וְשֶׁרֶץ בְּיָדוֹ שֶׁאֵין הַטְּבִילָה מוֹעֶלֶת לוֹ עַד שֶׁיַּשְׁלִיךְ הַשֶּׁרֶץ. Anyone who verbalizes his confession without resolving in his heart to abandon [sin] can be compared to [a person] who immerses himself [in a mikvah] while [holding the carcass of] a lizard in his hand. His immersion will not be of avail until he casts away the corpse. (Rambam Teshuva 2:3)
With these Rambam’s in mind, we would rightfully ask if there is any value in our Teshuva. Have we resolved in our heart never to do the aveira again? We know ourselves well and our propensity to continue to commit certain aveiros that seem to forever haunt us. Why should we bother immersing ourselves in the Mikvah of Teshuva if we are טוֹבֵל וְשֶׁרֶץ בְּיָדוֹ?
However, a careful reading of the Rambam may in fact give us exactly the hope we are looking for. Consider the continuation of the Rambam (2:1):
וְאִם לֹא שָׁב אֶלָּא בִּימֵי זִקְנוּתוֹ וּבְעֵת שֶׁאִי אֶפְשָׁר לוֹ לַעֲשׂוֹת מַה שֶּׁהָיָה עוֹשֶׂה אַף עַל פִּי שֶׁאֵינָהּ תְּשׁוּבָה מְעֻלָּה מוֹעֶלֶת הִיא לוֹ וּבַעַל תְּשׁוּבָה הוּא
If he does not repent until his old age, when he is incapable of doing what he did before, even though this is not a high level of repentance, it (his Teshuva) is effective, and he is a Baal Teshuva.
Here we find an older person who confronts the same situation he did when he was younger. This time he abstains from sin not only because he has done Teshuva but because he is no longer capable of sinning due to his advanced age. And while the Rambam clearly states that he has not done a high-level Teshuva, it is still a meaningful Teshuva, and he is called a Baal Teshuva.
Clearly, according to the Rambam, two concepts are at play here. The actual Teshuva itself and the sinner’s status as a Baal Teshuva. The Maaseh Teshuva (the activity of the Teshuva) is what brings Kaparah (atonement) for the sinner. The Baal Teshuva status speaks to the sinner’s relationship to their sin. The older man has done a Teshuva, albeit one of a lower caliber, and he has the status of a Baal Teshuva. Still we are bothered. What exactly does the Rambam mean when he says it is a lower level Teshuva? What is the impact of a lower caliber Teshuva? What is the significance of this elderly man’s Baal Teshuva status?
The Rambam above asked, אֵי זוֹ הִיא תְּשׁוּבָה גְּמוּרָה, who has done a complete Teshuva? The Rambam said that someone who abstained from sinning when confronted with the same situation is a בַּעַל תְּשׁוּבָה גְּמוּרָה, a complete Baal Teshuva. Once again, the Rambam speaks about both Teshuva itself and the status of the sinner as a Baal Teshuva. But look carefully at his language. The Rambam speaks about complete Teshuva and the complete Baal Teshuva. The existence of the complete Teshuva and complete Baal Teshuva implies the existence of an incomplete Teshuva and an incomplete Baal Teshuva. A complete Teshuva brings atonement for the penitent and defines the sinner as a complete Baal Teshuva – he is considered a brand new person, one who has no relationship to his previous life of sin (thus, the Rambam lists among the paths of Teshuva for the Baal Teshuva to change his name, as if to say, I am a different person and not the same as the one who sinned – Rambam 2:4). The incomplete Teshuva brings kaparah for the penitent but he is not considered a complete Baal Teshuva because we cannot say that he is fully disengaged from his sin. However, the Rambam is clear, he is still within the category of a Baal Teshuva. His Teshuva, while not of the highest caliber, still has a purifying impact and thus makes him a Baal Teshuva. 
The Rambam refers to two people. One who is young and full of passion, the other who is elderly and lacks the vitality to continue his life of sin. The youthful person, fully capable of committing the aveira, finds himself with the same person, in the same place but because of his Teshuva and only because of his Teshuva he no longer commits the aveira. Not only has he gained atonement for himself, he is a complete Baal Teshuva – he is clearly divorced from his previous aveira. A new man. The elderly man has done Teshuva as well. He too finds himself with the same woman in the same place but he is physically incapable of doing the aveira. His test is not of the same caliber as the young man who is still full of vitality. The Teshuva of the elderly man is thus considered a lower level Teshuva. It is a Teshuva that brings atonement and has a purifying impact on him. It is a Teshuva that puts him in the category of a Baal Teshuva though we cannot say he is fully divorced from his life of sin. A Baal Teshuva he is but not a complete one.
Let us return to our case. Our questioner is seeking to do Teshuva. They may not want to do the aveira again, but they are aware of their humanity. Hashem, the knower of secrets, will not testify that they will never commit this aveira again. While they don’t plan on doing the aveira in the near future, their resolve is not one of absolute commitment. Who knows what may happen if they find themselves with the same person, in the same place, full of youthful vigor? Is their Teshuva still meaningful? Perhaps we can suggest that according to the Rambam even this level of Teshuva has value. It may not bring kaparah nor will it give them the status of a Baal Teshuva but it is a Teshuva that has some degree of purifying impact. If Teshuva is the process of creating ourselves, then our aspiring Baal Teshuva is to be considered an under-constructionist Jew. Not yet completely pure but in the process of purification.
Cleansed by Hashem Himself
The idea that an incomplete Teshuva still has a purifying impact was expressed by the Lubavitcher Rebbe at a farbrengen commemorating his mother yahrzeit on 6 Tishrei 5730. As the Rebbe completed Maseches Yuma, the Rebbe addressed the last Mishna, which states:
אמר רבי עקיבא, אשריכם ישראל! לפני מי אתם מטהרין ומי מטהר אתכם? אביכם שבשמים! שנאמר (יחזקאל לו) וזרקתי עליכם מים טהורים וטהרתם, ואומר (ירמיהו יז) מקוה ישראל ה’. מה מקוה מטהר את הטמאים, אף הקב”ה מטהר את ישראל.
Rabbi Akiva said: How lucky are you, Yisrael! Before whom are you purifying yourself, and who purifies you? Our father in Heaven! As it is written (Yechezkel 36), “I will sprinkle upon you purifying waters, and you will become purified,” and it is said (Yirmiyahu 17), “Hashem is the mikvah of Yisrael,” just as the Mikvah purifies the impure, so too does Hashem purify Yisrael.
The Rebbe was bothered by several aspects of this Mishna:
What is Rebbe Akiva adding that we don’t already know? Teshuva is a fundamental part of Yiddishkeit.
The language of the Mishna is somewhat redundant. מה מקוה מטהר את הטמאים אף הקב”ה מטהר את ישראל, Just as the Mikvah purifies the impure, so too does Hashem purify Yisrael. Who else would a mikvah purify if not someone impure? The Mishna could have stated, just as a mikvah purifies, so too Hashem purifies Yisrael. What do these added words teach us?
This second question opens the portal to answer all our questions. There are varying degrees of tumah, and different degrees of purification necessary for the varying degrees of impurity. Someone can become impure for one day and purify himself simply by immersing in Mikvah and waiting for nightfall. Another can become impure for a week, as in the case where he came in contact with a dead body, and require both mikvah and parah adumah to purify himself. If someone has contracted a tumah that makes him impure for one week and in the middle of the week he also becomes tamei for one day, he is still obligated to go to Mikvah to remove the one-day tumah. This even though he will still be tamei even after his immersion in Mikvah. This case is called “purifying the impure” because even after his purification in the Mikvah, he remains in his state of impurity.
This says the Lubavitcher Rebbe is the chiddush, the novel insight, of Rebbe Akiva. Just as a Mikvah can purify someone who remains impure, so too, can Hashem purify someone who remains in his state of impurity.
We may not be ready to do a complete Teshuva or become a complete Baal Teshuva, but a little bit of Teshuva is also meaningful. It may not serve to gain our atonement, but it certainly does have a purifying impact.
But why would Hashem purify us if he knows that we will remain in a state of impurity? Because, to quote Rebbe Akiva, He is אביכם שבשמים, our Father in heaven. A father will patiently watch as his child makes mistakes and grows from them. Any movement in the right direction is celebrated, no matter how small. Has this Teshuva satisfied the demands of Teshuva that it can gain atonement? No. It cannot. Has this person demonstrated that they are moving in the right direction? Absolutely. And for that slight movement, Hashem purifies this partial penitent. The incomplete Teshuva, and the incomplete Baal Teshuva are beloved by Hashem.
Anything Worth Doing Is Worth Doing Poorly
We are living in a generation where people struggle with perfectionism. Voltaire said perfect is the enemy of the good. Teshuva is a lifelong process. Don’t let your need to be perfect stop you from doing Teshuva on your level. There is always a gap between where we ideally ought to be and where we are. Spiritual growth is about bridging that gap, but that is a beautiful and messy process.
Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook addressed a letter to a talmid: “We must see life in two dimensions – life as it should be and life how it is. Absolute righteousness is always rooted in how things should be, but provisional righteousness, which touches more on acting in the present, is built on how things actually are…The two are connected, like alternating horizons on a long journey.” (Igros, vol 1, 93 as seen in Rabbi Judah Mischel’s Baderech, Along the Path of Teshuva, p.11)
Those in a position of influence must carefully walk the tightrope between ensuring that the bar remains in its ideal place and addressing the people in a way that allows for imperfection. An intense Mussar shmooze may be suitable for some and debilitating for others.
Those who struggle with perfectionism would do well to understand where it is coming from and what is the negative impact. Dr. Brene Brown explains, “Perfectionism is not the same as striving to be your best. Perfection is not about healthy achievement and growth.” She explains that many people use perfectionism as a shield to protect against the pain of blame, judgment, or shame. As for the negative impact, people who struggle with perfectionism may not be able to perform a task unless they know they can do it perfectly. They may procrastinate, not wanting to begin a job until they know they can do it perfectly.
To clarify, there are different types of perfectionism. This article does not refer to someone who sets high personal standards that motivate them to hit meaningful goals. People with high personal standards do not necessarily suffer from stress or burnout. The exact opposite is true; these people are energized by their dreams. We are referring to self-critical people who are intimidated by the goals they set for themselves. As a result of their need to be perfect, they feel hopeless that their dreams will ever become a reality. Their need to be perfect leads to high-stress levels, avoidance, anxiety, a harsh inner critic, and much more. For these people, the Mussar shmoozen of the Yamim Noraim and the accompanying shame can be crippling.
It is okay for our Teshuva to be a lifetime achievement award. Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly. Better to be in process than to be stagnant. An incomplete Teshuva still has a purifying impact, for we are being cleansed by our loving Father.
 A similar language is used by the Rambam in Hilchos Ishus 10:2, where the Rambam discusses a chupas niddah and says the nesuin has not been completed and the woman is like an arusa. She is no longer a full arusa because while the nesuin has not been achieved, something has, in fact occurred.)