The Hebrew word teshuvah and the Arabic tauba both refer to “repentance.” The literal translation is “to turn” or “return.” Essentially, it means that we have turned from a path of error back to the path of God. This turning requires a change of direction, a rejection of our prior sinful condition and a return to obedience and to the sacred path of serving G-d.
Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.
When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh:
“By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” [Jonah 3:4-9].
Fasting and Repentance
Fasting can serve repentance at two points: before recognition of the deviation, and afterward, when seeking to return to right conduct. A fast may first prod guilt or generate consciousness of error. It may also evidence a heartfelt response of regret, sorrow, and remorse, signs of true repentance.
We may be immersed in sin, drowning in lust, passions and depravity, and use fasting as a rope to pull ourselves back to the safety offered by God. Then, we may continue fasting to remain aware and well directed.
No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it. [1 Corinthians 10:13].
Turning the Hearts
However, repentance requires acknowledgment of sin. The cognitive mind must understand that it has deviated from its proper course and has transgressed. Guilty of error, whether wilful or inadvertent, the self must then incline toward correction. Even before we perform any penance, a turning of the heart is required.
“Rebbe, I am a sinner. I would like to return, to do teshuvah!” R. Israel of Ryzhin looked at the man before him. He did not understand what the man wanted. “So why don’t you do teshuvah?””Rebbe, I do not know how!” R. Israel retorted. “How did you know to sin?” The remorseful sinner answered simply. “I acted, and then I realized that I had sinned.” “Well,” said the Rebbe, “the same applies to teshuvah, repent and the rest will follow of itself!” [Quoted in “The Dynamics of Teshuva” from the book Deep Calling Unto Deep, by Dr. J. Immanuel Schochet].
Penitence generates humility and is the prime response of the awakened conscience. Having acknowledged guilt, it turns the remorseful mind to correcting the perverted conditions that stimulated the conscience. From sincere penance, we gain confidence and tranquility, while discarding anxiety and fear.
Once aware of our error, we can express our repentance by fasting. We are, thereby, translating our state of mind into physical action, our emotion into an effort. The act of fasting does not constitute the repentance. Fasting is only a manifestation of our sorrow, a demonstration of our regret.
When we cry, our tears give expression to the state of our soul. Penitential fasting symbolizes our entire body crying. Our fasting and our tears provide physical vehicles that bring our lament to the surface. They document our turning to God
On no soul doth Allah place a burden greater than it can bear; for it is (the benefit of) what it has earned and against it (the evil of) what it deserved: (Pray:) “Our Lord! do not punish us if we forget or fall into error! Our Lord! Lay not on us such a burden as thou didst lay on those before us! Our Lord! Lay not on us a burden greater than we have strength to bear! Blot out our sins, and grant us forgiveness. Have mercy on us. Thou art our Protector; Help us against those who stand against faith.” [Quran 2:286].