Excerpted from “Return and Renewal,” by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein , zt’l
Opportunity, obligation, and their interaction have special relevance to teshuvah. Life is, to a great extent, a field of opportunity, but at the same time, it also comprises missed opportunities.
When an infant is born, the whole world is potential. Gradually, by the exigencies of life and the need for self-definition, the field of one’s activity narrows, and all kinds of opportunities that had, in theory, existed at birth dwindle and eventually disappear from sight. Beyond this natural constriction, there is our failure to seize opportunities that were within grasp. We were not sufficiently sensitive and aware; either we did not realize the importance or the value, or we did not sufficiently take heed to look around us and see where the opportunity existed. As a result, we missed so much valuable, significant spiritual potential. Retrospectively, we realize we could have structured our lives so much better, suffused it with greater value, organized it more efficiently, utilized time and effort more wisely. We could have set our priorities more correctly. We look back upon life, and, even when we don’t see active evil, we see so much waste. And waste is itself evil.
With regard to the prohibition of bal tashchit, wasting property, the Gemara in Shabbat (129a, 140b) teaches: “Bal tashchit as applied to one’s own person stands higher”—waste of human resources is more critical than waste of property. How much worse is the waste of spiritual potential, that gap between what we could have been, what we should have been, and what we are? Everyone has this gap; for some it is enormous, and for others it seems smaller, but there is always the gap. That gap is the waste of human potential that was inherent within us, of the Divine image G-d gave us. We somehow “diminished the stature of G-d” within ourselves. We could have procreated spiritually, but we did not do it.
Maybe it sounds too severe to translate this into a kind of bloodshed, choking off incipient life, but we can certainly speak of “diminishing the stature of G-d.” To the extent that we are spiritually sensitive, this is both pitiful and tormenting.
Along comes the opportunity of teshuvah. Teshuvah is not just an opportunity per se; it is the opportunity to amend for all the missed opportunities. Teshuvah is the chance to redress the balance, to take all of that waste and not only neutralize it but energize it, even transforming it into a positive force. Chazal teach: “Reish Lakish said: “Great is teshuvah, for one’s intentional sins are counted as unwitting transgressions …’ Is that so? Did not Reish Lakish say: ‘Great is teshuvah, for one’s intentional sins are counted as merits?’ This is not difficult; one is out of love, the other out of fear (Yoma 86b).
Where teshuvah is properly experienced, even “intentional sins are counted as merits.” So if one can speak of life, generally, as opportunity translated into obligation, teshuvah is the opportunity to bring back all that we missed, to confront the torment and amend the failure. Ultimately, it allows us to restructure and rebuild our lives, and perhaps even more, when teshuvah is performed out of love, to build upon our failure, our waste, and our diminishing of the Divine stature.