The basic meaning of the Hebrew word Shabbat is “standstill”, cessation. God “worked” on the six days of Creation, and when Shabbat arrived, He ceased to work. But the word Shabbat has an additional meaning, which is found also in Rabbinic literature: “return”. This meaning, “return” does not contradict the idea of “cessation” but, rather, it complements it.
Before creation, it was as if the Almighty had nothing to do with the universe. In fact, all of creation does not pertain to the order of things that existed before it. In this sense, the Sabbath is a return to the primordial state. It can be said that the Sabbath is the seventh day on which all of creation is perfected. Yet, and at the same time, it is also a return to the pre-Creation state. Every Sabbath is both the Sabbath after Creation and the Sabbath that preceded it.
These two elements exist also in teshuvah. On the one hand, the first step of teshuvah is ceasing, we stop transgressing and then detach ourselves from our sins. But teshuvah also means “return,” a return to the state of things prior to sinning. In daily life, it is so much easier to cease an action than to restore things to their former state. So too in teshuvah, it is easier to cut and stop a sequence of actions than to return to the innocence that preceded the sin. Yet the prayer and the heartfelt desire that accompany every act of teshuvah is to attain both a change of action and a total uprooting of the evil deeds and a return to purity. (We seek to uproot the evil at least from the heart, because certain actions affect reality irreversibly.) This aspect of teshuvah, a return to purity, underlies the Rabbinic saying (Midrash Tehillim 90) that teshuvah preceded Creation. This is why teshuvah contains this pull towards the pre-Creation state.
These two aspects of Shabbat, as cessation and as teshuvah, are found in the Sabbath within the Days of Awe. This Sabbath, called Shabbat Shuva, or also Shabbat Teshuvah, is a unique combination of the essences of teshuvah and Shabbat, which together create a new entity. On the one hand, it is the only Sabbath in the course of the year when one can engage in teshuvah. On the other hand, it is the only time in which teshuvah can be done in a Shabbat-like manner.
On the Sabbath, we are commanded both to cease working and to turn the Sabbath into a day of pleasure (see Isaiah 58:13). But the experience of teshuvah – born out of thoughts, memories and heart-rending compunctions – is usually not very pleasurable. In fact, this is precisely why on the Sabbath we do not deal with teshuvah nor confess our sins; teshuvah and confession, however important they may be, mar the Sabbath pleasure. On Shabbat Teshuvah we are therefore called upon to do a Shabbat-like teshuvah – namely, a teshuvah that does not touch upon the painful or difficult sides of sin. Instead, on Shabbat Teshuvah we focus on building ourselves from within. We can restructure ourselves – not by forgetting the facts of our sins, but by erasing the experience of sin from within us.
This point is fully expressed in a verse that we repeat over and over again both in the selichot and on Yom Kippur: “I have blotted out your transgressions as a thick cloud and, as a cloud, your sins; return unto Me, for I have redeemed you” (Isaiah 44:22). Throughout the year we still retain, even after doing teshuvah, a certain amount of memories, as it says: “my sin is ever before me” (Psalms 51:5). But in the ten Days of Awe, and especially on Shabbat Teshuvah and Yom Kippur, teshuvah emerges as a renewed ascent whereby sin is erased, and we reach a higher state. Indeed, our Sages teach us that a person who does teshuvah out of love merits to have his deliberate sins transformed. Indeed, they are not simply lessened to the level of inadvertently committed errors; they are turned into actual merits (Tractate Yoma 86b).
The teshuvah of the Sabbath is, in essence, a teshuvah of love. We return to the Almighty not as persons fleeing from their past but as individuals who transcend the past. Like all the preparatory work we do to honor the Shabbat, tikkun, repair, is hard, demanding work. But, like this work, it is also what eventually makes possible the Sabbath pleasure, which makes us forget all our toil on Shabbat eve. Or, in a different way, it can be said that if we do not actually forget the toil, the pleasure of the Sabbath makes it taste sweet.
The pleasure of Shabbat Teshuvah – despite all our sins and transgressions – stems from our clinging to the aspect of teshuvah that is imprinted in the very essence of Creation, and which has nothing to do with sin. This aspect of teshuvah, the teshuvah that preceded Creation, is not the reverting back from sin: it is an ascent which makes us see our failures as tests. Instead of thinking about all that we impaired and blemished, this teshuvah makes us focus on the ways in which we will be able to build our future in a loftier way. Even if we are unable to regain our pristine innocence, Shabbat Teshuvah reconnects us with the teshuvah that preceded the world. Shabbat Teshuvah helps turn the complex life of the weekdays, with all its pains and inner struggles, into a new creation: holiness.