We are currently in the midst of the “ten days of repentance” – “aseret yemei teshuva”.

When speaking of the concept of “teshuva” there is another word that automatically attaches itself – “sheleima” (complete, perfect).

This expression – “teshuva sheleima” – represents a recurring theme both in the regular daily Amida prayer (“bring us back before You in complete repentance”) and in the plea, “Our Father, our King – bring us back before You in complete repentance”, which belongs to the special prayers associated with this time of year.

Accustomed as we are to using this expression, we may fail to appreciate its profound meaning and the light that it sheds on the entire concept of repentance.

If we pray to be restored to God in “complete repentance”, there must be a kind of repentance that is not complete, making us less worthy in God’s eyes. What is the difference between “complete repentance” and “repentance that is not complete”?

To understand the difference, let us borrow another sphere in which we seek completeness, where incompleteness will not suffice: the sphere of healing (refua). Here, too, we ask God three times every day, “Grant complete healing (refua sheleima) for all our afflictions”, and there is also a parallel plea in “Avinu Malkeinu” – “Our Father, our King: send complete healing to the sick of Your nation”. Perhaps if we succeed in defining the difference between complete and incomplete healing, we may better understand the difference between the two types of repentance.

What is the difference between “complete healing” and “incomplete healing”?

Any sickness has two components: there is the root of the disease – its essence, and there are the side-effects – the symptoms. For example, a person whose throat is infected with strep will be afflicted with a runny nose, fever, etc. The source of the sickness is the infection; the accompanying symptoms include the aches and weakness. “Incomplete healing” addresses the headache and runny nose, but does not treat the infection. When we turn to God and ask for “complete healing”, we are asking Him to cure and rid us of the root of sickness, since it is clear that if only the symptoms are alleviated then the sickness is still there and it is likely to manifest itself again.

Teshuva – repentance – is also a sort of treatment for sickness: not a physical sickness, but a psychological one. The sickness that “teshuva” comes to cure is distance from God. Here, too, there is the root cause of the problem and its symptoms. The root of the problem is the fact of being removed or distanced from God, His absence from a significant part of our consciousness. The symptoms include a lack of proper attention to observance of the mitzvot, speaking “lashon ha-ra”, omitting blessings, not treating parents with the proper respect, etc.

Incomplete teshuva deals with some of these details: a person resolves to be more careful in his observance of certain mitzvot in which he senses that he has been careless. Complete repentance, on the other hand, addresses the root of the sickness: the existential distance from God. When a person undertakes complete teshuva, his entire personality becomes closer to God; he feels God’s presence more than he did before, and consequently he improves not only in one specific aspect of his behavior, but rather experiences an elevation of his entire consciousness. He is a better person, and this affects all spheres of his behavior and influences his observance of all the mitzvot.

What we ask, then, during these “ten days of repentance”, is that God give us the strength and wherewithal to commit ourselves to “complete teshuva”, so that each of us will be closer to Him in the coming year. May we all indeed merit to achieve such complete teshuva, and to be inscribed and sealed for a good year.