Teshuvah – Repentance / Return to God is a curious phenomenon of Jewish tradition. It is an act of mercy which defies natural law, a phenomenon that does not exist outside of this religious and spiritual realm. For any other legal code, what happened – immutably happened, history is history. Expressions of regret by the perpetrator may be greatly appreciated, but they do not have the power to erase the guilt or bury the act of transgression. In fact, human justice embodies this very principle. Once a crime has been committed, the mere expression of regret and repentance is not sufficient to protect the criminal from conviction, (though it might be a mitigating factor when meting out punishment).
Repentance, then, and its ability to wipe the slate clean and return a person to a state of purity and innocence belongs not to the realms of justice or of law, but to that of mercy. God, in infinite mercy redeems our undeserving selves from the results of our actions, relying on our change of heart (“the cancellation of will”) to effect a change in history (“the cancellation of the act”). So Teshuvah is not ever to be seen as a right, rather it is a privilege given to us by a merciful God.
And rabbinic tradition does not leave it there. The Talmud tells us (Kiddushin) that teshuvah me’ahava (repentance out of love; i.e., heartfelt regret) results in the transgressions being transmuted into merits, whereas teshuvah miyir’a (repentance out of fear) results in transgressions being transmuted into shegagot – unintentional lapses, for which forgiveness is effectively automatic as blame does not attach in the same way as deliberate acts of transgression.
Think of that: Repentance that is done out of love – real true regret for our actions – not only seems to erase them from the book of punishment, it actually is said to transform them into positive merits.