We are analyzing a paragraph from the book Menorat haMaor of Rabbi Isaac Abohab. This text speaks of the Seven Levels of Repentance, from more to less, clarifying that the context of the present analysis does NOT refer to offenses committed against others —stealing, offending, deceiving, etc. where, in addition to repenting we also need to asking for forgiveness, do restitution, reparation, and more— but of offenses against God.
In the links presented below we can see the three highest levels of Teshuba. We will now explore the fourth level, which refers to repentance when someone warns us of the possible negative consequences that our evil deeds would bring to us. As we have explained before, ideal repentance is born from self-reflection, from the awakening of our conscience, or from a renewed desire for reconciliation with our Creator. The latter is called in Hebrew, repentance for the love of God (תשובה מאהבה).
Rabbi Abohab explains that that this Fourth level of Teshuba occurs, for example, when a teacher or friend who knows us personally warns us directly about the negative consequences of our procedure, or for example, when a Rabbi in his Tora sermon refers impersonally to something that touches us in a direct way. In both cases, our repentance arises out of an outward stimulus and out of fear of bad consequences.
Menorat HaMaor brings as an example of this Level of Teshuba the case of the city of Nineveh. By the year 780 BCE, HaShem appeared to the Prophet Yona ben Amitai and told him that he should go to that non-Jewish city, which had more than 120,000 inhabitants (at that time, this number was very unusual) to warn its inhabitants that the city would be destroyed by their multiple offenses towards God and people.
We will not delve into all the details of this fascinating story. I will only tell you that after a failed escape and suicide attempt, Yona arrived in this great Assyrian metropolis and warned the people that the city will be destroyed in 40 days. The inhabitants of Nineveh listened to Yona, they were afraid of the Divine punishment and repented. HaShem canceled His decree and spared the city.
Now, we will see two different angles of this story.
1. The sages of the Talmud praised the way this repentance took place. The people of Nineveh not only dedicated themselves to praying and fasting but also, and mainly, to changing their behavior. Abandoning our bad habits and behaviors is the ultimate and greatest goal of the Teshuba process. So much was this text appreciated by our Sages that they incorporated it as the official reading of the Haftara of Yom Kippur, in the afternoon. Indicating thus what is expected of a Jew when Yom Kippur is over: a real and positive change in our actions, not just the promises or the intentions of change. We also learn that HaShem is willing to forgive and suspend punishment when our repentance translates into improving our behavior.
2. Although it was considered very meritorious that the people of Nineveh believed in the message of the prophet Yona (something that unfortunately did not always happen with our own people, who as a rule did not pay sufficient attention to the prophets) this repentance, that is, what produced it in the first place, is considered to be of a lower level than the others, since there is a factor of self-preservation (egoism) involved, that began the Teshuba process. In any case this Teshuba —repentance for fear of Divine punishment— although imperfect, is considered valid and accepted, as we can clearly see in the book of Yona, where HaShem did not only accept the prayers of the people of Nineveh but also forgave them, and spare their lives.