We are all familiar with the story in Parshas vaYeira of Sarah’s laughter in response to the promise given to her by an angel visiting her home that she will have a son. When confronted by G-d, Sarah denied wrongdoing. “Lo tzachakti ki ya’re’ah.” “I did not laugh” – [said Sarah] – because she was afraid.
We all try to cover over our shortcomings and mistakes; we deny wrongdoing even when we are at fault. Yet, surely each one of us recognizes that while we may be able to delude others, we may be able to delude ourselves, but surely we cannot delude G-d. How could our matriarch Sarah have possibly told G-d that she did not laugh when, just moments before, she did in fact laugh? Surely she realized that G-d knew the truth!
The Sefas Emes suggests a remarkable answer that we should carry with us through these 10 days of teshuvah and Yom Kippur. Sarah knew that she had laughed and Sarah knew that she was mistaken in doing so. But Sarah was immediately overcome with fear and did tshuvah to rectify her sin. When Hashem appeared and asked Sarah whether she had laughed, she responded truthfully that she had not – tshuvah had obliterated he sin, her laughter, and there was nothing left of it.
The story concludes with Hashem telling Sarah that indeed she had laughed. I am going to here depart from the Sefas Emes and follow my wife’s reading of the conclusion, which I think is a bit simpler. Sarah had indeed done tshuvah, but her tshuvah was motivated by fear. Hashem may grant a pardon for such tshuvah, but it’s power to completely obliterate and undo the past is limited to the higher tshuvah that stems from love.
We don’t realize the tremendous power of tshuvah to not only bring about kaparah, but to literally undo the past. Hashem is not like a parent, a teacher, a friend, who forgives, but who (or so you may think) forever after looks at you differently because of some fault or error. Hashem grants a completely clean slate, with no reminder of past iniquities.