This philosophical-linguistic question was brought up by me at a class I took on תשובה Teshuva in Pardes, taught by Rabbi Reuven Grodner. It has been bothering me for a very long time. When I first became religious, I had never heard of BT's, Ba'alei teshuva or even simple "teshuva." The term/phrase I heard in NCSY, in the middle 1960's was simply "becoming religious." Yes, that's what I did.
תשובה Teshuva is generally explained as from the Hebrew root שב "return." תשובה Teshuva is translated as "repentance."
1. deep sorrow, compunction, or contrition for a past sin, wrongdoing, or the like.No doubt that for some people, repentance is a return to a more Torah observant or moral life after "lapses." But I didn't come from a Torah observant family. For me to return to something in my past I'd be shedding mitzvot, not adding to them.
2. regret for any past action.
Don't get me wrong. I grew up in a strongly Jewish home. My parents were always members of a synagogue and that includes today, living in an "American," non-Jewish old age home in Arizona, they are members of a shul. My sister makes every effort to "take them to services." I graduated a Conservative Hebrew School, Oakland Jewish Center, Bayside, NY, but I had no idea of kashrut, Shabbat and most of the Holidays. My religious grandparents both died when I was very young, so I didn't have religious experiences growing up.
One thing I want to make clear is that my parents have always been scrupulously honest, caring, good citizens, neighbors etc. During World War Two, when my father served in the United States Navy, he was known as "the Jew" and proud of it. For my parents, the good they've always done make them "good Jews."
For me personally, in the past forty-five years plus since I first began making an effort to live a Torah life, most of what I've been learning has been totally new. So, how can תשובה Teshuva mean "return?" To what, where am I supposed to be returning?
All I can think of is the "story" that as fetuses in the womb, we "learn" everything in Torah, and it empties from our minds as we are born. I can't accept that, because babies are spiritually more like angels. They don't sin. That's not because they choose not to; it's because they're incapable. It can't be that the ideal we wish to attain is "incapability."
I picture my spiritual self more as a many-armed creature trying to climb up to a goal of Jewish spiritual perfection, but not all of the "arms" are on the same level. Some a still far down and have a very long way to go/grow.
As Rabbi Grodner taught us during the courses I took the past four Mondays, man has free will. We choose whether to obey G-d or disobey, and we also choose whether or not to repent and ask G-d's forgiveness.