On ‘teshuva’

Too of­ten, even when we are seized by the mo­ment to re­pent, we re­frain from do­ing so from some high-minded idea that it is hyp­o­crit­i­cal to do teshuva when we are still steeped in sin

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - JUDAISM - AHARON E. WEXLER The writer holds a doc­tor­ate in Jewish phi­los­o­phy and teaches in post-high-school yeshivot and midrashot in Jerusalem.

Hag Same’ah! Yes, Yom Kip­pur is a hol­i­day and a happy one at that! Our Sages tell us: “There were no days as happy for the Jewish peo­ple as the 15th day of Av and Yom Kip­pur.” More than the baby wants to suckle, the mother wants to nurse. More than we want a re­la­tion­ship with God, God wants one with us. If we make the first move, we will find God al­ready mov­ing to­ward us. And that is a happy day!

One of the most difficult stum­bling blocks to teshuva, re­pen­tance, is the be­lief that it re­ally works. But you are a fool to doubt its ef­fi­cacy. How are we to ac­cept the rab­binic laws when it comes to the do’s and don’ts of Ju­daism but refuse to be­lieve the power of teshuva to wipe away all sins? Ei­ther the sins are not sins and there is noth­ing to re­pent for, or the sins are real and teshuva works.

The prob­lem is that teshuva is coun­ter­in­tu­itive. How is it pos­si­ble to do some­thing that can af­fect the dis­tant past? We all know how easy it is to af­fect the fu­ture; but the past? Ju­daism says it is in fact pos­si­ble to change the past. In other words, your fu­ture is in fact your past, and it is your past that will then de­fine you!

This is why teshuva is named by the Sages as one of the few things cre­ated be­fore the world was cre­ated. That means that teshuva is not from this world and is not bound by physics.

How does one do teshuva? We are to re­gret our sins. We are to confess them to God Him­self (we Jews do not be­lieve in any in­ter­me­di­aries be­tween man and God), and fi­nally take upon our­selves not to com­mit the sins again.

If you do this, our tra­di­tion teaches us, the sin is then for­given. It is as if it did not hap­pen.

The He­brew word teshuva lit­er­ally means “re­turn.” God wants us to re­turn not just to Him but to our­selves. Like any par­ent, God wants us to self-ac­tu­al­ize. A re­turn to who we were be­fore we sinned. A re­turn to the per­son we ought to be.

Too of­ten, though, even when we are seized by the mo­ment to re­pent, we re­frain from do­ing so from some high-minded idea that it is hyp­o­crit­i­cal to do teshuva when we are still steeped in sin. We feel as if God doesn’t want to hear from us, be­cause we are so im­pure.

I am go­ing to share with you a se­cret my rebbe shared with me, and it is a rule of life that has put me in good stead for 25 years now. Don’t let what you did on Satur­day night pre­vent you from go­ing to minyan Sun­day morn­ing.

God knows you, even bet­ter than you know your­self. Be­fore you were even con­ceived, He knew you! He knows the world you live in and its temp­ta­tions. He knows that we are now liv­ing in the dig­i­tal age, where sin crouches at the door and the home­page.

Think about it! Three thou­sand three hun­dred and thirty years af­ter Si­nai, the fact that you are bear­ing with me and still read­ing this col­umn is an amaz­ing tes­ta­ment to the fi­delity you have to God, His To­rah, and His peo­ple. It is amaz­ing that 3,330 years af­ter be­ing told to af­flict our­selves on the 10th day of Tishrei, more than three-quar­ters of Jewish Is­raelis fast.

Our pres­ence in syn­a­gogue next week is a state­ment to the world that while we are a part of it, we are also apart from it. We re­turn home. When you get dressed and go to ser­vices, you are do­ing teshuva. It is a re­turn to God and to your real self, your Jewish self.

Ju­daism is not an all-or-noth­ing re­li­gion. This means that even if we are still strug­gling with some of the mitzvot, it shouldn’t pre­vent us from do­ing the oth­ers. NOW, I know that some of you are sit­ting smugly while read­ing this, se­cure in your own mitz­vah ob­ser­vance. You feel that since you keep Shab­bat and kashrut and give tzedaka, you have noth­ing to worry about.

I want to tell you that you should in­deed worry, be­cause you are miss­ing some­thing fun­da­men­tal, the idea of Am Yis­rael, Jewish peo­ple­hood. We are a peo­ple first and fore­most, and there­fore we Jews func­tion as a com­plete unit. What you fail to un­der­stand is that if your fel­low Jews do not keep the Sab­bath, then you are not keep­ing the Sab­bath. If your fel­low Jew does not keep kashrut, then it is you who do not keep kashrut. The ques­tion that should plague your soul and keep sleep from your eyes is what are you go­ing to do about the 70% of Amer­i­can Jews who are in­ter­mar­ry­ing?

The story is told of a king who was very wise. So wise, he was said to be able to an­swer ev­ery sin­gle ques­tion posed to him. Once, a shep­herd boy thought he would out­smart the king and brought a but­ter­fly cupped in his hand to the king. He asked the king if the but­ter­fly was alive or dead. The king looked at the boy and re­al­ized what was go­ing on. If the king would re­ply that the but­ter­fly was alive, the boy would sim­ply crush the but­ter­fly, open his hand and prove the king wrong. And if the king would re­ply that the but­ter­fly was dead, the boy would sim­ply open his hand and re­lease the but­ter­fly, only to prove the king a fool.

The king thought for a mo­ment and told the boy that the an­swer was in his hands.

We stand on Yom Kip­pur and ask God, “Who will live and who will die?” And God tells us, the an­swer is in our hands! ■

(Wiki­me­dia Com­mons)

TZEDAKAH BOX, Charleston, 1820, Na­tional Mu­seum of Amer­i­can Jewish His­tory: ‘I know some of you are sit­ting smugly... se­cure in your own mitz­vah ob­ser­vance. You feel that since you keep Shab­bat and kashrut and give tzedaka, you have noth­ing to worry about.’

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