It is, quite literally, out of this world.
We referto teshuvah, repentance, the process which is to be our point of focus during this time of year. Our sages write in the Midrash that repentance preceded the world’s creation; it was already in existence before the universe in which we live came into being. What they mean by this is that teshuvah does not, fundamentally, fit into the way the world runs. In our world, an offender needs to be punished. If a violent criminal assaulted and murdered several times, he will not escape severe punishment by beating his chest, confessing, tearfully expressing remorse and committing to never repeat his felonious behavior. The concept of teshuvah, however, allows us to do just that. Even though we have violated the commands of our Creator and the King of the universe, we are given the opportunity to have all our wrongdoing simply erased from the record, as though we click on “delete” to get rid of everything we’ve done wrong. This is not to say, of course, that repentance is easy; quite to the contrary, in order to repent properly one must undergo a difficult and grueling process of inner change. However, the very concept, the power we are given to erase our past mistakes by undergoing a process of growth and change, is otherworldly, a gift from heaven, from a world beyond the one we inhabit.
As we embark on the exciting – albeit challenging – journey of teshuvah leading up to the High Holidays, let us take a look at some of the “mechanics” and underlying principles of repentance, an understanding of which will, hopefully, enhance this process and help us make the real changes we want and need
Repentance and Free Choice
Rav Yosef Haim of Baghdad
(1833-1909), more commonly known as the Ben Ish Hai, the title of his most famous work, wrote another book with a similar name – Ben Ish Hayil. In that work, he raises a fundamental and important question about the nature of repentance.
One of the basic tenets of Jewish faith, which is famously elaborated upon by the Rambam, in his Hilchot Teshuvah, is the doctrine of free will. This means that we are fully responsible and accountable for the decisions we make. There is no force that predetermines our spiritual stature, that makes us act righteously or sinfully. The decision we make at any given moment whether to do the right thing or the wrong thing is entirely ours. While some opponents of religion cynically accuse us of living mindlessly, of having been “brainwashed” and doing things without thinking, the truth is that to the contrary, Torah life is all about making the right choices, living consciously and attentively to ensure we act and speak as we should. Religious life is anything but mindless; it empowers us with the responsibility to choose correctly.
However, the Ben Ish Hai observes, a number of sources in Torah texts appear, at first glance, to indicate that Gd causes us to do the right thing or wrong thing, and He determines whether or not we repent for our mistakes. The Gemara (Kiddushin 30), for example, comments, “A person’s evil inclination overtakes him every day and seeks to kill him…and if not for the fact that the Almighty helps him, he cannot withstand it.” Our sages here tell us explicitly that we would be unable to choose right from wrong, to ignore the lures and temptations of sin, if not for Gd’s help. Does this remark
not run in direct opposition to the doctrine of free will? Does this not prove that we are not entirely in control of our decisions?
This question arises from our liturgy, as well, and particularly from the passage that might perhaps be the most crucially important prayer segment which we recite this time of year. Three times every weekday, we beseech Gd in the Amidah service, “Bring us back, our Father, to Your Torah, and draw us near, our King, to Your service, and return us in complete repentance before You.” This request seems, on the surface, very peculiar. Isn’t repentance our responsibility? Isn’t it up to us whether we will work to change our conduct or continue making the mistakes we’ve been making until now? Whose job is it to bring us back to Torah – Gd’s, or ours? Why do we ask Gd to bring us back, if this is our responsibility?
The Two-Stage Process
The Ben Ish Hai answers by distinguishing between two stages of repentance: the thought of repentance, and the act of repentance. We might term these stages “inspiration” and “transformation.” First, we receive inspiration, we see, hear, learn or understand something that moves us and gets us thinking about how we need to make real changes in our lives. The second stage is when we translate these thoughts into actions, and we proceed to work towards making the changes that we thought about making.
An example of this two-step process can be seen in a startling halachah mentioned by the Gemara in Masechet Kiddushin. The Gemara there addresses the case of a man who betroths a woman on the condition that he is righteous. We can imagine the case – a couple begins dating, and the chemistry is there, but the girl, who had dreamt of marrying an especially devout, Torah-committed boy, is uncertain whether this boy reaches this standard she desires. The boy, who very much wishes to marry this girl, betroths her on condition that he is a true “tzadik,” so that if it turns out he is not what she expected, the engagement would be void. The Gemara rules that in such a case, even if the boy turns out to fall far short of the girl’s desired standard, nevertheless, she must receive a divorce from him before she can marry somebody else. The reason, the Gemara explains, is “shema hirher teshuvah belibo” – the boy may have had thoughts of repentance at the moment of the betrothal. We cannot know this boy’s thoughts at that moment, and thus it is possible that although he does not outwardly appear righteous, he was, in one sense, a “tzadik” at that time by virtue of his thoughts
Of course, Gd does not require only thoughts of repentance. He expects us to translate the thoughts into action. But the first stage, the thoughts and feelings of remorse
and the desire to improve, are immensely significant, so much so that a person who experiences such feelings can even be deserving of the moniker “tzadik.”
On the basis of this distinction, the Ben Ish Hai answers his question regarding repentance and free choice. True, repentance is our responsibility, and we have the free will to decide whether to repent or not. However, we cannot undergo the transformation of teshuvahwithout the inspiration of teshuvah. And this inspiration comes from Gd. He is the one who puts us in a position to see, hear or experience something that moves us and gets us thinking. So many times throughout the day, every day of our lives, Gd sends us sources of inspiration. Sometimes it’s witnessing a great mitzvah act performed by somebody that impresses us and makes us want to be better. It could be an insight we read in a book or hear in a class, or a profound thought shared by a friend or family member during casual conversation. Sometimes it’s a less pleasant experience, such as a hurtful word of criticism which causes us to pause and take stock of ourselves. And, while we hope and pray this never happens, it could be a personal crisis or loss that moves us reevaluate our conduct. If we look carefully and stay attuned, we can pick up pieces of inspiration each and every day from the things we observe and the situations we go through. These are all gifts from Above, mini “shofar sounds” that call to us throughout our lives bidding us to look into ourselves and into our lives and to improve.
But while the inspiration comes from Gd, the transformation comes only from us. A multibillionaire can call us several times a day offering us a great job with a $2 million annual salary, but we won’t earn a penny if we don’t answer the phone, or if we don’t bother to show up to the interview. Similarly, as inspired and moved as we become, nothing in our lives will change if we don’t answer the call and do the necessary work. Gd’s role, as it were, is to place the call, to ignite the sparks of inspiration, but it is up to us, and nobody else, to “pick up the phone” and to then show up and put in the effort.
When we pray in the Amidah for Gd to bring us back, we refer only to the first stage, to the stage of inspiration. We ask Him to send us clear, unmistakable messages that will inspire us. We ask Him to draw our minds and our hearts towards the right direction, to fill them with thoughts and feelings of teshuvah. But this in no way absolves us of completing the second stage of the process and acting upon those thoughts and feelings to make concrete changes in our lives.
Keeping Your Phone On
This concept, however, requires a bit of clarification.
After learning and understanding these two stages of repentance, one might ask, what if we don’t feel inspired? If repentance has to start with thoughts and feelings, and these are provided by Gd, then does it follow that we have no obligation to try to change if we don’t have any such thoughts and feelings? Does this mean that we can all sit back, relax, and passively wait for something to move and inspire us?
The answer, of course, is no. Gd sends us sources of inspiration, but we need to be open to receiving them.
Earlier, we suggested the analogy of somebody who does not answer his phone. But another part of our obligation is turning our phones on. If a person who’s been unemployed for months finally managed to get an interview with a great company offering a high salary, and the employer told him he will give him an answer the next day, the fellow will ensure his phone is fully charged and turned on the entire day so he does not miss the call. This is how it is with religious inspiration, as well. The Ben Ish Hai is teaching us that we are guaranteed to “get a call” from Gd several times a day. Too often, however, we leave our “phones” off, or we don’t bother to keep the battery charged. We aren’t expecting – or, even worse, we are not interested in – these “calls,” so we turn off our spiritual “antennas” so we never hear them. If we hear the phone ring, then we will be forced to leave the comfort of complacency to answer the call and then act on it. Unfortunately, many of us prefer the convenience of leaving the phone off so we are not disturbed.
The great tzadikim live their lives with their spiritual “phones” turned on and fully charged at all times, always ready, prepared and eager to hear Gd’s “call.”
Inspiration From a Shoemaker
It is told that Rav Yisrael Salanter (1809-1883) was once walking in the street late at night and was surprised to see a lamp burning in a certain home. He looked closely and saw the shoemaker who lived in that house working diligently repairing a pair of shoes. The rabbi gently knocked on the door, and when the shoemaker opened the door, the rabbi asked him why he was up so late.
“As long the candle in the lamp still burns,” the shoemaker said, “I still have an opportunity to fix the shoes that need fixing.”
The rabbi was amazed. “What a profound lesson I learned from this shoemaker!” he later exclaimed. “As long as our soul still burns, as long as we are still alive and functioning, we have the precious opportunity to repair everything within ourselves that need fixing. This shoemaker would not go to sleep as long as the light burned and he could do his repair work. We, too, must never ‘sleep’ as long as we are able to do our work to ‘repair’ our souls.”
Most of us who saw a shoemaker working late at night would not turn this sight into a meaningful life lesson. But Rav Yisrael Salanter lived his life sensitively attuned to spiritual wavelengths, ready and eager to pick up Gd’s signals. When a person lives this way, even an ordinary sight such as a shoemaker hard at work becomes a meaningful experience and a precious opportunity for growth.
Mussar at a Bus Stop
Rav Shalom Schwadron (1912-1997), who was known as “the Maggid of Jerusalem,” used to spend a couple of months every year in Brooklyn, and would study in the kollel where I learned at that time. I had the unique privilege of driving him home every day. On one occasion, as I was bringing him to his apartment, he noticed a “No Standing” sign at the bus stop in front of the building, and he asked me what was written on the sign.
“It says, ‘Assur la’amod’ [‘No standing’],” I explained.
“Wow,” the rabbi marveled. “I didn’t realize they wrote such profound words of mussar[religious teaching] on street signs here in America!”
“Mussar?” I asked. “What mussar?”
He said, “Assur la’amod bahayim –
It I forbidden to stand still in life! We must always be working to grow and reach higher!”
If we are looking for guidance and inspiration, we’ll find it in many different places, even at bus stops in Flatbush.
Gd gives us the inspiration, but we need to be looking for it.
Why do we go through so many High Holidays without changing, without growing, without elevating ourselves? Well, many of us do change, grow, and elevate ourselves, every year, but we do not realize it. We need to give ourselves more credit and recognize that we have grown and improved, and that every small step we take forward is immensely significant and precious. Sometimes, however, we fail to grow, or to grow enough, because we are not sufficiently attuned to the inspiration Gd sends our way. We must not wait for some earth-shattering event or mind-blowing insight to give us a jolt. There are countless more subtle forms of inspiration that come to us effortlessly, as gifts from Gd, every day. Our job is to keep our minds open and attuned to these messages, and then act upon them.
Elul is the time to beseech Gd for inspiration, and to listen carefully and attentively in an effort to find it. This is the time to open the books that we’ve been intending to read, or to attend the classes we’ve been intending to join, and to look around us for opportunities for meaningful growth. This will ensure that our experience this coming High Holiday season will be truly uplifting and transformative, and that we enter 5778 on a slightly higher level than we’ve been in 5777, amen.