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The Systems of the Jewish Year

Teshuvah - Bringing Out the Beauty of Our Souls

By TorahLab

There is a standard metaphor that we are taught as children. On the Day of Judgment God, the judge, sits on His chair with a large scale in front of him. Not a digital scale or the type of scale that you would see in the butcher shop or the vegetable store but an old time scale with two sides; one representing our good deeds and the other representing the areas in which we were weak. Our years worth of life’s deeds appear on the two sides of the scale. We, and even God waits in anxiety to see in which direction the scale will be tipped hence decreeing our year to come. Will we be inscribed in the book of life or not?

Personally, I find the metaphor very uninspiring and I question its truth. I’d much prefer to turn the metaphor inward. I believe it is not our actions that stand before God but rather it is we ourselves. God judges not what we do but rather what we are, albeit true that what we are is a result of what we do.

I would like to introduce a metaphor of a sculpture. Michelangelo commented that he has never created any thing new. He simply takes that beauty which is in the stone and brings it out. The stone, before Michelangelo, is just a stone, after Michelangelo, it is a priceless piece of art. In the case of the sculpture it is very uninteresting how many strikes of the chisel were made, how many mistakes and how many corrections. No one is interested in keeping score. What is important is the final product.

As human beings and particularly as Jews we are born with a mandate to find the particular beauty we were created with and for and to carve it out. Our tools are the Torah and mitzvoth. Rav Tzadok HaKohen, the Rebbe of Lublin, taught “Mitzvoth are tools and Torah advice that were given to mankind to bring him and her to shleimut - perfection.” The Talmud itself teaches “The purpose of the Torah is to perfect man.” It is our raison d’Ítre in life to reach our personal level of perfection which is unique and different than anyone else’s. One must devote one’s life to this calling. On Rosh Hashanah we stand before God. God with love of his people picks up the sculpture and examines it. What we are at that moment of judgment is a result of what we have done for we are a product of our own lives.

I’d like to examine the Mitzvah of Teshuvah. The Rambam (Laws of Teshuvah chap. II;2) is traditionally quoted as saying that there are three parts to Teshuvah. If one sins and wishes to repent one must first regret what they have done. Secondly, they must commit themselves never to repeat the wrongdoing. And finally they must confess orally the sin they had committed.

Closer examination of the Rambam reveals five steps to Teshuvah not necessarily including the three which are traditionally understood.

“What is Teshuvah?

One must abandon the sin.”

The first step in Teshuvah is behavioristic. The first step in recovery for an alcoholic is to stop drinking.

One can go without drinking for days and years and still be an alcoholic. “… And remove it from one’s mind.” A move inward from deed to thought. Not only must one stop doing the sin but as a second step one must also stop fantasizing and obsessing with it. “… and conclude in one’s heart that they will not repeat the sin...”

The Rambam has taken us another step inward, from mind to heart. In the process of integrating a new lifestyle, intellectual resolve does not suffice. Conclusions must travel from mind to heart, from intellect to emotion. “… and one should regret what they have done.”

The actual word used in the Rambam is not regret but Vayitnachem . Regret is actually an impossible translation for in fact our sinner has already regretted what they have done. I would like to suggest that the correct translation would be “and one should deal with what they have done.” Even after one has seemingly cleansed themselves from a sin behavioristically, intellectually and emotionally there is still work to be done.

If we wish to grow we must look inward and ask ourselves what made us do this sin to begin with. What need or insecurity were we fulfilling. For those of us who speak negatively about others, even though we know it’s wrong, we must ask ourselves, why? After we have eradicated the sin we are in a position to ask this question and get down to the very essence of our beings and try to figure out what makes us tick.

At this point we are no longer dealing with what we do but rather with what we are. This can be a very doubtful and uncomfortable time. It is not as black and white as just looking at our deeds. It is here that the Rambam adds a commentary that pierces the heart of the sinner. If you have gone through the process I have prescribed “He who knows the most hidden things will testify that the sinner will never return to this sin again.” This is the ultimate in reassurance and closure. God’s testimonial to what we have accomplished and His reassurance that we have changed. Finally “We must say with our lips that which we have done with our hearts.” I think the epitome of closure and resolve is when we can verbally admit that which we have done.

In short the Rambam does not put forth a formula for erasure and forgiveness but rather a formula for change and growth. The sculpture has been repaired and according to the Talmud actually improved. We are ready to stand before God, to be picked up and admired, even scrutinized and judged as we enter our new challenge on the road to shleimut- perfection.

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