With the High Holidays approaching, it is amazing to find a timely lesson on repentance in the weekly Torah portion. This week’s Parasha, Nitzavim, sees Moshe Rabbeinu encouraging B’nei Israel- telling them that they can improve and succeed…
For this Mitzvah that I command you today is not beyond you, and it is not distant….
…For this matter is very close to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, to do it.
“This Mitzvah” refers to Teshuva…
Rabbi Tzvi Einstadter of Baltimore makes an interesting observation on this passage. Imagine a person who is asked to pick up an object from the table. The person making the request would never really need to encourage his friend by saying, “Listen, you don’t need to use a crane to pick up the pencil; it’s really light, and you can use just one finger.”
That’s because there is usually no major difference between how difficult it is to lift the item, and the person’s expectations for how difficult it will be for him.The person preparing to pick up the pencil wouldn’t assess the pencil’s weight so poorly that the use of heavy machinery would have to be ruled out for him.
How is it then, asks Rabbi Einstadter, that Moshe Rabbenu spoke to B’nei Israel in such terms- assuring them that Teshuva is not completely beyond them, but instead ‘very close’ and accessible to them? Apparently, repentance can be viewed in two completely different ways. Unlike the simple act of lifting a pencil, Teshuva can seem exceedingly difficult even though it is in fact easily within our grasp. Let’s try to understand what B’nei Israel’s misconception about repentance- then and now, thousands of years later, might be rooted in.
Just like any other Torah requirement, repentance has a specific set of rules to be followed. A Shofar cannot come from any random animal, and a Mezuzah must be written according to detailed requirements. Likewise, returning to Hashem must also be done in a certain way . Without knowing what ingredients Teshuva actually requires, a person can neither fulfill this Mitzvah nor be assured that his repentance was in fact accepted.
Now, what steps must be taken in the Teshuva process? Rambam lists the necessary components that the returnee must do (see Rambam, Laws of Teshuva, for how he organizes, lists, and explains these laws):
1. Abandon the sin, accepting to not repeat it. ‘He Who knows the thoughts of people’ should ‘be able to testify’ that this is ‘a new person’, who will not sin this way again.* One who resolves to be better without first stopping to sin is like an impure person who immerses in the Mikveh- while still holding a dead rodent.
2. Regret the sin. One must feel remorseful for having acted against Hashem.
3. Confess the sin. One must verbally express to Hashem that he regrets having sinned, does not want to sin again, and asks for forgiveness.
On the surface, none of this appears very easy to do. Genuinely deciding to break or change one’s ego, desires, and habits overnight seems close to impossible!
The great Mussar master Rav Yisrael Salanter (Or Yisrael, Letter 6) teaches many fundamental ideas relating to repentance. First, we must realize that two people who commit the same sin may be given two different sentences in the Heavenly Court. For starters, a person is awarded in accordance with the challenges he overcame in performing a Mitzvah:
“According to the pain is the reward,”
-Pirkei Avot, 5:26
Some commandments are naturally easy- not to murder, for example- and some are usually more difficult to obey- such as not speaking Lashon Horah. In addition, a person’s inborn characteristics, environment, and circumstances can all impact the difficulty level of fulfilling Mitzvot. Now, being that reward is in accordance with what a person endured to do the right thing, certain commandments are unexpectedly grave. Someone who resists sinning despite the challenges he faces will receive more reward in the World to Come than one for whom this test always came easy. One who undergoes difficulties in order to perform a positive Mitzvah is treated likewise. So, while murder is a huge sin, one doesn’t usually receive much reward for not killing his friend during an argument- after all, he’s not really tempted to do so. By extension, one who violates an ‘easy Mitzvah’ is punished severely-even when it is not a crucial a Mitzvah as some others.
Here’s where it relates to our topic. Rav Salanter explains that just as there are many levels of Torah obligation- such as Torah laws, Rabbinic decrees, and custom- each sin and good deed can be said to contain many levels in its own right. (One may fulfill a Mitzvah in its basic way, or in all its full detail. One may have pure intentions as he performs a Mitzvah, earning great reward, or may really do so for honor or reward, which is fine. A person may even have negative, unacceptable intentions when doing the Mitzvah. These are but some of the many things Hashem knows and considers in judgment as He views our actions.)
As such, a sin that someone committed can be seen in levels and parts as well. If he spoke Lashon Horah eighty times, God forbid, over the course of the year, his large, repetitive sin in fact contains many individual moments. A person who experienced tremendous anger or jealousy can be said to have sinned in many smaller ‘units’ of negative feelings. Included in the great kindness of Hashem in giving us the opportunity to repent altogether is that He also allows-actually demands- that our repentance be done in small stages. One who tries to do ‘complete’ Teshuva by correcting and reversing his deeds without building up slowly to the goal is making a tragic mistake. Because making some huge paradigm shifts in one’s persona demands so much of a person’s ego and self-control, it is axiomatic that one who ‘jumps’ will fall. Knowing that turning around completely overnight is beyond the sinner, it must be that the Torah requires us to do what we are capable of- namely, Teshuva in gradual, deliberate steps.
How can one fulfill his obligation in repentance, though, if he cannot resolve to totally change right away? Isn’t this still tantamount to immersing while in contact with the source of impurity? It seems that this question is predicated on a faulty assumption: viewing the dead rodent as the totality of his sins. However, the rodent represents something more nuanced and subtle: the sinner’s willingness to violate God’s will. Once a person shows that he truly doesn’t want to be a sinner any more, and he takes logical steps within the Teshuva process, he has repented on one level, in one unit, of his sin. Rather than changing ‘completely’ from his entire record of sin, he can change completely from one full unit of his sin. Thus, his Teshuva is full, so long as he is acting with the end goal of spiritual perfection on his radar, as the segment he is repairing represents his entire sin, as it were…
We’ll end for now with a few amazing words that fit perfectly with this idea.
Return, Yisrael, until Hashem you God, for you have stumbled in your sins…
Why does the verse speak of returning “until” Hashem, rather than to Him?
This seems to be what the Eben Ezra bases his words on…
Bit by bit, until he ‘reaches’ Hashem.
-That is, the verse is showing us that returning does not need to mean arriving at the destination right now. Rather, the journey is itself an accomplishment, and so the verse exhorts us to engage in returning, and never to forget the ultimate end goal.
We can now answer Rabbi Einstadter’s question. The natural tendency is to view repentance as requiring a total and instant personal overhaul- and therefore too difficult. However, the truth is that we must work instead in segments, because otherwise there can be no Teshuva. Thus, the truth is that Teshuva is really quite close to us after all.
May we repent properly and realistically, and merit Hashem’s acceptance of our Teshuva that is complete- even as it is done slowly.
“Open up for me an opening like the eye of a needle and in turn I will enlarge it to be an opening through which wagons can enter.”
-Midrash Shir Hashirim
Have a great Shabbat!
*Although we often stumble even after having vowed to change our ways, it is not considered as if we repeated our sin. A person who was genuine at the time of his repentance became a different person- and so it is not the same person repeating the sin.
Elli Schwarcz is an alumnus of the Toras Moshe, Ner Israel, and Carteret Yeshivos, and has been involved in Jewish outreach for almost 15 years. He is a Hebrew School and English Language Arts teacher, and has a Master’s Degree in Counseling from Johns Hopkins University. Of all his pursuits, Elli most enjoys teaching high-level Jewish thought and Talmud to teenage boys, exposing them to the beauty and wisdom of their heritage while highlighting their own ability to engage in advanced Torah learning. Elli lives in Lakewood, New Jersey, with his wife and children.