Thursday, July 29, 2004

On This Week's Parsha

I submitted this article for AishDas's weekly "Mesukim Midvash" series:


Hardly a day goes by without a sensitive soul wondering how he or she might have done better at this or that. After all, we all err, and there's not a moment that isn't fraught with mixed successes and failures in our avodah. But we're told in two adjacent pesukim in our parsha that there's always hope, for we can always do teshuvah (see Devarim 4:29 and 4:30). But what is teshuvah, at bottom? On one level it's simply the process of refraining from doing a wrong, taking it upon yourself never to do it again, regretting having done it, and verbally admitting you'd done it, as Rambam lays it out (Hilchos Teshuvah 2:2).

There are several other worthwhile things Rambam suggests we might do to repent for our sins, which we'll come back to. And they align more or less with Rabbeinu Yonah's more strident counsel that, among other things, we should come to feel despondent about what we'd done as well as worry about and be ashamed of it, that we ask G-d for help in our teshuvah, and that we learn to overcome *all* our physical cravings in the process as well as to scrutinize all our ways (Shaarei Teshuvah 1:10-50).


I once met a truly *fine* person who'd once been one of the "dregs" of society -- a penitent in the classical sense of the term. He'd been a blackguard, having been a drug addict, having lived barbarically underground in abandoned subway stops, and having robbed others aboveground for drugs.

Now, while Rabbeinu Yonah's demands seem reasonable-enough or even mild for someone like him, or for us more "pedestrian" sinners when we're confronted by the more existentially threatening instances that Rabbeinu Yonah offers there -- as when we're overrun by troubles, when we grow old, when we're admonished by a talmid chacham, etc. (see Gate 2 there) -- still-and-all none of those demands seem to touch upon what I take to be our center-most *daily* ethical dilemma. That is, how to stop ourselves from doing something we know to be wrong which we intend to do anyway.

There's something else puzzling about Rabbeinu Yonah's notion of teshuva, to my mind. It seems to disregard basic human nature. After all, as Bachya Ibn Pakudah points out (Chovos Halevovos, Introduction to Gate 7), we all tend to be "negligent when it comes to (our) duties to the Creator" from time to time, simply "because (we're) impulsive by nature and made up of many opposing elements, traits and motives". After all, we're "sometimes pleasant, other times objectionable; sometimes criminal, other times righteous; sometimes good, other times bad". Thus, Bachya Ibn Pakudah seems to contend that we indeed need constant access to teshuva much the way computers need fans to run all the time -- in order not to "overheat". But that we should find it easy enough to do it.

So again, what will inspire us to repent on a more everyday level, and how do we stop ourselves from sinning when we're about to?


I think the two pesukim in our parsha help explain what we'd need to concentrate on, and that Rambam's other suggestions we alluded to offer what we can do. The pesukim tell us that we'd have to "find" G-d again after sinning and to "return" to Him. But how does one ever "lose" or "leave" G-d in the first place?

As Rabbeinu Yonah explains, we leave (i.e., "abandon") G-d each time we sin (Shaarei Teshuvah 1:10). So, all we'd need do to return to Him would be to call upon the primal pull in the human heart to do just that; for as many gedolim have explained, we're all "parts" of G-d that just naturally long to return to our “Source” (see Tanya Ch. 44). So the easiest way to transcend our everyday derelictions would be to sense the loss of G-d in our lives and truly want Him back.

And I contend that Rambam's other words advise us how to "find" Him once we'd "lost" Him -- which is to say, what to do when we're about to sin and lose our connection to G-d despite ourselves. Rambam offers that we should "cry out to G-d (for help) and give tzaddakah" when we repent (Hilchos Teshuva 2:4). And I suggest that we'd do well to do just that, right there and then, in order to hold ourselves back from sinning. (I myself have done much like that, as well as asked G-d to help me avoid a particular sin *for the next hour*, hour after hour, which has worked). And I also suggest that we heed Rambam's more dramatic suggestions there that we "change our name" and "wander about from place to place" in teshuvah. Which is to say, that we picture ourselves as being someone greater than who we are (and thus assume another "name") right there and then, and that we ("wander" about in our minds so as to) transpose ourselves into someone who wouldn't commit that particular sin.

May G-d always grant us the wherewithal to serve Him.

(c) 2004 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman