Do you know anyone who relates to the idea of repentance with joy and happiness? Looking forward to that sore tuchas from sitting so long in synagogue? Can there be trepidation for the Day of Judgment and awe for the Day of Atonement and also an uplifted positive spirit? You bet your sore tuchas.
It’s all a matter of focus. When you are doing teshuva, repentance before the High Holy Days, every effort you make is rewarded. You are placed in a win/win situation. If you are able to better yourself in anyway, you will reap infinite rewards in this world and the next. When a law student is up for the Bar Exam it is either pass or fail. There is no credit given for the years of law school or the late nights preparing. You are either confirmed a lawyer or not. One gentleman in Los Angeles worked as a law clerk for 24 years taking the exam twice a year and failing each time until finally he was able to pass. Of course, you have to admire his persistence. But in the physical world, there is no real reward for preparing for the Bar Exam. In the spiritual world it is the opposite. You can feel joy every time you make the smallest effort on behalf of your soul.
The word “repentance” brings up concepts of Heaven and Hell, reward and punishment, which makes many people uncomfortable. If you are one of these people, you need to change the words. Don’t think about repenting; think about spiritual growth. You can use any words you want – “I’m giving myself a mental floss.” Or “I’m getting a moral upgrade with more speed and more memory.” Does it really matter what words you use? The main thing is to do something, anything to effect a better person.
When you think about it, each one of us is like a sculpture. We are created as raw material and our job in this life is to mold, shape, sculpt a more perfect you. Hopefully, every new year you are a tiny bit wiser and have the ability to look over all of your values and principles. Make a list of your goals. Ask yourself if you want to have more or better friends. Ask yourself if any one of your close relationships could be better. Work on controlling anger. Work on being more forgiving. Work on being less materialistic. Whatever you want. This is the time period that is ripe for introspection and self-growth. Now is the time that the spiritual world opens up to aid you in your quest to be a better person.
Any accomplishment in the physical world can only cause temporary joy. If you win a bowling trophy it only gives you joy to take it out and impress someone who hasn’t seen it yet. The experience of winning a game is momentary. The St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series last year. This year nobody really cares. It’s a new season; a new team. Now is the time to focus on spirituality. Ask yourself if by next year you want to be on a higher level of spirituality. Do you want to be less petty? Do you want to have more respect for yourself? Do you want to know how to love more?
In the time leading up to the holidays the joy is not only in the accomplishment of achieving growth in an area you want to grow in, the joy is in knowing that you have a spiritual benefit in just trying. Make a small effort, and be happy to be connected to spirituality and your Jewish roots.
Originally Published on Sept 7, 2007
Very nice! I agree. I’d also say that reward and punishment are a fact, but they are a childish superficial way of looking at Divine Providence. Punishements are merely consequences and challenges that are designed for our good. It’s always a reward and an act of love on the part of the Creator. Compassion comes in to mitigate some of the unpleasantness of the messages we get.
That’s a nice posting Rabbi Weiman. Thank you.
I humbly share an additional point that you no doubt already know but went unmentioned in this posting. “Repentance” isn’t a very good translation of the Hebrew word “tshuvah”, which is what we are really talking about here.
We live in a society dominated by another religion. Repent seems to be one of their words. And the word ‘repent’ is all wrapped up in other theological concepts which aren’t particularly Jewish. And much of it’s heavy, aversive connotations may be products of living in Exile.
So let’s be Jewish and look at the Hebrew. As most readers probably know, ‘tshuvah’ is more like ‘return’ than ‘repent’. What are we returning to? We’re invited to return to a relationship with Hashem in which we are truly loved by Him. I’m not great a quoting sources, but our tradition is abounding with expressions of the view that Hashem is waiting for us to return to Him like a father yearns for his lost child. We are in the time of year during which Moshe Rabbeinu was up on Mount Sinai gaining our forgiveness from G!d. We had just built and worshipped a golden calf, thus spurning the unbelievable gift of being freed from Egypt. This is when G!d expresses the 13 qualities of compassion to Moshe and we are indeed forgiven. The Chassidic Masters and other sages tell us that Hashem’s compassion pre-exists, and can thus dissolve, nullify, void, forgive, melt, any of the restrictions or distortions (often described as blemishes) that we may have taken upon ourselves. The fixing precedes the breaking. It’s always true.
But we can’t stop there, lest you think that Judaism is some kind of unconditional, mushy ‘its all good, dude’ spirituality in which we can do anything we want. Because our Masters also tell us that “Hashem loves Justice”. And the implication of that is that when we withdraw our attention, focus, priority, etc from G-d by doing what some people call ‘sin’, He withdraws his presence from us. Because that is a kind of Justice. And that doesn’t always feel good.
So what’s the real story? Does G-d forgive us for anything, or does he punish us?
Maybe it’s something like this, which is inspired by chassidus too: That really Hashem loves Justice. But he loves compassion even more. Compassion and Love for the Jewish People is Hashem’s first priority and desire. But it’s not Compassion without Justice. Just like we can’t have a well-functioning culture of rights without responsibilities. So when we go off the path and embody a lack of caring for Hashem, the quality of justice is expressed and Hashem ‘withdraws’ his presence.
If we’re fortunate, we can perceive that Hashem has withdrawn. We can feel the distance from Divine Unity that is a necessary part of being a soul that is enrobed in a body. And we can let ourselves feel some yearning, perhaps even regret. And if we yearn with enough sincerity and humility and desire, then Hashem welcomes us back with love.
And we can Return Home to Abba,
And what’s more Joyous than that?
Good Yom Tov