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One of the central elements of Rosh ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur is teshuva - repentance. We are encouraged to use the time leading up to the High Holidays, and the entire period from Rosh ha-Shanah through Yom Kippur - called, traditionally asseret yemai teshuva, the ten days of repentance - to examine and assess our behavior, reject that which is negative, and embrace that which is positive. Every year, the parsha which is read in synagogue this Shabbat, Parshat Nizavim, is read in close proximity to Rosh ha-Shanah. Appropriately, it contains the section that is known as parshat teshuva - the section on repentance - which describes how the Jewish people, after experiencing the vicissitudes of Exile, will learn their lesson, examine their behavior, and return to God and His word, and, ultimately, to the Land of Israel, where they will once again enjoy political autonomy and freedom, and live according to the dictates of the Torah.
Traditionally, the process of teshuva works like this: one recalls and examines one's behavior of the recent or more distant past, and is repelled and embarrassed by it, and determines to never repeat it again. It may be that I hurt someone, through insensitivity, or selfishness, or by taking unfair or even illegal advantage of him or her. I may have transgressed ritual law, or failed to live up to the moral and ethical standards of behavior demanded by Jewish tradition. Whatever the misdeed, teshuva asks that I honestly and sincerely recognize and regret what I did, decide to never do it again, and, when relevant, make amends for the harm done by my actions. If I caused damage to an individual, then I must make restitution to him or her, as well as ask for and receive his or her forgiveness. If my sin was to God - in the area of ritual law - then I must ask Him for forgiveness.
It would seem, then, that teshuva is a way of saying you're sorry and being forgiven: recognizing and internalizing that you have done harm to someone - God or man - committing to not repeat the behavior, making amends when possible, and sincerely asking the wronged party for forgiveness. Once this process has been completed, you are forgiven, the wrong you did is put right, and your sin is expunged. That is how teshuva works, and that is what it accomplishes.
However, there is a statement in Maimonides' Laws of Teshuva which presents a problem with this understanding. He says: "Anyone who regrets the good deeds which he performed and questions the value of his positive actions, and says in his heart: 'what good have I done by doing them? I wish that I had not done them!' - behold that person has forfeited all of them, and not one of his merits is ever again recalled in his favor..." Maimonides places this difficult idea in the Laws of Teshuva, and it does look, in fact, like the flip side of the act of repentance: just as someone can regret his past sins, and ultimately be forgiven for them - erase them, as it were - so, too, by regretting his good deeds, one can similarly erase them, undo them, and make them disappear. However, if we look carefully at the dynamic of the person who regrets his good deeds, we have trouble understanding exactly how it works. If teshuva is a process of asking for and receiving forgiveness, as we said above, then what is the parallel process here, in the case of one who regrets his good deeds? What is the opposite of forgiveness, who do you ask in order to get it, and who grants it to you? Unlike the dynamic of teshuva, where there is the interaction of the sinner asking he whom he sinned against to pardon him, here, he who repents of his good deeds does so "in his heart"; he has no interaction with anyone, there is no one who grants him anything, nor can there be, as no one was wronged. The regretting of Mitzvot is done by yourself, within yourself: you think it, and it happens. How does this strange mechanism of regretting and thereby erasing your past good deeds work?
Perhaps this strange dynamic of repenting of our good deeds teaches us something about classic teshuva - the repenting of our bad ones. Although teshuva is understood, as we explained above, as consisting of an interaction between the sinner and the sinned against, perhaps the really crucial element of teshuva is not that interaction at all, but is, rather, something internal. Regretting, and thereby erasing, one's good deeds, which has nothing to do with someone else forgiving us, nothing to do with making good what I have done wrong, works because we are, inescapably, the authors of our own autobiographies. Repentance is only secondarily a way to say you're sorry and be forgiven. Primarily, repentance is a way of defining who you really are, in spite of things you might have done. Teshuva insists that we are not prisoners of our pasts. Although we may have been cruel, or selfish, or insensitive, that doesn't have to be who we, essentially, are. We are not simply the sum total of our actions; there is an internal, irreducible 'me' that is ultimately about my thoughts, beliefs, commitments, and decisions, rather than my behavior. The classic outward-looking aspects of teshuva are really peripheral to its central dynamic. Since a sin is a 'sin against', and typically involves and harms others - whether God or man - there is a social, in-the-world aspect of the sin which must be dealt with; we have to make it good, through restitution, the asking of forgiveness, and behavior modification. However, the arena in which teshuva primarily happens is within ourselves, in the way we really understand and feel about who we are. That is how we can erase our good deeds: completely internally, with no outside interaction at all. If who I really am thinks that the good I have done was a waste of time, then that is who I really am. Similarly, if who I really am regrets bad things that I have done, then that is who I really am, and my negative actions do not define me.
Teshuva grants primacy to our internal selves - our deepest thoughts, feelings, and beliefs - above the things we actually do, which, though important, are, by definition, mitigated by the exigencies of time, place, and circumstance.
This idea is supported by the opening section of the parsha of teshuva which we read in this week's portion. The parsha tells us that the first thing the Jewish people will do on the path to teshuva, after they sin and are punished by being exiled, is "vehashaivota el levavecha" - 'and you shall return to your hearts', or, 'you shall consider in your hearts'. The path to repentance is essentially about what lies within us, not what happens outside of us. The dynamic of asking for and receiving forgiveness, and the actual behavioral changes that must accompany it are necessary, and important, but they are not the main event. The main event is you determining who you are.
Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova,
Rabbi Shimon Felix