Monday, September 15, 2008

Repentance for Dummies: Hypocrisy and the Power of T'shuva

'One who has transgressions in his hand, and feels ashamed to repent or to do t'shuva, let him exchange his transgressions for good deeds, and do t'shuva, and it will be accepted. Let it be compared to a person who has bad coins in his hand who goes to a money changer and gives something extra — in exchange for good coins; so also, one who has transgressions, let him do good deeds, and t'shuva.'

The words of the sages are strange. For they imply that one should first do good deeds or mitzvos, and then only after tshuva. Yet a verse from Psalms suggests just the opposite: 'turn away from evil, and then do good' - first repent, and then, only after, do good deeds. It makes sense, as Rambam writes of the penitent:
Yesterday he was separated from G-d: when he called out, he was not answered; when he did good deeds, they were ripped up in front of him. Today, after he he has done t'shuva, he is attached to the shechina, the divine presence; he calls out, and is answered; he performs good deeds and mitzvos and they are accepted with pleasure and joy.
A person who does good deeds without first having done t'shuva has those deeds ripped up in his face! So one might think: 'I had better desist from doing good deeds until I have transformed my inner world. It's better to do nothing then to be a hypocrite! G-d doesn't want my lip service!' The kabbalists go so far as to say that such lip-service gives strength to the Forces of Evil in the world.

But our sages are warning us from leaning on the hypocrisy claim - 'I can't do t'shuva, it wouldn't represent the real me! I'd be a hypocrite!' For honesty can also be a form of avoidance behavior - a way of cheering myself up in my complacency. So they advise: even before a person transforms his inner world, he should look to do as many good deeds - acts of kindness, mitzvos - as possible. Even though they are not accepted at the moment, when eventually he does t'shuva, that is, when he makes the attempt to perfect his inner world, to come close to God, his good deeds will be accepted retroactively. The parable makes this point: the good deeds that a person does before t'shuva are like bad coins. But at least he has some currency - not only transgressions - in his hand! He brings something to the table! When he adds something extra (ie t'shuva), the bad coins are exchanged for good ones; the deeds of questionable status before t'shuva, because they didn't reflect his inner being, are transformed into good deeds. Not only that, but his t'shuva is so powerful that past transgressions are nullified - as if they were never committed.

One feels despondent at his distance from G-d; each transgression appears as yet another barrier between him and G-d. He fears, or thinks he knows, that his mitzvos will be rejected - torn up in front of his face. To be sure, the sages understand that good deeds without the prospect of internal tikkun (or repair) are of no value - only a symptom of hypocrisy. Yet they teach that t'shuva spiritual renewal - cannot be achieved through turning an internal switch. Contrary to what we might think, change begins not from the inside, but from the outside, through action. First I have to perform good deeds, and try to be the person I want to become on the outside - even though at first it doesn't really feel genuine. I may even say to myself: 'it's not really me!' But when I've accrued enough coins - even if they are an inferior currency, my inner world catches up. Through that extra that I am now ready to add - for now I am ready to admit to myself that I am the kind of person who can do t'shuva! - I reveal a continuity between who I am now, and the person I once was. The person who did those good deeds at the beginning with ambivalence turns out in the end not to have been a hypocrite; in fact, he has been transformed retroactively - the amazing powers of t'shuva! - into the person who now stands in the divine presence. My good deeds propel me towards repentance - revealing from the very outset someone who desired to return to G-d.

So when the sages advice us - especially in Elul - to focus on deeds first, and then the inner world, it is not an exercise in hypocrisy, but rather pragmatism: part of the pragmatic guide to repentance.