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.

1 comment:

Spinal Muscular Atrophy - Shira Fisher said...

T’shuva is an interesting subject. I love how your article ends with doing good deeds. The torah and halacha is full of action oriented good deeds from reaching out to the sick all the way to the proper way to wake up in the morning and washing your hands etc. The problem is not many people believe they are doing much wrong and usually ask for forgiveness in this way, “If I have done something wrong please forgive me.” Most people’s transgressions or sins are not incorrigible . Most of our sins might be as average as: yelling at our children and scaring them rather than using love and compassion to deal with problems, having negative thoughts of a co worker, being jealous, taking a verbal swipe at our spouse, Most people aren’t robbing their corner grocery store, car jacking cars or embezzling from investors yet according to Torah they are transgressing all the same. As a parent of a child with a terminal illness I have witnessed the beauty people can possess but mostly I have witnessed the frailty of the human spirit. I have experienced the inability for people to be able to stand in your presence giving emotional support. I have witnessed the extremely religious turn to the dogma of Judaism and hide within prayer and using prayer as their only form of Mitzvot. Maybe Hashem is teaching me something here. No, not maybe I have been taught something here. I have learned that I must reach out and actually physically do something to relieve the pain and suffering of other’s. I can tell you that from someone in my position that is experiencing the day to day beauty and horror of watching my childs‘s physical health deteriorate and seeing her move slowly towards eternity I can tell you that action is the greatest mitzvot. Now you might want to argue with me and tell me that some people might feel uncomfortable with people reaching out to them in such a dire circumstance and I can tell you this might be so for the minority but it is not true for the majority. I believe, from the pit of my neshema that doing good deeds, being good to one another is the most important mitzvah. So, in this month when you are praying, doing t’shuva don’t go into it blindly. Don’t do it for things you “might” have done wrong. This is the time to fix, apologise, forgive, and reach out, and finally heal from your transgressions so that you can start with a clean slate. Hashem is closer this time of year, shofars are blowing strong and loud to remind us all of who we are as a collective people, the people of Israel. What has kept us going all these years are the good deeds we have done between the individual and Hashem and the individual and his fellow Jew and neighbour. Compassion without action is empty.

"He who preserves one soul is considered as if he had preserved a whole world." (Talmud, Sanhedrin, 37A)

"Happiness exists in action, it exists in telling the truth and saying what your truth is, and it exists in giving away what you want most" - Eve Ensler

"If you see an injustice being committed, you aren't an observer, you are a participant." - June Collwood

"Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented." - Elie Weisel.

"We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give."-Winston Churchill

"The opposite of Compassion is Indifference." - Jean S. Bolen MD

“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.” – William Kolbrener

Brad (Father to Shira, SMA Type 1, 3 years old)