Sunday, October 5, 2008

Repentance for Dummies III: Yom Kippur, Time and Creative Repentance

Someone recently told me: there are two kinds of people in the world - neurotics who dwell obsessively on the past and those who have the good sense to ignore the past and move forward. Everyone, after all, has skeletons in their closet, and to dwell on past misdeeds and transgressions seems like a sour and pointless activity. For the philosopher Benedict Spinoza, the soul-searching required for repentance is not, he says, 'a virtue' - rather the irrational impulse of someone steeped in 'suffering' and 'sadness.' For Friedrich Nietzsche, someone who pursues repentance first suffers a 'fearful paralysis,' then an 'enduring depression' - and eventually a 'shattered nervous system.' 'Ask a psychologist!' says Nietzsche: he will tell you about the masochistic 'remorse' and 'convulsions' that repentance always brings with it. Many of us know the type - someone depressed and melancholic, wallowing in the transgressions of the past. To such a person we might say, 'get a life; the past is the past; don't dwell neurotically on things that you can't change!' If this the kind of remorse required during the ten days of repentance before Yom Kippur, then perhaps better to follow Spinoza and Nietzsche and give up repentance altogether!

There are models of repentance which, in taking account the enormity of human transgression, require an intermediary for the weight of sin to be lifted. In these models, man can only be passive in relationship to an irredeemably evil past. In many versions of Christian doctrine, this is in fact so: because of the perceived weight of transgression, hope is placed in a redeemer who satisfies the desire for justice of a 'wrathful' G-d - by whose miraculous grace alone, repentance is granted. In this model, all one can do is passively acknowledge one's irredeemably sinful past and rely upon G-d to grant forgiveness. Is this the model that Jews follow?

Rabbi Akiva says: 'how happy are the people of Israel! Before whom do you render yourself pure? Who purifies you? Your Father in Heaven!' Rabbi Akiva cites a verse from Ezekiel as a proof for the principle: 'And I sprinkled upon you purifying waters, and you became pure.' He goes on to provide an additional verse from Jeremiah in which G-d is called 'Mikveh Yisrael' - the purifying waters of Israel. 'As a mikveh or ritual bath purifies the impure,' Rabbi Akiva explains, 'so the Holy One purifies Israel.' But why does Rabbi Akiva need to bring two verses? That he does suggests an unexpected complexity to t'shuva. When we implore G-d to sprinkle his purifying waters upon us, we are passive; but the metaphor of mikveh Yisroel implies an activity. True, it is G-d who will purify us, but we have to jump into the mikveh! G-d will do His part, but we must also do ours. In retrospect, the two verses allow us to look back at Rabbi Akiva's question: 'before whom do you render yourself pure?' G-d is certainly an actor in the process, but we are as well - making ourselves pure in the presence of G-d.

But what is t'shuva? 'Great is t'shuva,' says Reish Lakish, 'for deliberate transgressions are accounted meritorious deeds,' as the prophet says, 'when the wicked shall turn from his wickedness and do that which is lawful and right - through them he shall live.' T'shuva transforms my willfull sins into meritorious deeds'! That sounds like a good deal! What I had thought was at best a dead weight of past misdeeds becomes the source of life - 'through them he shall live!' But 'transgressions turned into merits? That does sound like a kind of hocus-pocus. Is there some kind of divine waving of the magic wand through which the alchemy of bad deeds into good takes place? And if Reish Lakish doesn't argue with Rabbi Akiva, and t'shuva involves human action, then what am I possibly supposed to do enact such a change?

T'shuva is made possible by a particular conception of time. One version of time is distilled by Shakespeare's Macbeth for whom the 'tomorrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow' of successive meaningless moments leads the 'way to dusty death.' But Macbeth's time is really just a sophisticated version of a popular contemporary notion of time, popularized on t-shirts as - I'll paraphrase it - 'stuff happens.' T'shuva requires a notion of time which is different from that of Macbeth where past, present and future interact - as on Rosh Hoshana, when, in the moment of hearing the shofar, we become aware of the Creation, Mount Sinai, and the End of Days. The present is no longer part of a chain of separable and unrelated moments, but it is infused by a knowledge of a future when the Great Shofar announces the redemption of humanity. The future - our ideal image of it - enters the present and even the past. In the resonances of the shofar on Rosh Hoshana we hear, as R. Joseph Soloveitchik says, 'the evanescent moment transformed into eternity.'

It is with this consciousness of time that we approach the days of awe and Yom Kippur. For not only do we as a nation have an ideal image of our future, but each person has his own ideal - cultivated and created through repentance and good deeds. Just as the ideal future - the End of Days - invests the present moment with meaning for the people of Israel, so a person's own ideal future connects up with the present, as well as the past. Through the image of my own ideal future, I not only mold my present - and here is the power of t'shuva - I re-create my past. This is a long way from the past as an object of my neurotic obsessions weighing me down. Rather, through the retrospective glance of t'shuva, my past is transformed. Undoing the relation of cause and effect, it's not my past actions which cause future events, but rather my conception of an unrealized future which re-creates the past! Instead of A leading to B, B leads to A!

But I still might protest: 'I'm ashamed of my past! I did bad things! best for me to start with a clean slate! or even better - I need to seek absolution!' But such absolution only comes - remember Rabbi Akiva - through the creative act of repentance, the creative transformation of my past. It's true that I did bad things, but my motives - and even the actions themselves - were not all bad, not irredeemably bad. In fact, my retrospective glance reveals that willful transgressions - my stubborness, waywardness and selfish desires - are not only consistent with, but they have actually propelled me towards (now I realize it!), my ideal future. The very actions I thought had most distanced me from G-d are in fact those that now bring me close. So willful transgression are turned into meritorious deeds! Refined by the image of my ideal self, my past misdeeds are seen to have shaped my present in a way that they now have the power to help me realize my ideal future. I'm not stuck with the depressing either/or of obsessing about my past or abandoning it. Nor need I despair about a past weighing on me - determining who I am now. Moving towards the future, the past re-cast in its light, my present is transformed. Through the power of t'shuva - no hocus pocus here - sins become good deeds: they are actually the source of a new and transformed life - through them we will live!

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