Rabbi David Walk
One thing that's happened to me as a rabbi I never would have predicted. I get more questions in the supermarket than I get at the synagogue. It's a rare shopping excursion that someone doesn't approach me with a question about a kashrut symbol or the acceptability of a product. Beyond that, people will say that it's a coincidence that they're seeing me because they had intended to call, and then ask their inquiry. All this is fine. I not only don't mind, I actually enjoy running into these beloved congregants. It's a pleasant break from comparing the prices of items on my list. The one thing I really find unusual is that they often ask me where products are. I guess I look like a good eater who would know. This brings me to the second most common question I'm asked after 'Is it kosher?' And that is, 'Why am I repenting for the same stuff every Yom Kippur?' It does seem like an unending loop or a Moebius Strip (Once upon a time, I would have said like a broken record, but that's ancient history.). I find myself back at the same spiritual place, repeating the same habits I resolved to break last year, and the year before, and the year before. Let's see if we can make some sense of this phenomenon.
I believe that there are two issues in this problem. The first is the matter of integrity. Teshuva is about working very hard to arrive at the right spiritual place. We can't achieve a place of sanctity without total sincerity. What good is a solemn confession, stating how wrong we were and how sorry we are, if we don't mean it? Sorry and vidui (confession) can't be recited in a robot like way. They must be the result of considering our actions, regretting them, and then earnestly begging for forgiveness. Add to that the honesty factor, King David informs us that one who tells lies shall not stand before My eyes (Psalms 101:7). Plus, if we make the repentance and confession process a pro forma recitation that has no sincere feelings behind it, we have made a mockery of it all. Remember, our Sages inform us: one who says, "I will sin and then I will perform Teshuva," is consider to have never performed true Teshuva (Yoma 85b), and, perhaps, can never achieve repentance for those sins (Maimonides, Laws of Repentance, 4:1). When we rabbi types emphasize God's infinite mercy and compassion, people can mistakenly believe that this procedure can be treated like a game, God forbid. So, first of all we must work hard to make sure that the Teshuva we do is performed as seriously as possible, even though we may be repeating the same confession as last year. We must avoid the boredom factor of been there, done that.
Now let's take a look at the second factor, which I believe is the crucial one. Let's assume that a person really confessed sincerely for a sin committed last year. The person cried, felt true remorse, and clearly proclaimed a resolution to never fall into the clutches of that sin again. Sadly, the next Yom Kippur comes around and our honest penitent must admit failure, the sin has been perpetrated again. Does that mean that the previous vidui procedure was flawed? Not necessarily. We must have the tolerance to understand that repentance is extremely hard, and that many will be unable to maintain the resolve we achieved the previous Yom Kippur. No one should denigrate the previous year's (or years', for that matter) effort. The failure is a system breakdown. Allow me to explain.
The great source for so much of our modern understanding of the repentance process is Maimonides' Laws of Repentance. The Rav (Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, 1903-1993) returned year in and year out to those ten chapters to teach an entire generation of rabbis and lay people the meaning of Teshuva. It was amazing how much he mined from those relatively few pages of text. But, perhaps, the most profound idea the Rav ever gleaned from this majestic work was based on Maimonides' organization of the material. These ten chapters are divided into three sections. The first four chapters describe the technical process of repentance, and clearly lay out the pitfalls which may detour us from receiving the benefits of this mitzvah. The middle two chapters don't even mention Teshuva. They discuss the issue of free will, the sine qua non of Teshuva. Maimonides clearly believes that without free will we are not responsible for our actions and therefore can neither be punished nor repent. The final four chapters are quite unusual. Maimonides waxes poetic over the magnificence, almost the magic, of Teshuva, but he's no longer discussing repentance for specific acts. He introduces the material with the following words: Do not think that repentance is only for sins which involve an action… but just as one has to repent if one committed sins, so also does one have to seek out one's bad characteristics and abandon them (Laws of Repentance, 7:3).
When we haven't succeeded in eliminating a certain sin from our behavior, it wasn't because we weren't sincere last year. It's because we didn't change our character during the year. Teshuva is a two pronged effort. We must regret the past through remorse and confession for past misdeeds. But the future resolve depends upon us discovering why we did those sins in the first place and working on our character to eliminate the reasons we sinned, not the sin themselves. This is a life long task. So, we must focus on incremental progress. Hopefully, we are always a little bit better each year.
So, we can't dismiss our Teshuva efforts as a failure based upon the repeating specific sins. We must look at Teshuva as system overhaul, and work for some improvement every year. This process isn't easy, and we can't get discouraged. Let's be as sincere as possible regretting our shortcomings, and then make next year better by working on ourselves. With the help of God, we can succeed and break the discouraging cycle of repeated wrongdoing. Good luck to us all.
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