“But it takes so little to help people, and people really do help each other, even people with very little themselves. And it’s not just about second chances. Most people deserve an endless number of chances.”
― Will Schwalbe, The End of Your Life Book Club
Thursday, September 17, 2015
Speechless Before the Judge- Some thoughts on teshuva
I was lucky. Being the one
giving the shiur, I got to choose the subject. I picked a topic that I could
speak about with confidence. I chose the topic that doesn’t scare me, the one
that doesn’t keep me from sleeping comfortably. I stayed away from the topic
where I would have sounded less rabbinic, the one where I can hardly serve as
There is a story that is told
about a non-observant professor who had a conversation with the saintly Rav
Aryeh Levine. The professor suggested that those who are religious are lucky,
as they can do teshuva, as they have the religious texts which show them how to
do so. The rabbi responded that for that very reason, it is difficult to do
teshuva. I think I understand the story. I’ve opened the sefarim, read the
words, and tried to apply them. Still, I am not sure I have done teshuva, at
least not in the way I want to. No, the way that I need to.
So I chose to speak about
teshuva, and how it relates to God. I spoke about moving from an approach of
fear, to one of joy. Of seeing teshuva not as a way to avoid punishment, but as
a way to become the person we wish to be, and the person we were created to be.
I spoke about this because I could. It’s a message I’ve mostly eternalized in
my own life. This year, I’ve worked on the religious side of things in my life.
I am no longer as scared as I once was of Divine punishment. I see a deeper
aspect to religion. Unsaid in all of this was how I think about teshuva as it
connects to my relationship with others, and with myself.
I couldn’t and can’t speak
about those things because I just don’t know what to say. When the things I’ve done
wrong to others go from disconnected mistakes to expected patterns, what does
teshuva even mean? How does one continue to apologize for wrongdoings that have
become habits, and seemingly taken on a life of their own? How do I stand
before God and say that this year will be different, when I have no reason to
believe that to be true?
There was a moment this past
Rosh Hashanah where this thought hit me, and I’ve been reeling ever since. It
was a moment of recognition where I realized that so much that troubles me
about who I am when I’m not in front of a classroom teaching Torah, or away
from the public eye, did not just happen, but came about through choice. At
that moment, all of the excuses simply faded away. As I let that thought settle
over me, there was no fear of punishment, and no thought about how God might
judge me. There was something worse. I sat not before the proverbial beis din
shel ma’alah (the Heavenly court), but before a much harsher judge and jury. I
sat facing myself, having no idea what I could possibly say.