Devarim: Lessons in Teshuvah

devout_jewish_prayerThe Torah portion begins with the words:

“These are the things which Moses spoke to all of Israel” (Deut. 1:1).

The Torah then enumerates what is seemingly a list of places the Jewish people had traveled. The Siphre elucidates that out of respect for the Jewish people, Moses alluded to their transgressions by the name of each place, without being explicit. What can we learn from this?

Rabbi Yehuda Leib Chasman of the famed Hebron Yeshiva comments that a person who is sincerely interested in self-improvement and growth only needs a slight hint that he has done something wrong in order to realize that he needs to improve. Such a person looks for opportunities to make positive changes in himself and uses his own ability to think to fill in the details when someone gives him a hint that he has made a mistake. The Jewish people only needed a hint.

The goal of life is to improve and to be the best that you can be. Just like a person interested in becoming rich will use any tip if he thinks it will be of financial benefit, so should we look for messages which will help us improve. Rabbi Yisroel Salanter once asked a shoemaker why he was working so late and with an almost extinguished candle. Replied the shoemaker, “As long as the candle is still burning it is possible to accomplish and mend.” From this Rabbi Salanter understood that “as long as the light of the soul is still going, we must make every effort to accomplish and to mend.”

-Rabbi Kalman Packouz
Dvar Torah based on Growth Through Torah by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
Commentary on Torah Portion Devarim
Aish.com

Easier said than done.

On the other hand, it seems to be God’s expectation that we should all strive to improve, to make amends, to become better.

When describing Tisha B’Av, Rabbi Packouz says:

Tisha B’Av is a fast day (like Yom Kippur, from sunset one evening until the stars come out the next evening) which culminates a three week mourning period by the Jewish people. One is forbidden to eat or drink, bathe, use moisturizing creams or oils, wear leather shoes or have marital relations. The idea is to minimize pleasure and to let the body feel the distress the soul should feel over these tragedies. Like all fast days, the object is introspection, making a spiritual accounting and correcting our ways — what in Hebrew is called Teshuva — returning to the path of good and righteousness, to the ways of the Torah.

Teshuva is a four part process: 1) We must recognize what we have done wrong and regret it 2) We must stop doing the transgression and correct whatever damage that we can, including asking forgiveness from those whom we have hurt — and making restitution, if due 3) We must accept upon ourselves not to do it again 4) We must verbally ask the Almighty to forgive us.

despairThat sounds a lot more complicated than how most Christians just shoot a quick “forgive me” prayer up to God before continuing on with their business. OK, maybe that was really cynical, but I wonder if a lot of Christians have a concept of repentance the way we see described above.

I hope so. It’s not easy. Maybe if we appreciated from the start how much work it is to repent, how much strife and anguish our mistakes make, the enormous effort that goes into a repair of damaged relationships and of damaged people that will never quite be enough, maybe we’d put more effort into not sinning in the first place.

The goal of life is to improve and to be the best that you can be.

That may be true. But there’s a long, hard distance between the goal and where most of us are on the journey.

According to Rabbi Packouz:

Learning Torah is the heart, soul and lifeblood of the Jewish people. It is the secret of our survival. Learning leads to understanding and understanding leads to doing. One cannot love what he does not know. Learning Torah gives a great joy of understanding life. On Tisha B’Av we are forbidden to learn Torah except those parts dealing with the calamities which the Jewish people have suffered. We must stop, reflect and make changes. Only then will we be able to improve ourselves and make a better world.

In an ideal sense, this is how Jewish people are to approach and immerse themselves in the experience of Tisha B’Av. It is said that the Temple was destroyed because of the lack of love the Jewish people had for one another. This is part of the reason why there is such intense mourning in Jewish communities at this time of year. This is why there is such an emphasis toward teshuvah.

Only when true repentance has been made can the Jewish person move forward and begin the process of self-improvement.

What should the rest of us learn from this? Is our candle still burning?

For a different perspective on this portion of the Sidra, visit Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh’s blog.

Good Shabbos.

75 days.

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