The Torah teaches us that it is never too late to change.
Changing for the better is called doing teshuva. The Hebrew word teshuva, which is often translated as repentance, actually means to “return.” Return to God. Return to our pure self.
How do people become interested in self-improvement?
People have faults. The faults they have cause them to suffer in some way or another. This suffering limits an individual’s freedom and is often painful. Hence, people want to change… to improve. To be free once again.
How does one change for the better? How does one do teshuva?
There are four steps of teshuva.
-Rabbi Mordechai Rottman
“Four Steps to Change”
Resolution for the Future
There isn’t much to Rabbi Rottman’s last step in making teshuva, but I think it’s deceptively simple:
Make a firm decision not to repeat the negative behavior.
This step can be compared to stepping on the gas! Once you make this resolution, you’re really starting to move! Every minute that passes puts miles behind you and the negativity.
You’re on your way to becoming the “new you!”
After all of the regret, the struggle with negativity from yourself and others around you, and your agonizing confession to God and perhaps even to the people you have hurt, you come to this. You’ve gotten past the tough parts. You’re standing at the trailhead. The new journey is about to start, and it takes you in a different direction than you have previously traveled. The adventure begins.
But the spectre of sin is always following behind, perhaps at a great distance, perhaps right behind your shoulder.
I mean, it’s not like you’re never going to sin again, right?
We’ve been talking about teshuva or repenting of a single, habitual sin. This is something that’s been going on for years and that has consumed your life, made you a slave, and completely disrupted your relationship with God and with other people.
Now you’ve gone through three out of four steps of making teshuva and you stand at the threshold of that fourth step into freedom. Resolve not to return to the sins you have left behind.
Although I’m a linear person (most guys are), I can still see or rather hear the echoes of the other steps, especially the negative self-talk. It may not be very strong at this stage, but I can’t say it’s completely absent, either. What if you move forward only to stumble again? What if you backslide? What if you make a mistake? What does that make you? If you screw this up after all you’ve gone through, does that mean all your work was for nothing?
Remember, we’re looking at sin and repentance from a fundamentally Jewish perspective.
Worse yet, biblical translation promotes misconceptions. For example, you’ll read a translation and come across the word “sin.” Uh-oh. Sin, evil, punishment. But the Hebrew word Chet does not mean sin at all. Chet appears in the Bible in reference to an arrow which missed the target. There is nothing inherently “bad” about the arrow (or the archer). Rather, a mistake was made – due to a lack of focus, concentration or skill.
From here we learn that human beings are essentially good. Nobody wants to sin. We may occasionally make a mistake, lose focus, and miss the target. But in essence we want to do good. This is a great lesson in self-esteem. Simply adjust your aim and try again!
This certainly flies in the face of what we believe in Christianity; that human beings are essentially evil. But Rabbi Weinberg follows up with this statement:
In translation, the message is lost. In fact, entire religions have arose based on mistranslations. So get it straight. Learn Hebrew.
From a Jewish point of view, Christianity’s understanding of sin and evil is based on a misunderstanding of Hebrew.
In Christianity, guilt and sin define your identity before repentance. This is who you are. You are dead in your sins, lost, hopelessly separated from God.
And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.
–Ephesians 2:1-3 (NASB)
This is Paul’s description of pagan Gentiles before they became disciples of the Jewish Messiah and began to worship the God of Israel. Once they (we) make the transition, though:
But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.
–Ephesians 2:13, 19-22 (NASB)
I’m deliberately leaving out the “one new man” language and the text that is commonly misinterpreted as Paul’s commentary on the Law being “nailed to the cross with Jesus” because it is not relevant here (and I’ll deal with those misunderstandings another time).
I’m quoting these verses to show that non-Jews can be grafted in and access the blessings of the covenants made between God and Israel, though of course, this doesn’t make us Israel. Paul was describing what we were before and who we are now.
But the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews delivers a dire warning.
For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame. For ground that drinks the rain which often falls on it and brings forth vegetation useful to those for whose sake it is also tilled, receives a blessing from God; but if it yields thorns and thistles, it is worthless and close to being cursed, and it ends up being burned.
–Hebrews 6:4-8 (NASB)
You should recognize this if you’ve read my most recent review of D. Thomas Lancaster’s Hebrews sermon series Things that Belong to Salvation. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend that you do, because Lancaster explains that this passage of scripture, while a critical warning against apostasy, is not an automatic “go to jail (hell) forever” card.
What happens when we come to faith as a Christian and continue to sin? If your faith hasn’t transformed your life at all, then it’s time to question whether you have any faith in God. If your life has changed for the better spiritually and morally, but you still struggle with sin, welcome to the club. I don’t know a single disciple of the Master, no matter how spiritually elevated, who has completely conquered sin.
In fact, we will continue to struggle between our old and new natures all of our human lives, until the Messiah comes, until the resurrection, until the Spirit is poured out on all flesh (Joel 2:28, Acts 2:17). The Acts 2 (for Jews) and Acts 10 (for Gentiles) events were only a down-payment, a guarantee that the promises of the future Messianic Age and that the coming of the Kingdom of God will indeed arrive.
Until then, we struggle with our humanity. Sin is what we do, not who we are. Sin is the influence of the world around us and of the spiritual world. Sin is a disturbance in our relationship with God, like a pool of water can be disturbed by dropping a stone into it.
Make no mistake. Disobedience and willfully defying God comes with horrible consequences. But God isn’t standing over us ready to drop the hammer at the first sign of a mistake. He wants us to succeed. He wants us to draw close to Him. He is our ultimate supporter, He’s always in our corner, cheering us on, calling us to run just a little harder, just a little faster, so we can get to the finish line and receive the trophies He has waiting.
For many of us, life is a very long and difficult road. We can let the hardships defeat us and permanently separate us from God, or we can expect to fall down periodically, so that we can learn to pick ourselves up. Don’t worry. Whether you realize it or not, God is there to lend a supportive hand and help us get back on our feet.
Some falls are worse than others. Sometimes the injuries are severe and leave scars and a limp. But God will not allow you or me to be completely broken and unable to continue the journey. That’s something only you can do to yourself by denying Him and failing to ask for His help.
The first sentence a Jewish child is taught is “Torah tziva lanu Moshe, morasha kehilat Yaakov” – “Torah was commanded to us through Moses and is the inheritance of every Jew.” Torah was meant for everybody. It is not the exclusive domain of some priestly class. Rather, it is a living, breathing document – the lifeblood of our Jewish nation. We are required at all times to involve ourselves in its study and practice. As it says, “You shall think about it day and night” (Joshua 1:8).
Although the Torah in its fullness is the inheritance of every Jew, Rabbi Weinberg said it is also meant for everybody (not every Jewish person). I’ve said before that all believers, including Gentiles, have an obligation to the Torah of Moses as part of being a disciples of Jesus (Yeshua), and I’ve even revisited this opinion.
For believers, not only is the Torah the written instructions for living, but so are all the scriptures, including the apostolic writings. The Torah is called a tree of life. Don’t just study the Bible, integrate its lessons into your entire lived experience. It’s never too late to begin studying the Bible, just as it’s never too late to make teshuva and return to God.
Visualize Your Success. Then Go And Do It.
Resolving not to return to sin is resolving to move toward God. Repent daily. Walk the path daily. Seek an encounter with God daily. Rabbi Zelig Pliskin has said that ”Whatever you focus your attention on, you increase.” Concentrate on the Spirit of God within yourself, focus on the Word of God, and God will increase within you and expand into the world around you.
Gifted souls enter this world and shine. All that surround them bathe in their light and their beauty. And when they are gone, their light is missed.
Challenged souls enter, stumble and fall. They pick themselves up and fall again. Eventually, they climb to a higher tier, where more stumbling blocks await them. Their accomplishments often go unnoticed—although their stumbling is obvious to all.
But by the time they leave, new paths have been forged, obstacles leveled, and life itself has gained a new clarity for all those yet to enter.
Both are pure souls, G‑dly in essence. But while the gifted shine their light from Above, the challenged meet the enemy on its own ground. Any real change in this world is only on their account.
-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Gifted and Challenged”
Based on the letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson