Tag Archives: teshuva

Passover Arrived But Not The Seder

Moses called to all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Draw forth or buy for yourselves one of the flock for your families, and slaughter the pesach-offering.”

“It shall be that when you come to the land that Hashem will give you, as He has spoken, you shall observe this service. And it shall be that when your children say to you, ‘What is this service to you?’ You shall say, ‘It is a pesach feast-offering to Hashem, Who passed over the houses of the Children of Israel in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but He saved our households,'” and the people bowed their heads and prostrated themselves. The Children of Israel went and did as Hashem commanded Moses and Aaron, so did they do.

Exodus 12:21, 25-28 Stone Edition Tanakh

PassoverToday is the first full day of Passover. Jews and a good number of Christians all over the world held their home and community seders last night.

My home wasn’t one of them.

For some months, my wife has been planning on visiting our daughter in California. She left early Sunday morning and won’t be back until midday on Thursday. My grandchildren are with their Mom for the next two weeks, so it’s really only my two sons and I at home. They weren’t exactly clamoring for their old man to dust off our haggadahs and start a lot of cooking.

Passover just sort of crept up on me and suddenly it’s here.

Pesach hasn’t felt this chaotic since the Uninspired Seder of 2012 or the Unanticipated Seder the following year.

And given my comments in my previous blog post, initiating any sort of response to Pesach as a Gentile believer is beyond the scope of my obligations or my rights.

It’s been a difficult time. My Dad is slowly dying of cancer. My Mom’s cognitive abilities continue to dwindle. And as the old time actors used to say, “I am between engagements,” and have been since last Friday. One of my sons had his car engine blow up on him, and the other is buying a house, which sounds wonderful (and in many ways it is), but also introduces different stressors.

I decided to at least do the readings for Pesach I, but when I couldn’t remember where to find my Tanakh on my bookshelf, I realized it has been a really long time since I’ve read the Bible.

That can’t be good.

A friend found a piece of furniture for my son’s new home (since his ex took most of their stuff), so driving over to the gentleman’s house to pick it up, I saw a number of “Jesus loves you” bumper stickers and messages of a similar nature. I figure everything that’s happening to me now is God’s way of getting my attention.

Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
Rabbi Zelig Pliskin

“This too is for the good.”

Or as Rabbi Zelig Pliskin put it:

No person can know what is really good for him in the long run.

We lack peace of mind because we feel anxious and worried about what has happened to us in the past, or what might happen to us in the future. But the reality is we can never know in advance the ultimate consequences of events. Being fired from your job, or being forced to find a new home could likely lead to events that will be beneficial for you.

Today, try to recall a time when a “bad” event turned out for the “good.”

I can remember when bad events ultimately resulted in a good outcome, but I also remember the pain involved in dealing with the bad part, and the lengthy time period between bad event and good outcome.

It can be a lonely road from the bad starting line to the good finish line.

But then as long as we live, there never really is a finish. We’re never done contending with life, with other people, disappointment, loss, anxiety, desperation, the works.

I suppose that’s why I’m writing this. I need to gain perspective and to get a handle of everything that’s happening to me right now. I probably should be doing more constructive things, such as cleaning the house, mowing the lawn, scouring job boards and the like, but I’m not.

On Friday, I initiated a flurry of activity post my “between engagements” experience earlier that morning, but over the weekend, the shock had worn off. I had my grandchildren with me, and since they require a lot of attention, that provided a distraction.

But then they left to return to their Mom Sunday afternoon, and I realized just how empty I felt inside.

Okay, God. You got my attention. Now I just need to find a way to change my focus, to even have a focus. A seder last night would have been good timing, which is why I’m puzzled that Hashem arranged for it not to happen.

My wife and my daughter are together, so I hope they had the opportunity to attend a community seder, perhaps at the Chabad.

Found at racingjunk.com

The quiet finally got to be too much for me, so I started listening to “Sunday at the Village Vanguard” by the Bill Evans Trio. It was recorded live in New York City on June 25, 1961 (my daughter’s birthday, though she wasn’t born until decades later).

Over a month or so ago, I wrote about trying to jump start my faith, and as you can see, things haven’t gone so well up.

The prodigal son is still struggling on the path that leads to home.

At the end of each seder, the last words uttered are, “Next year in Jerusalem.” For me, I’d settle for “Next year at home with my family.”

Okay, God, you’ve got my attention. Now what?

Repentance and Resolution

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.

walkingAlthough 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!

-Rabbi Noah Weinberg
Written Instructions for Living
from the 48 Ways to Wisdom series

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)

newI’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.

WrestlingUntil 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).

-Rabbi Noah Weinberg
Written Instructions for Living
from the 48 Ways to Wisdom series

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.

visualize successFor 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.

-Arnold Schwarzenegger

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


Repentance and Confession

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”

I’m tempted to say something like, “Look! We’re halfway through the process of learning how to repent. Just two more steps to go and we’re home free.”

But if you’ve read the previous two steps and you’ve been paying attention, you realize it’s not that easy. Each step in this process could take weeks or even months to accomplish. I’m not sure if you have to completely finish one step before proceeding to the next, but being a rather linear fellow, that’s how I do it.

That means a single act of repentance isn’t an act at all, it’s a process. To focus on just one habitual sin and truly repent of it, to make teshuva, could take a very long time…it could be months or even years before you get to a place where you know you’ve finally, truly, authentically, completely repented.

And then what if you “backslide?”

But I digress. What about the third step in making teshuva?


Here’s how Rabbi Rottman describes it:

Why is it important to say it?

There is a power to saying things as opposed to just thinking about them. Verbalizing a thought brings the idea to a new level of reality, awareness and understanding.

The verbalization that is done after committing a transgression makes one more fully aware of what was done. It therefore heightens the regret and strengthens the resolution not to commit the act again.

This verbalization is not to be done before anyone other than God. Not even your rabbi needs to know about what you have done. It’s just between you and your Creator.

This reminds me of all the times I’ve seen an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in TV or in a movie. Some guy gets up in front of the group and says, ”I’m So-and-So and I’m an alcoholic.” In the film Finding Nemo (2003), a group of sharks are used to parody this sort of “confessional” meeting (“Fish are friends, not food.”) If you recall that scene, you know things don’t always work out as well as planned.

Humor aside, admitting your sin, especially in front of witnesses, is very powerful, very humbling, and potentially very shaming. You’d have to know you were completely accepted by the group or the person you’re confessing in front of…and it could backfire horribly.

Or at least that’s the fear, which is why most people don’t like making embarrassing admissions about their sins in front of others. Fortunately R. Rottman says that the ”verbalization is not to be done before anyone other than God. Not even your rabbi needs to know about what you have done. It’s just between you and your Creator.”

But there’s always one other living spirit in the room besides God. You.

HitbodedutGod, of course, already knows about our sin, so He’s not exactly surprised. He has no “reaction” as such, except perhaps the reaction of a father welcoming home his wayward son (Luke 15:11-32). However, what happens when we hear ourselves say, “I have sinned”? We think all the time about our sin, particularly during the process of teshuva. We think, we ponder, we feel shame, humiliation, sorrow, regret. We tell ourselves all sorts of negative stories about our sin and who we are as a result of having sinned. We remind ourselves of how many people we’ve hurt or offended, or how hurt our friends and family would feel if they ever knew about our sin, assuming it’s a secret.

But admitting out loud that you have sinned, the nature of your sin, the impact of your sin on others…how would that be? There’s only one way to find out.

Say it.

No, really. Try it out. If you’re reading this blog post and you’re human, you probably have sinned. Unless you are an expert at repentance…true repentance as I’ve been describing in this series, chances are you have something to say to God. It’s not like you’re going to be saying something that you and God don’t already know about. But hearing your own voice articulate your sin makes it seem so…real.

To meditate, try saying a single word out loud, and concentrate on it’s meaning. After ten minutes, your mind will be fully focused.

-Rabbi Noah Weinberg
Total Concentration
from the 48 Ways to Wisdom series

I know ten minutes doesn’t seem very long, but try verbalizing your sins for that length of time and it will seem like an eternity.

Communal confession is not unknown in Judaism and in fact, as part of the Yom Kippur service each year, in synagogue, the people publicly confess in a short alphabetical prayer known as the vidui.

In Judaism, a penitent sinner must give verbal expression to his remorse: He must confess his sin before God pardons him. Strictly speaking, the confession is acceptable even in the bare formulation: “I have sinned,” but more elaborate forms have been compiled and used. Maimonides (Teshuvah, ch.1‑2) holds that the more the sinner confesses at length the better, but gives as the basic form: “O God! I have sinned, I have committed iniquity, I have transgressed before Thee by doing such‑and‑such. Behold now I am sorry for what I have done and am ashamed and I shall never do it again.”

Rabbi Louis Jacobs
“Confession (Vidui): A first step toward repairing wrong”

ViduiIn a public confession, there is a formula by which the group recites the vidui and people never openly verbalize their actual, personal sins. This is a mirror of the ancient Yom Kippur service when the Temple was standing in Jerusalem, when the High Priest would enter the Most Holy Place once a year to make atonement for the nation of Israel.

But even hearing yourself recite the vidui should remind you of your actual, personal sins. Even actively contemplating them during the Yom Kippur service should have a profound effect.

Remember, confession isn’t designed to make you feel bad or more guilty. We’ve discussed this before and feeling bad is more likely to result in your continuing to sin and to give up on repentance. By increasing the “reality” of your sin through confession, the idea is to intensify your regret and minimize your negative thoughts and comments about yourself. Having a frank conversation with God is one way of doing that.

There’s a Chassidic concept of prayer called Hitbodedut that might be effective, but it requires that you get to someplace where you can be completely alone and isolated from all distractions.

Opening one’s heart to God is the highest form of Jewish worship. Crying out to Him in spontaneous prayer, even doing so silently, reveals the essence of being: faith. Faith is a natural state, which is why children tend to speak to God directly. As people grow older, many find that their access to faith is obstructed and they experience doubt and lose their faith.

Hitbodedut is a way to unburden the self of doubt and recover a natural state of faith. The best way to achieve this solitude is to leave civilisation and society in order to be surrounded by nature and the wonders of creation. Any form of self-isolation can be effective.

Hitbodedut involves (ideally) going to a natural and secluded setting and “letting it all hang out,” as my generation said in our youth. Yelling, screaming, crying, even playing music, just about any form of self-expression is allowed.

The key to successful hitbodedut is total abandonment of inhibition. Prayers are direct, immediate and uninhibited, a natural outpouring of the soul of all that clouds and confuses its sight. Any natural expression is admissible. This can take the form of weeping, song, conversation, mantra or silent meditation.

This is a no holds barred, knock down, drag out conversation with God. It’s not even remotely polite or reserved, so you have to be willing to be honest with God and with yourself, and then to express yourself out of that honestly. Why not? God knows it all anyway.

In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety.

Hebrews 5:7 (NASB)

anguishThe writer of the book of Hebrews describes Jesus (Yeshua) as praying in such a manner ”with loud crying and tears.” D. Thomas Lancaster in the Source of Eternal Salvation lecture from his Holy Epistle to the Hebrews series believes this describes Jesus at Gethsemane.

And being in agony He was praying very fervently; and His sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground.

Luke 22:44 (NASB)

We may never experience the anguish and agony of the Master, but that doesn’t mean our own confessions and prayers to God should be any less passionate.

For successful teshuva, we have to realize that God loves us – even in light of all the mistakes we’ve made. Realize that God understands you, that He’s “cheering you on,” and wants to help. Don’t feel guilty; any mistakes you’ve made are part of a growth process to get where you are today. Growth is what God created us for, and even the hardships are the best thing for us. God is not the “big bully in the sky”; He’s on your side.

-from Ask the Rabbi
“Doing Teshuva”

The Aish Rabbi in his missive also reference to the four steps to making teshuva, but he adds this:

These steps go only so far, however. If our past actions have hurt another person, we must ask their forgiveness.

It is said that if we have sinned against God and confess to Him and make teshuva, He will forgive us. It is also said that if we have sinned against another, even if we confess to God, He will not forgive us until we have made amends to the person we’ve hurt.

Judaism, being a religion of action, says it is not enough to “mentally” regret one’s misdeeds. On this week’s verse that “very close is this (matter of Teshuva) to your mouth,” Nachmanides takes this passage literally; he understands that Teshuva requires verbal articulation of our misdeeds.

In instances where someone else was wronged, an apology must be made directly to that person. In instances where we transgressed the Almighty’s will, we must privately, with no one listening, confess to our Creator.

-Rabbi Yehuda Appel
“Asking Forgiveness”
Commentary on Torah Portion Nitzavim

TearsWhile the principle of confessing our sins to another person is sound, the practice may be fraught with problems, especially if the sin is secret and especially if your confession to the other person may cause them great harm. The complexities of confessing sin to another human being go beyond the scope of this small commentary, but I’ll try to address this part of making teshuva in brief, since it is an unavoidable truth that we have hurt another person in this life, and it is inevitable that we will have to face them.

For some people, the most difficult thing in the world is to ask for forgiveness.

If you find it difficult to ask for forgiveness, visualize yourself asking for forgiveness. Mentally see yourself approaching someone and saying, “I am sorry that I caused you pain. Please forgive me.” Rerun this picture in your mind over and over again. Feel a sense of strength and release at being able to do this.

Each time you ask for forgiveness and find it difficult, you are building up your inner resource of courage.

Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Asking For Forgiveness”
Daily Lift #353

The Bible tells us that if we confess to God and make teshuva, God will forgive, but with other people there are no guarantees. We can sincerely ask for their forgiveness, but they don’t have to forgive. Yes, they should, but people are fickle that way. This is the biggest risk in trying to a repair damaged relationship. The other party may be too hurt to forgive. They’re not ready. They may never be ready.

And even if they forgive, they may never reconcile with you because of their hurt. A wife may forgive her husband for abusing her after he has made teshuva, but she may never feel safe enough to stay with him and they may still divorce.

But what alternative do you have?

There is a flip side, also presented by Rabbi Pliskin:

When we forgive others, we help ourselves as much as we help those whom we forgive. We are elevating ourselves and will feel much better when we forgive, than if we would keep on adding more and more resentment.

Try it for a couple of weeks. At night, think about any difficulties you had with others and forgive them. Notice how it will change your attitude toward those people the next day.

A person who threatens, “I’ll remember that,” or “I’ll get even with you,” hurts himself more than he hurts others. Why suffer from resentment when you can choose the pleasure of forgiving?

Hitbodedut in ShiloConfess to God. Hear yourself say the words. Let yourself react to the reality of your sin. Let yourself be motivated to take further steps in making teshuva. If another person is suffering because of your sin, make amends as best as you can. This is part of healing the rift between you and that person and between you and God. This is part of repairing the world.

This is part of healing you.

The ultimate goal of teshuva is to draw nearer to God, to be Holy even as God is Holy (Leviticus 19:1-2). To learn more about holiness and how to become a Holy person in a hedonistic world, read Rabbi Yissocher Frand’s commentary on Torah Portion Kedoshim at Torah.org.

Do you think He created us because He wanted pristine, perfect beings?

He desired that a glimmer of Himself should descend into a creature who cries and laughs and dances and bleeds; who fails as much as he succeeds; who chases after fleeting moments and is torn by figments of his own mind.

He wanted to live in the petty world of such a being, and from within that place He will come to know His self that cannot be known.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on the letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

Repentance and Negativity

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”

Leaving Negativity Behind

This is the second step in making teshuva (we covered the first step, regret last week).

Here’s Rabbi Rottman’s description of this step.

Imagine a drug addict who arrives at a rehab center for detox treatment. His parents leave him at the entrance and wish him luck after a tearful but hopeful goodbye. Little do they know that their addict son’s suitcase is lined with enough cocaine to send a hippo to heaven.

It’s not that our addict does not want to change. He really does! He just has not “let go” of the very things that have brought him to the negative state he is now in.

Did you ever learn bad habits from a particular roommate and decide that you want to stop being like that? Did you ever try doing it without changing roommates? It’s nearly impossible.

“Leaving the negativity behind” means staying away from all of the paths that lead to that negativity. This includes crafting your environment to prevent temptation. And it means staying away from even mere thoughts, which can lead to the obvious next step — action.

That’s not really what I expected. I expected what he wrote as a much shorter definition on the Aish.com page:

Leaving the negativity behind. To stop dwelling on the transgression in thought and action.

To me, leaving negativity behind means to stop beating yourself up over your sins and struggles with temptation. It’s pretty easy to keep clobbering yourself, especially when trying to break a long-term cycle of sin. It’s probably an all too familiar pattern to “throw the book at yourself,” so to speak, to say how no good you are, how hopeless the situation is, and if you’ve gone this far down in sinning, you might as well go the whole way.

Following that line of thought only leads to self-destruction and totally abandoning any relationship with God.

In reading the longer explanation, it seems to me that the Rabbi is saying to make a complete break with anything that connects back to the sin or sins in question. It’s like you are a smoker and so is your spouse. You decide to stop smoking but (s)he continues with the habit. How long do you think you’ll be able to keep your resolve as long as your spouse continues to smoke?

flightSo leaving negativity behind means completely changing your flight pattern as it relates to your sin. If your sin is associated with specific places, you have to avoid those places. If your sin is associated with certain people, then you have to avoid those people.

But the one person you can’t get away from is yourself and your own thoughts and feelings. If you keep telling yourself that you are a person who does this sin, then you’ll identify with that definition. That’s who you are. In this case, you are what you think. Even if you soar away, leaving all other negative people and circumstances behind you, you always have to take yourself on the journey.

Unfortunately, many people are not yet committed to the idea of refraining from negative speech. If you are in the presence of someone as they malign or slander someone, come to the rescue. Have the courage to speak up in defense of the person being spoken against.

This isn’t always easy. Build up the strength of character and courage to stop negative speech.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Stop Negative Speech”

Rabbi Pliskin is referring to a person who is witnessing another individual verbally insult someone. The recommendation from the Rabbi is for you to come to the victim’s rescue by stopping the offending party from making further negative comments. But what if the person making the negative comments is you and what if you are making them about yourself?

You have to come to your own rescue. You have to see what you are doing, recognize it for what it is, and then stop your behavior. That’s going to be tough because it’s tied to your habitual sin. It’s a habit, both the sin and what you tell yourself about the sin. It’s a habit to tell yourself that you are worthy of being condemned and unable to pull yourself out of the mud.

To leave negativity behind, you have to repeatedly rescue yourself from your own negative speech. Rescuing yourself, and finding a new way to talk to and identify yourself has to be the new habit that replaces the old habit of sinning and then slamming yourself (metaphorically) against a brick wall because of the sin.

But what about God?

My own worst enemyIt’s not just what we tell ourselves about our sin and our character defects, it’s what we believe God thinks of us, too. The Bible is full of God hating sin, smiting sinners, exiling whole populations, exterminating whole populations, all because of their sin. God isn’t soft on sinners and we have to believe that He punishes sin, if not in this world, then in the next one.

Who can stand before His indignation? Who can endure the burning of His anger? His wrath is poured out like fire And the rocks are broken up by Him.

Nahum 1:6 (NASB)

But the LORD is the true God; He is the living God and the everlasting King. At His wrath the earth quakes, And the nations cannot endure His indignation.

Jeremiah 10:10 (NASB)

So if you tell yourself that you are a hopeless, low life, scum ball sinner and that God hates your guts and can’t wait to send you to hell without and electric fan and pitcher of ice water, then that takes away any hope of repentance, atonement, forgiveness, and reconciliation. If God hates you, you might as well hate yourself.

But while the Westboro Baptist Church may think God is a “hater,” there are other opinions:

To the prophets, sin is not an ultimate, irreducible or independent condition, but rather a disturbance in the relationship between God and man; it is an adverb not a noun, a condition that can be surmounted by man’s return and God’s forgiveness.

The divine pathos is like a bridge over the abyss that separates man from God.

Abraham Joshua Heschel
“The Theology of Pathos” (The Prophets II), pg 9
The Prophets

Man in covenant with God is in relationship with God. Heschel believed that what we do affects God and that God deeply, personally cares not only about humanity in general, but about each and every individual human being. For Rabbi Heschel, being Jewish and observing the mitzvot wasn’t being part of a “religion of dead works,” but rather, participating in a loving and intimate interaction between himself and His Creator, as a wife might dance with her husband.

chuppahChristianity calls itself “a relationship, not a religion,” but when God embraced Israel under the Sinai covenant, they entered that intimate relationship together just as a Jewish man and women enter marriage under the Chuppah. I say all this to illustrate that even if you denigrate yourself in every conceivable manner, God does not and will not.

“For a brief moment I forsook you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In an outburst of anger I hid My face from you for a moment, but with everlasting lovingkindness I will have compassion on you.”

Isaiah 54:7-8 (NASB)

Of course this is God addressing Israel through the prophet Isaiah, so I have to be careful in taking a statement out of one context and pasting it in another, but I’m confident that God not only turns away from Israel for just the briefest of moments, but He also is just as brief when (it seems) He turns away from us as well.

The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.

2 Peter 3:9 (NASB)

This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

1 Timothy 2:3-4 (NASB)

Sin is a barrier that inhibits a close relationship between you and God. Even in sin, the relationship exists, but it’s strained and distant. Even when the Israelites were exiled by God, He was still with them. He was with them in Egypt, He was with them in Babylonia, and He was with the Jewish people, even in their deepest suffering and despair.

I believe that even when we “fall off the wagon,” so to speak, and we lead a life that takes us away from God, He is still there waiting “anxiously” for us to repent and turn back to Him. Luke 15:11-32 chronicles the parable of the Prodigal Son which is a wonderful example of how sin takes us away from our Father but when we’re ready and return in repentance, the Father does not shun us or shame us for our mistakes and willful sins, but joyously welcomes us back home, in great celebration.

So the only one “badmouthing” you is you.

Well, that’s not quite true. If others are aware of your sins, especially family, it’s very possible that the pain of enduring your sins is affecting them and their response could be anger.

That’s a tough one. Instead of living with a spouse who is smoking while you’re trying to quit smoking, you are living with a spouse who constantly nags you for smoking while you’re trying to quit. Your loved one may be the person saying how lousy you are and how you’ll never change, and what a hopeless jerk you are.

Hopefully that doesn’t describe your situation, but if it does, you’re not alone.

separationAs unpleasant as it is to endure, it’s a consequence of your sinful behavior and how it has hurt others. That kind of negativity is difficult to escape and in the case of a marriage, something like couples counseling might be necessary to support you in leaving negativity behind and to make teshuva, and by helping both you and your spouse to find alternatives to “negative talk.”

I know I mentioned this last time, but as you can see, making teshuva is incredibly involved. Even a single step in the process may require weeks or months. Even if you are convinced that God loves you and wants a closer relationship, and even if you can remake your negative comments and thoughts about yourself into positives, you may never be able to contain literally every single environmental factor (especially other people) in your life.

In that case, when you encounter someone or something you can’t avoid and that threatens to drag your soul into the darkness again, returning to God through the Bible and prayer may help balance the scales. If you know for certain that God loves you and you can read that in the Bible and meditate on those words, making them your new habit to replace negativity can be your shield against what you otherwise must endure.

Successfully eliminating negativity leads to the next step in teshuva. Continuing to live with negativity in thought and word leads to negativity in action: back to sin.

This isn’t an easy choice, but it is a choice that you can and must make.

Repentance and Regret

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”

I know an exploration of teshuva, which is commonly translated as “repentance,” seems more appropriate to Yom Kippur than Passover, but part of the inspiration to invest more in myself along this path and at this time comes from here:

The Midrash tells us that the Jewish people had the same problem in Egypt. Only 1/5 of the Jewish people were on a high enough spiritual level to leave Egypt — and they were on the 49th level of Tuma, spiritual degradation — and were within a hair’s breadth of being destroyed.

Yet, what is amazing is that in the next 49 days they raised themselves to the spiritual level to receive the Torah at Mt. Sinai! Each day we climbed one step higher in spirituality and holiness. Many people study one of the “48 Ways to Wisdom” (Ethics of the Fathers, 6:6 — found in the back of most siddurim, Jewish prayer books) each day in the Sephirat HaOmer period between Pesach and Shavuot — which will be explained below — as a means to personal and spiritual growth. This is a propitious time for perfecting one’s character!

Rabbi Kalman Packouz
Commentary on Passover (Shabbat Chol Hamo’ed) (Exodus 13:17-15:26)

I know this is midrash and for most people, especially Christians, the above statement cannot be reasonably derived from scripture. Roll with it, OK? The midrash teaches an important spiritual lesson.

Rabbi Packouz suggests Rabbi Noah Weinberg’s 48 Ways to Wisdom (there are actually 50 of them) series as the perfect companion to accompany the days between Pesach and Shavuot for those seeking to elevate themselves spiritually.

But the first step, at least in my way of thinking, is teshuva, turning away from sin, especially habitual sin, and turning back toward God.

In Judaism, repenting of sins is more than just praying “I’m sorry” to God and maybe saying “I’m sorry” to anyone you’ve hurt. It’s a four-step process:

  1. Regret. To regret what we have done wrong.
  2. Leaving the negativity behind. To stop dwelling on the transgression in thought and action.
  3. Verbalization. To verbally state the transgression.
  4. Resolution for the future. To be determined not to let the transgression happen again.

guiltyThat might seem like only a little bit more effort than what we’ve come to expect in the Church, but that short list can be unpackaged to represent a lot of depth. I plan to take each step and explore it as fully as I can, both for my edification and yours.


What is regret and how is it different from guilt?

Well , we all know what guilt is. That uneasy queasy feeling that we have done something terribly wrong that can never be fixed…

But how is regret different?

Here is an example of regret:

An eccentric but wealthy, elderly acquaintance tells you to meet him at 2:30 pm on Sunday afternoon at Starbucks for coffee.

At 2:00 pm you are busy watching a great movie and decide not to show up to the 2:30 meeting.

That evening you find out that this elderly gentleman made the 2:30 appointment with 10 people, you being one of the 10.

Only five out of 10 arrived at the meeting. To each of the five who showed up, your eccentric acquaintance gave a bank check for $50,000 dollars.

Now you know what regret is. The feeling of missed opportunity.

When you find out that you missed out on 50 grand for a stupid movie, you feel regret, not guilt.

When we go against the will of God, the feeling we are supposed to have is regret. What a lost opportunity! We lost a piece of eternity!

When we have done wrong, whether an impulsive and momentary act of unintentional sin or repeated acts of intentional sin, it is normal and expected to feel guilty. Some people only feel guilty when they are caught or confronted about their sin, while others wear guilt around their shoulders like a bitter shroud, clinging to its fabric day and night. Rabbi Rottman describes guilt as that ”uneasy queasy feeling that we have done something terribly wrong that can never be fixed,” but the first step in repentance isn’t guilt, it’s regret.

In the example above, we see the difference between the two, but of these two experiences, guilt is much easier because, unless our soul is completely unfeeling, experiencing guilt is almost automatic.

I blame myselfGuilt is a response to doing wrong and to thinking thoughts like, “I’m a no good filthy scumbag. I can’t do anything right. God must hate me because I keep sinning. What’s the use of trying to be better when it always boomerangs on me?”

As you can see, feeling guilty doesn’t lead one to initiate change, it does just the opposite. Feeling profound guilt can be paralyzing and actually perpetuate the cycle of sin rather than change it.

We regret, as in the example above, a golden opportunity to reap great rewards. Making teshuva yields great rewards. It’s an opportunity to reconcile with the Creator of the Universe. He holds wonderful gifts for us but we have to show up at the appointment He makes with Him. Guilt keeps us hiding inside our houses, under our beds, quivering in the shadows. Regret is the feeling we have when we’ve stupidly thrown away the chance to receive free money (citing the above example) and to otherwise enrich our lives. God is a wealthy benefactor who only wants to do good for us, not to punish us for every sin we commit.

God knows we’re imperfect. God is waiting to help us. But we have to regret our sins as events that have prevented us from receiving His kindness and generosity and see that if we continue to commit those sins, we continue throwing away all of those gifts.

God is a personal God. He is aware of us. We are in His presence. He is paying attention. God is communicating to us through His world of beauty and design. He is here and available. The Almighty Creator of this whole universe is saying: My child, I love you. I created you to give you pleasure. Come, let’s explore the world together.

The Creator of the universe loves you? Wake up! That’s exciting news!

-Rabbi Noah Weinberg
“The Power of Awe”
Step Four in 48 Ways to Wisdom

Look at your life as you’ve lead it up to this point. There are such a variety of people who may read this blog that I’m sure you represent all kinds of different experiences. Some of you may be very spiritually elevated, very close to the Creator through faith in the Master. Others may be barely hanging on to faith at all because of the seeming hopelessness of your lives, because of your apparent inability to shake off sin and guilt.

Feeling guilty is the lazy way of reacting. A guilty person resigns himself to keeping his faults and does not try to take actions to improve.

Don’t use guilt feelings to justify laziness and procrastination. If a person tends to think in terms of guilt, when he hears an idea he will say to himself, “How awful it is that I’m not following that idea.”

It is more productive to keep focus on what you can do to implement the principle or concept.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Avoid Using Guilt to Justify Inaction”
from Today’s Daily Lift #358

jewish-repentanceWe have free will to choose obedience or disobedience to God. Even when we disobey, we have free will to allow our sin to inspire guilt or regret. We have free will to select inaction or action that will lead to change. You may have sinned for years in secret or in public and feel incapable of managing giving up that sin. You may have advanced in many other areas but still fail in one or two that hold you back from a closer relationship with God. You may say to yourself that if you’ve failed in the same way for so very long, that breaking the sin habit is impossible and you are a slave to it forever.

But guilt over missing previous opportunities, if turned to regret, doesn’t have to stop you from keeping future appointments and grasping the next opportunity offered to you by God:

In each one of us there is an Egypt and a Pharaoh and a Moses and Freedom in a Promised Land. And every point in time is an opportunity for another Exodus.

Egypt is a place that chains you to who you are, constraining you from growth and change. And Pharaoh is that voice inside that mocks your gambit to escape, saying, “How could you attempt being today something you were not yesterday? Aren’t you good enough just as you are? Don’t you know who you are?”

Moses is the liberator, the infinite force deep within, an impetuous and all-powerful drive to break out from any bondage, to always transcend, to connect with that which has no bounds.

But Freedom and the Promised Land are not static elements that lie in wait. They are your own achievements which you may create at any moment, in any thing that you do, simply by breaking free from whoever you were the day before.

Last Passover you may not have yet begun to light a candle. Or some other mitzvah still waits for you to fulfill its full potential. This year, defy Pharaoh and light up your world. With unbounded light.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“The Inside Story on Passover”

Are you beginning to see why this is a good season to begin to make positive spiritual changes in your life?

You aren’t an innocent bystander in your own life, waiting on a street corner for God to drive up in a bus and offer you a ride. You don’t have to wait for God, God is waiting for you. Every time you are tempted to sin is an opportunity to keep an appointment with Him. Who knows what He has in store for you? You’ll never find out if you keep missing appointments, if you keep hiding from opportunities.

If you think I find all this easy, you’re wrong. I’m writing this in part to process my own experience and grasp the meaning of regret as a motivating force. This is only the first of four steps in the process of repenting to God. A single “I’m sorry for my sins” prayer just isn’t going to do it. Cheap grace is not sold in God’s storehouse. Salvation may be a free gift of God through grace, but you still have to show up to accept it and you need to be in a state of purity to get in the door.

purityThat state of purity, the mikvah process if you will, begins with teshuva and teshuva begins with experiencing authentic regret at having missed out on God’s blessings up until now. Seeing sin as a missed opportunity to draw nearer to God takes a lot of effort. Setting mind numbing guilt aside and allowing regret to enter your life is no easy task. If you stumble, that’s not really unexpected. But regret stumbling rather than letting it tell you some sad and sorry story about how lousy you are. Regret helps you get back up again. Guilt keeps you on the ground eating dust and ashes.

I hope to write about the second step in making teshuva soon.

The next step is Leaving Negativity Behind.


The memory of a righteous person is a blessing.

Proverbs 10:7

At a family therapy session, one family member said something totally uncalled for, provocative, and insulting to another person. The remark was extremely irritating to me, even as an observer, and I anticipated an explosive outburst of outrage from the recipient. To my great surprise, the latter remained quiet and merely gestured to indicate that he was dismissing the comment as being unworthy of a response.

After the session, I complimented the man on his self-restraint. He explained, “A friend of mine once had a very angry outburst. During his rage he suffered a stroke from which he never regained consciousness.

“I am not afraid that if I become angry I would also suffer a stroke. However, what I and everyone else remember of my friend are the last words of his life, which were full of bitterness and hostility. That is not the way I wish to be remembered. Since no person can know exactly when one’s time is up, I made up my mind never to act in such a manner, so that if what I was doing was to be my last action on earth, I would not be remembered that way.”

The Talmud tells us that when Rabbi Eliezer told his disciples that a person should do teshuvah one day before his death, they asked, “How is a person to know when one will die?” Rabbi Eliezer answered, “Precisely! Therefore one should do teshuvah every day, since tomorrow may be one’s last day.”

The verse cited above may be explained in the same way. People should behave in a way that they would wish others to remember them, for that can indeed be a blessing.

Today I shall…

behave as though this day is the one by which I shall be remembered.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Elul 10”

There’s more than a little anger flowing around on the Internet. Anyone with the ability to create a website or a blog potentially has access to a vast audience (though in reality, how many people really read all these messages), and whatever ax they have to grind, the website owner or blog writer freely grinds. I can’t exempt myself from such company since, given a good enough reason, I can go off half-cocked, just like the next guy.

But as we can see from the story told by Rabbi Twerski, if we allow hurt and anger to rule our lives, hostile words may be the last thing anyone remembers about us. Is that the sort of legacy you want to leave behind?

Many years ago, a psychologist friend of mine told me that anger is a “secondary emotion.” People don’t feel anger without some other emotion happening first. Usually it’s some sort of hurt or anxiety, like when you accidentally hit your finger with a hammer. First you feel pain, then you get mad at the hammer.

But there’s another kind of pain that people can suffer from, often for years or even decades. It’s the pain of unresolved fear or anxiety or loss. When we see a person fly off into a rage, all we are aware of is the rage, the unpleasantness of hearing such angry words and seeing someone screaming red-faced at us. We typically aren’t able to see behind the face at the sad, lost, and frightened person who is hiding beneath the anger and hostility.

Believe me, that “rager” isn’t half as angry at you or me as he or she is at themselves.

Have you ever wondered why Jesus said this?

And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” –Matthew 22:39-40 (ESV)

Why love your neighbor as yourself? What if you don’t even like yourself? What if you detest and loathe the person you are? How could those feelings in any way translate into loving another person and how in the world could Jesus make “love” a command? Emotionally, some people are just barely able to get by from day-to-day. Love would be an enormous stretch for them.

Right now, feel a greater sense of self-respect and respect for others. This will be reflected in how you speak and how you act. Repeat the words “self-respect and respect for others.”

If you had a greater amount of self-respect, what is one special thing you would do differently today?

What can you do today that would be an expression of greater respect for others?

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Today’s Daily Lift #560”

AbyssLook at what Rabbi Pliskin is saying. He’s associating self-respect with respect for other people. I’ve said in the past that Jesus directly connects the commandment to love God with the mitzvot of loving your neighbor. You cannot say you love your neighbor unless you love God and you cannot truly love God if you do not love your neighbor. But to love your neighbor; to respect him or her, you must also love and respect yourself.

No, I’m not suggesting leaping into the depths of narcissism, but as I’ve said in the past, depression robs us of the purpose, the meaning, the joy that God has created for all of our lives. It is the thief that takes from us who we really are.

Depression is not a sin, but it can take you to places lower than any sin.

-Chassidic saying

When you’re sitting at the bottom of the abyss, buried up to your neck in darkness and held in place by the heaviness of your chains, it can be extremely difficult to imagine any other type of life. And yet God did not create you to live in darkness and to exist in the shadows. While there are circumstances that can be difficult or even impossible to overcome physically; slavery, imprisonment, chronic brutality by a spouse or parent, God has always intended more for us.

Even when the physical or emotional torture and abuse has passed and we are free from those chains, often times, we continue to forge bonds of our own and then place ourselves in their power. Unfortunately, the darkness and chains that some people live in are invisible to the rest of us. All we see is the anger, the outbursts, the bullying, and the ugly way we are being treated by this person. We never see how terribly they are treating themselves.

If only there were a way out of the abyss; a way to rise up and climb into the light.

Higher consciousness is more than a state of mind.

It is a way of eating, of sleeping, of loving, of speaking, of doing business—it is apparent in all your ways.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Higher Mind”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

I know the climb seems insurmountable. I know you don’t even want to admit you are at the bottom of your well. It’s never too late. Not as long as you don’t give up hope. Not as long as you can still look up and see the light.

Look at the light. Begin your climb. Rise.