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Vayelech(Deuteronomy 31)

Actions Speak Loudest

For this commandment that I command you today -- it is not hidden from you and it is not distant. It is not in heaven [for you] to say, "Who can ascend to heaven for us and take it for us, so that we can listen to it and perform it?" Nor is it across the sea, [for you] to say, "Who can cross to the other side of the sea for us and take it for us, so that we can listen to it and perform it?" Rather, the matter is very near to you -- in your mouth and in your heart -- to perform it. (Deut. 30:11-14)

As Nachmanides understands it, "this commandment" is a reference to the commandment of teshuva, "repentance."

If God tells us that something is very easy and accessible it must indeed be so. Moreover, the Torah does not refer to the performance of any commandment on the minimally acceptable level; when the Torah speaks of fulfilling a commandment, it is always speaking in terms of its highest possible expression.

After all, it is the optimum performance of commandments which results in the establishment of the most powerful connection to God. We are thus being informed here that not only is repentance accessible, but that it is accessible on the highest level.

But this seems extremely difficult to swallow at first glance.

 

* * *

 

COMPLETE REPENTANCE

Here is Maimonides' description of complete repentance:

What constitutes teshuva? That a sinner should abandon his sins and remove them from his thoughts, resolving in his heart, never to commit them again...Similarly, he must regret the past...(He must reach the level where) He who knows the hidden will testify concerning him that he will never return to this sin again...(Laws of Teshuva, 2,2)

In other words, Maimonides is referring to a complete personality change. Only a drastic alteration of the entire personality could possibly guarantee that the sinner would never return to his sin. As long as he remains basically the same person, with the same desires and weaknesses, he is likely to repeat his past behavior when faced with the same temptation.

But is a complete personality change readily accessible? Surely, it is a lot easier to cross the ocean!

 

* * *

 

YOM KIPPUR

Maimonides writes later in the same chapter:

Yom Kippur is the time of teshuva for all, both individuals and the community at large. It is the conclusion of forgiveness and pardon for Israel. Accordingly, everyone is obligated to repent and confess on Yom Kippur... The confessional prayer customarily recited by all Israel is, "For we have all sinned." This is the essence of the confessional prayer.

But this seems hardly adequate. An affective confession should be an accurate verbal expression of the process of teshuva. Inasmuch as teshuva really involves a personality change, as we have shown from Maimonides' previous statement, it cannot be effective without mentioning regret over the past and a resolution never to return to the sin again in the future. (Indeed, Maimonides indeed lists both regret and resolution as necessary elements in the confession of teshuva, except on Yom Kippur.) So how is it that on Yom Kippur we are content merely to confess that we have sinned as an expression of our teshuva?

The answer to this question lies in the very name kipur, which means "cleansing."

The answer to this question lies in the very name kippur, which means "cleansing."

What in us needs cleansing?

The answer to the question is obvious -- our confusion.

We really do not know who we are or what we really stand for. Because of our need to think well of ourselves we are constantly rationalizing the things that we have done and inventing theories and beliefs to defend them. Parents abuse their children and spouses each other and rationalize that the children or the spouse really deserved the abuse, and that it was even good for them. People constantly cut corners in their jobs and businesses and justify it on the grounds that they are exploited and underpaid or they have been cheated in the past.

We all do these things so that we can look at ourselves in the mirror. But, in the meantime, we adopt all sorts of false positions that we are then forced to defend, in the process distorting who we really are and what we really believe is right.

Very rarely, we do get a glimpse of our true selves when we encounter the same situations confronting other people. We often find ourselves all too ready to condemn in others the same things that we condone and even justify in ourselves.

In the final analysis, we breed confusion about ourselves -- who we are and what we stand for.

 

* * *

 

WHAT IS REPENTANCE?

Repentance is not over deeds, although that is definitely a part of it. Repentance involves getting rid of all the accumulated dross of all our rationalizations and compromises and coming back to who we truly are and what we truly believe.

When the soul is swept clean of all the confusion that we have heaped upon it by our need to defend ourselves against our own wrongdoing, we get a glimpse of who we truly are. When this happens we automatically experience a personality change -- that is, we revert to the people that we really are.

The Hebrew word teshuva means literally "return" -- return to God and return to ourselves.

We return to ourselves and in so doing we also return to God who created us pure and unsullied and connected to Him.

Unless we undergo this cleansing, we will continue to force ourselves to defend what we really believe to be wrong. This only causes further turmoil and confusion and this is why the sages say that "one sin leads to another" (Avot 4,5).

Rabbi Huna said: "When a person repeatedly commits a sin it becomes a perfectly acceptable and allowable act."(Kidushin, 40a)

The evil of a sin is always compounded by a deterioration of the sinner's judgment and character. That is why God gave us Yom Kippur.

 

* * *

 

BACKWARDS DAY

Yom Kippur is a backwards day. Repentance without Yom Kippur involves rejecting our own rationalizations and defenses so that we can finally see ourselves clear behind the accumulated garbage. But Yom Kippur gives us the clarity of vision to see our true selves without our having to do any prior cleansing. It enables us to identify what is not ourselves as accumulated garbage and reject it.

On Yom Kippur we can state with clear knowledge that we have sinned.

On Yom Kippur we can state with clear knowledge that we have sinned, whereas on a normal day this statement requires that we first throw away our rationalizations and defenses.

Unfortunately, all spiritual experiences that come to us from the outside have a downside. While the experience of repentance on Yom Kippur is very real at the time, as it was not generated by our own potential, it recedes very quickly and ends up being filed under the cabinet of "entertainment" in our minds. For whenever we are greatly moved we are also stimulated and entertained. Ordinary life is humdrum and routine. Any extraordinary feeling is entertaining.

We can face Yom Kippur every year the same way with all our accumulated dross, which is lifted for a moment. We can become inspired and go right back to what we were the next day when the spiritual uplift is gone. How do we keep it with us since we know it will go?

The answer is action. But to understand the answer we have to understand the function of action in the formation of personality according to Jewish thought.

 

* * *

 

FORMATION OF PERSONALITY

Maimonides presents a thought provoking position ("Laws of Teshuva" Ch. 5). He says that we should not entertain the thesis held by the fools that at the time of a man's creation God decrees whether he will be righteous or wicked. This is untrue. Each man is fit to be righteous or wicked. Similarly, he may be wise or foolish, merciful or cruel, miserly or generous, or any other character trait. There is no one who compels him, sentences him, or leads him toward either of these two paths. Rather, he, on his own initiative and decision, tends to the path he chooses.

But why is the other position so foolish? Isn't it an undeniable fact that people are born with different characters? Some people are innately kind whereas others are cruel, some are indeed cheap and miserly, whereas others are generous and so on. Why isn't it true to say that God creates them this way?

The answer is quite simple. We are what we do, not how we feel. God does indeed create all of us differently, but we are not compelled to act out our characters. In fact, our characters are the very things that we were created to act against. Thus, the cruel person should act kindly regardless of how he feels, because that is the right thing to do, and the miser should be generous for the same reason and so on.

This is a revolutionary concept at first glance but on reflection it seems quite reasonable. We are accustomed to judge both ourselves and other people on the basis of character, but this is really untenable rationally. Our characters are not formed by ourselves, and we exert very little control over them if any. If what we think of as our characters were the sum total of who we were, we would be no one at all.

A piece of wood is fashioned by outside forces and its resultant form no matter how beautiful or ugly really reflects the character and interest of the sculptor far more than itself. The human being who judges himself and/or others in terms of the common idea of character is really equating himself to a piece of wood. The only things that we sculpt are our actions. Our actions are who we really are. If our actions are benevolent, then we are benevolent regardless of the fact that our innate character is merciless and cruel. If our actions are cruel, then we are really cruel regardless of the benevolence of our characters. In the eyes of God our actions are really our characters.

In the eyes of God our actions are really our characters.

Let us take two people. One has a sunny disposition, is generous, good-natured and naturally exuberant and he loves people. He would gladly give you the shirt off his back at the drop of a hat. The only problem is that he is undisciplined and destitute most of the time and in need of help himself. The other is miserly and introverted, never has time to hold a conversation with anyone and is always walking around tense. But his rabbi convinced him that charity is a very important social duty, and he helps many people with loans and gifts out of a sense of duty, very much not because he feels like it. At the end of the day who is a greater lover of people?

Although we all know that actions speak the loudest, we tend to forget this crucial piece of knowledge when we judge people.

 

* * *

 

ACTIONS SPEAK LOUDEST

The Torah is full of action. It doesn't enjoin us to be generous. It tells us what to do. This is the percentage of our income and produce that must be distributed among the poor; these are the conditions that govern loan transactions; this is the maximum amount of profit we are allowed.

In the area of interpersonal relations it does not tell us how to relate. Rather, it gives us the rules of allowed and forbidden speech; this is what we are allowed to say about another person, this is what we are not; this is when we have to admonish him, this is when we should remain silent and tolerant. The commandments replace the promptings of character and translate them into commanded or forbidden action.

With the rules of the Torah to guide us, pure character is not our only guide to behavior when questionable circumstances arise. By giving us commandments, God redefined character for us and put us in charge of our destinies. It is He who transformed character and defined it as action.

There is a fascinating illustration of this point in this week's Torah portion which helps to drive home how profoundly important this concept is:

God said to Moses; "Behold you will lie with your forefathers, but this people will rise up and stray after the gods of the foreigners of the land..." (Deut. 31:16)

The Talmud (Yuma 52b) says that this verse is one of five in the Torah whose reading is ambiguous. Because of Hebrew syntax, it can be read as "you will lie with your forefathers and then arise, and this people will stray..." According to this reading it foretells of the resurrection of the dead as it speaks of Moses arising after he dies. But it can also be read that "this people will rise up and stray..." the rising up is then a reference to what the people will do and has nothing to do with Moses and there is no reference to resurrection in it at all.

The commentators are bothered. What significance does the fact that the Torah tells us that the people will arise and stray or simply state that they will stray? Surely it is a sin to stray no matter what. Let us add our own question to theirs: How does this verse square with the concept of free will? God seems to have legislated in His Torah, His blueprint for reality, that the people shall stray. How can He do that?

The answer lies in action.

 

* * *

 

A MATTER OF CHOICE

In fact, God positively states that the people will stray. But this does not mean that they will stray in their actions. The only definite prediction made here is that they will surely be drawn and tempted to follow a foreign culture. But as long as they resist the temptation, there is no sin no matter how powerfully they want to in their hearts. And even if as a result of the powerful feeling they experience in their hearts they do stray, it is no great sin and will not bring any dire consequences down on their heads.

It is only if they arise and stray that there is a great sin.

It is only if they arise and stray that there is a great sin.

Arising means action. Choosing the action of straying voluntarily (by arising to do it) gives the sin of straying a much more severe dimension. In fact, had they not chosen to arise and stray, the word "arise" would have referred to Moses and would have constituted a clear reference to eventual resurrection instead of a mere hint.

Because there is a choice of action involved, the word "arise" could only be written ambiguously. God could not make this future choice to act an unambiguous part of reality. The difference between the consequences of the two scenarios of straying is so profound that the resurrection of the dead depends on it.

We can finally return to the problem of teshuva and how to retain the inspiration of Yom Kippur.

Like everything else which is a profound part of the personality, teshuva is action, not feeling. The Torah commands us to do teshuva. As in all other cases, when we transform our actions, we transform our characters.

If this were not the case, no one could possibly command anyone to do teshuva at all. Since we do not have a switch at our disposal that we can push to transform ourselves into different people, we could never be commanded to do teshuva.

At most, teshuva could be offered as an option for solving the problems caused by sin for someone who is able to put in the heroic effort involved in changing his character, if indeed there is such a thing. Yet Maimonides (Ch.2,7) tells us that this is precisely what we are all commanded to do on Yom Kippur -- everyone is obligated to repent and confess on Yom Kippur.

God knew what He was doing. He told us, "Look, on Yom Kippur I will allow you a glimpse of your true self for nothing. I realize that you will not be able to retain this clarity of vision a day later, but you don't need to. Just do teshuva now. Study yourself in all your fully revealed clarity, analyze what you are doing, and resolve to change some of your actions. I do not expect you to change everything, nor to change any one thing very drastically, for this would require a serious inner character change which is not on offer.

But you can surely resolve to change some of your actions and stick to your resolve. After all your actions are completely in your control. What is more, as actions are really character, if you truly resolve to change them then I can really testify that you are a changed person. When you alter your actions you really are a changed person.

Rather, the matter is very near to you - in your mouth and in your heart - to perform it. (Deut. 30:14)


Published: September 15, 2001

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Visitor Comments: 3

(3) Yehudith Shraga, September 20, 2012 8:40 PM

Kippur and Teshuva

Thank you, Rav Weisz ,for you wonderful, even wonder-making article, the explanations of the meanings of Kippur and Teshuva in your article are among the best I have even read, and your explanation of the possibiliy of reading the "arise and stray" is so amazing and shows so clearly that even in matters of resurrection the choice is given to us, that it really make feel the responsebily for the actions we make. One big gratitude to you for the explanation of the character vs. action importance which gives the chance, hope and joy for each and every person no matter what his past and present is, the article is a true revealation of the voice of soul, which had a chance to speak through your article and pass us the most important message before Yom Kippur . May haShem bless us with Teshuva on the level of the explanations of your article, Amen.

(2) Jossef, October 2, 2008 7:59 AM

A wonderful commentary on rependence

This essay by Rabbi Weisz is the best discussion I have read on repentance and on the difference between character and action, as well as G_d's role (or no role) in our behavior, which is the fundamental lesson for "love your neighbor as yourself."

(1) Jay, September 22, 2001 12:00 AM

I am defined by my actions, not as much by my thoughts.

What a profound article, especially at this time of the year.

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