Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Teshuba of a King

Maimonides explains the difficulties of admitting that we have sinned (4:4). Taking charge of our misdeeds -hakarat haChet- is probably the hardest step in the process of Teshuba. In the days before Rosh haShana, we are expected to act as our own judges, and evaluate objectively and responsibly our past actions. Objectivity, goes against our human nature, which pushes us to justify our actions and act as our own advocates.

David haMelekh committed a terrible sin, when he took bat-sheba, a married woman and sent her husband to the battlefront. David did not repent by his own conscience. Natan, the prophet, was sent by God to admonish David, and help him realize the seriousness of the sin he committed. Natan presented David, who in his capacity as a King was also the supreme Judge of Israel, with a (fictitious) case: A rich man owned thousands of animals. His neighbor, very poor, had only one lamb. One day, the rich man received a guest. In order to save one of his own sheep, the rich man decided to steal and slaughter his neighbor's sole lamb, which he dearly loved. As Natan had expected, the King reacted angrily. David said: "That man (the rich guy) deserves to die!" Natan the prophet then turned to David and said: atta ha-ish.... "You are that man!". Faced now with the objective facts, and with the sentence he issued as a judge 'against himself' , David repented and admitted: 'chattati laHashem...' , 'I have sinned against God'.

For these transgressions, David was not permitted to build the bet-hamiqdash, but God accepted his Teshuba. Part of the credit goes to Natan who opened the King's eyes helping him to evaluate his actions objectively, allowing him to free himself from this form of psychological self-defense.

Rabbi Yosef Bitton.

130 Steamboat Rd. | Great Neck | NY | 11024.


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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Credible Teshuba

"What is a comprehensive repentance? When one faces the same opportunity to repeat the original transgression, but now he doesn't do it. Instead he repents. But if he does not repeat the original transgression, because now he fears people will find out, etc...his repentance is accepted, but it is not considered a comprehensive repentance" (2:1)

Maimonides gives the example of a person who was engaged in an illicit relationship and later on he repents. The final test of his repentance will take place when he is faced with a similar opportunity as before, and now, he refrains from repeating the transgression, because of his resolve.

If now, however, he suspects somebody will find out about his affairs, and because of that he refrains from repeating his sin, it is a sort of Teshuba/repentance but, it is not as credible or comprehensive as the previous case. In the last instance he did not repeat his offense because circumstances have changed (now, somebody might find out), while in the first case, he did not repeat the transgression because HE has changed.

We all have read in the news about celebrities or politicians that were caught cheating or doing other immoral things. Almost invariably, they will come in front of the cameras and publicly apologize for what they have done. Well, their act is a sort of repentance. But, since the whole process of repentance happened as a consequence of having been caught, we can not know if he is he really repenting of his wrong behavior or if he is more lamenting that he got caught, and he is about to loss his job? We will never know...

Following Maimonides words, the more credible situation will be if, while he is still involved in the illicit relationship, and has no problem to continue with it, now, out of the call of his own conscience, he stops, repents and changes.

That is a "credible Teshuba".

Rabbi Yosef Bitton.

130 Steamboat Rd. | Great Neck | NY | 11024.


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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The obstacles to Teshuba

In Chapter 4 of Hilkhot Teshuba Maimonides enumerates twenty-four actions, personality patterns or attitudes that 'prevent' or make very difficult for a person to undergo the process of repentance.

Some examples:

DOMINO EFFECT (4:1) "Those who because of their teachings or their bad example, etc. induce or influence other people to sin", causing a negative domino effect. Teshuba, in this case, is virtually impossible because part of the process of repentance is repairing what one has done wrong. Once one prompted or influenced other people to do the wrong thing, how can he take it back from them? How can he repair his actions now? Each one of them, probably already influenced negatively other people?

CALCULATED TESHUBA (4:1) "Sinning with the intention of repenting later." When I commit a sin deliberately, and telling myself, "I will repent for this sin later on." Or if I say: "Since Yom Kippur is a day of forgiveness , God will forgive me for the sin I'm about to commit". In these conditions Teshuba is unacceptable. Because Teshuba is effective only when it comes from a sincere remorse. But, if I decided to commit a sin, calculating that I will repent for it later on, it goes against the basic rules of the game of 'sincere' Teshuba and that repentance is not accepted.

DEFENSIVE PERSONALITY (4:2) "Someone who hates to be corrected or criticized" (ego defense mechanisms). Imagine someone who cannot accept a minimal and respectful criticism from his or her love-ones, those who care for his or her well being. Many times this type of personality disfunction is a consequence of a very low self esteem, which prevents a person to cope with minimal criticism, because his self esteem will collapse. This person, Maimonides concludes, will continue with is transgression, because he is unable to see himself as other people perceive him, and to his own eyes, he is not doing anything wrong.

Rabbi Yosef Bitton.

130 Steamboat Rd. | Great Neck | NY | 11024.


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Monday, September 12, 2011

Teshuba and the tipping point

In his third chapter of Hilkhot Teshuba Maimonides explains that in terms of religious behavior, we find three categories of people: rasha, tsadiq, benoni .

The rasha is the bad person, one whose balance of good actions is negative. He has done more transgressions than good deeds. Then you have the tsadiq, the one who has done more good than bad. And then, there is a benoni, which Maimonides defines as the person whose good and bad actions are equivalent (3:1).

In the next Halkaha (3:2) Maimonides clarifies that the calculation of good or bad actions is inaccessible to us. It does not depend on quantity or anything knowable to us. "only God knows how the merits and sins are estimated". Think about intentions, potential, opportunities, knowledge, etc. Those are matters that only God can bring into account for a fair judgment. Moreover, perceiving ourselves in a fixed situation, will imply a sort of spiritual stagnation: If I see myself as a completely righteous, I might relay too much in my merits and do nothing further to improve. Similarly, if I see myself as bad, I might think that I'm beyond redemption, and do nothing to improve.

Maimonides concludes (4:4) that since we cannot know if we are good or bad "a person should always perceive himself as benoni, standing in a balanced scale between equal amount of merits and sins...". This balanced scale is not stable at all. On the contrary, it is an extremely sensitive and dynamic scale. One good deed or one bad deed tips the scale to either side. My immediate next action will in a sense define if I'm a good person or a bad person.

Maimonides teaches us the best motivation to live a life of constant improvement: When I perceive myself as a benoni, (average) my next action becomes the tipping point of my entire personality. Little actions make the big differences.

Rabbi Yosef Bitton.

130 Steamboat Rd. | Great Neck | NY | 11024.


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