Thursday, August 22, 2013

HILKHOT TESHUBA 3:1. The tipping point

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

The rasha' (wicked) is the person whose balance of actions is negative. The tzadiq (righteous) is the one who has done more good than bad. And the benoni (average) is defined by Maimonides as the person whose good and bad actions are in a sort of a balance (3:1). 
In the next Halakha (3:2) Maimonides clarifies that the calculation of right or wrong actions is inaccessible to us. This estimation does not depend on the quantity of Mitzvot we do or on any other factor knowable to us. Part of this equation relates to the unconscious psychological forces that drive us, our inner potential, the effect our actions have in other people, etc. Those are matters that only God knows exactly how to asses and only Him can take them into account for a fair judgment. 

Now, since we ignore whether in His eyes we are righteous or, God forbid, wicked, how do we have to see ourselves? 

When I see myself as a fully righteous person I might rely too much on my merits and do nothing further to improve my life. On the other hand, if I see myself as wicked, I might think that I'm beyond redemption and do nothing to improve.

Maimonides concludes that "a person should always perceive himself as and average, standing in a balanced scale between equal amount of merits and sins...". This balanced scale is not stable at all.  Maimonides urges us to realize that since I'm in a balanced situation my immediate next action (or the next one, or perhaps the following one, etc.) will define if I'm a good person or a bad person.

The best self-motivation technique to live a life of constant improvement is to perceive myself constantly in the middle (benoni).  Behaving and acting as if the very next action I'm about to perform will define who I am. My next choice is the tipping point of my entire personality. 

"Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving."
Albert Einstein

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

HILKHOT TESHUBA 2:1: Forgiveness and quality of life

Yesterday we explained that when somebody apologizes for an offense or for a wrong thing he or she did to us, we should be willing to forgive and also forget. After all, we are asking from God to forgive us. And by taking the fist step forgiving others, we certainly become more deserving of God's forgiveness .  

Question: Can we forgive others on our own, or should we wait for their request for forgiveness?

There is a fundamental difference between asking forgiveness and granting forgiveness. Granting forgiveness can be done unilaterally. Obviously, it is nicer and more appropriate when the offender comes and apologizes. But sometimes people are too shy or have too many psychological barriers or pride (=low self esteem) which impairs them from the possibility of taking charge of their wrongdoings and apologize. 

And still, we can forgive. 

In the Talmud, Megila 28a, we read that the elder R. Nehunya ben haQane was asked by his disciples: "In virtue of what have you reached such a good old age? He quoted the verse. 'Never thecurse of my fellow man came up to my bed with me'. This was explained [=exemplified] by Mor Zutra who every night when going to bed would say: 'I forgive all those who have offended me'".  

In other words: Every night before going to sleep Rabbi Nehunya practiced forgiveness of his own initiative. This unilateral exoneration freed Rabbi Nehunya from the curse of hatred and resentment, and impacted positively in the length (and probably also on the quality) of his life.    

There is a beautiful prayer, inspired by the example of Rabbi Nehunya found in every prayer book in the section of Qeriyat Shema' 'al haMitaThe following is an excerpt of that prayer "RIBBONO SHE OLAM, HARENI MOHEL VESOLEAH..." to be said before we go to sleep. 

"Master of the Universe! Behold, I forgive anyone who has angered or offended me. Whether it was directed toward my person or my money or my honor or anything which pertains to me. [I forgive them], whether his or her actions were performed by total accident or willingly; through negligence or premeditation; whether it was done through speech or physical action. [I forgive them and I request from You]: may no person be punished because of me..."
I must clarify once again that in this Halakha I'm referring particularly to forgiveness in the context of social and personal minor offenses, when a friend, a family member, a colleague, a neighbor, etc. did or said something wrong to us. Forgiveness for criminal or major offenses belong to a different category and can not be addressed in these brief lines. 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

HILKHOT TESHUBA 2:10. Forgive, for your own sake

The days of Elul are days of Teshuba. We ask forgiveness from God for any transgressions we might have done against His will. We should also seek forgiveness from our peers for any offenses or damages we might have caused them. 

And, we also need to be willing to forgive.

In Chapter 2, Halakha 10, Maimonides discusses forgiveness. He says: "It is forbidden for a person to be insensitive (akhzari) and refuse to be appeased... rather, when someone approaches him seeking his forgiveness, he should forgive him wholeheartedly and with a positive spirit".

Forgiving is a very complex and difficult emotional task. But in these days of Teshuba, when we are requesting from HaShem to grant us the gift of forgiveness, we should be willing to forgive others as well.

Complete forgiveness implies the capacity of forgetting. We should definitely remember the lessons we have learned from all negative experiences. But we should let go the anger, the grudge and the personal feelings of revenge that might be growing inside us.

Emotional forgetfulness is the ultimate state of forgiveness. If we have decided to forgive the offender but somehow we are still filled with hatred and resentment, then full forgiveness has not been achieved.  If we don't get the negative feelings of animosity towards the offender out of our system, we damage our entire emotional system. We harm ourselves by giving the perpetrator a free ride to the control centre of our mind and heart.  Forgiving is good for the offender and for society.  But the main beneficiary is the victim, who regains control over his emotional health.

Clarification: We are referring particularly to social and personal offenses, i.e., when a friend, a family member, a colleague, a neighbor, etc. did something bad to us or said something wrong about us. Criminal cases are not included in what we have referred to in these brief lines. 

by Dr Dr. Stephen Marmer of UCLA Medical School. 

Monday, August 19, 2013

HILKHOT TESHUBA 2:1. Credible Teshuba

What is considered a perfect repentance? When one is faced with the same opportunity to repeat the original transgression, but now he does not do it because he has repented... however, when one does not repeat the original transgression, [and refrains from sinning] because now he fears people will find out... his repentance is still accepted, but it is not considered a perfect repentance  

Maimonides gives the example of a man who was involved in an adulterous relationship and later on repents. The ultimate test of his repentance would take place if that man is eventually faced with a similar opportunity but now he refrains from repeating the transgression because of his new understanding and resolve. 

However, if that man is not faced again with the same circumstances which led to his earlier sin, or if he faces a similar scenario but now he refrains from sinning because he suspects somebody will find out about his affair, his Teshuba is still accepted, but it is not considered a perfect Teshuba. Why? Because this man might have changed not because of his conscience, but because of pressure, embarrassment, interest, etc.

A modern example:  Very often we read in the news about a public figure who was caught doing immoral things. Many times they would come in front of the cameras and publicly express their regret and apologize for what they have done. That act is definitely an act of repentance. However, because of its timing it is questionable in terms of its credibility and genuineness. Why? Because the whole process of repentance, regret and apologies happened as a consequence of being caught...  

Following Maimonides words, the perfect act of repentance in this case would have taken place if, while still involved in an illicit relationship or other immoral act and without being caught, and with no external impediment to continue with it, one would decide out of his own conscience, to stop, repent and change. 

That would be a perfect and credible act of Teshuba.

Rosh Hashanah: The Tipping Point 
  by Aryeh Sobel and Aish