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Repentance: It’s Complicated -- A Yom Kippur Spiritual Primer offered with prayers for forgiveness by Rabbi Rudin

09/12/2021 05:59:21 PM



The language of Yom Kippur is the language of repentance -- of teshuva.  


But repentance isn’t simple.  The Rabbis talk about repentance from fear: regretting past actions and missed opportunities because we realize that they might come back to haunt us or worse.  We have seen how crimes, misdeeds and mistakes have a life of their own and can resurface even decades later to call the perpetrator to account.  In Jewish terms, sins that we commit now can somehow awaken the energy of things that we thought were buried in the past.  Sooner or later, justice must be served. Justice denied and delayed grows dark, angry and destructive.  In Kabbalah, the forces of deferred justice are called middat hadin (the attribute of strict judgment) and are infamously harsh and nearly demonic in their rage.  It is easy to be afraid of these forces- but perhaps they can motivate us to change.  This is known as teshuva miyirah (repentance from fear).


There is a higher form of repentance.  


Teshuva m’ahava means repentance from love. Rather than motivated by fear that past transgressions will awaken to harm us, repentance from love awakens when we grow spiritually.  Spiritual growth in Judaism is related directly to our ability to empathize with others’ pain and distress.  A Hasidic teaching says that an average person feels distress for their own suffering and for those of his/her nearest and dearest.  A more evolved soul feels the pain of their community or city.   But only a tzaddik hador, a righteous soul of the generation, can feel the pain of the world.  


When we grow in our ability to feel on a deep level how another feels -- when we are touched to the core by the tears of a stranger or even someone who thinks of us as their enemy -- then something strange begins to happen to us.  The ability to care for another selflessly, without any thought of how that care benefits us is the heart of love.  


When this happens, we begin to remember our lives and actions differently.  We begin to focus not only on our own sensations, impressions and viewpoint but on those of others.  We suddenly feel regret and pain at the times in the past when we vexed or upset our parents, or carelessly hurt the feelings of other children or our teachers or peers.  These memories can cut us to the quick.  These regrets are the birthpangs of a higher self, an evolved self that not only won’t repeat acts of harm or insensitivity but a self that is not even capable of doing so.  A higher self.  


This teshuva, this repentance from love, helps us not only grow but transform.  Our previous sins, through regret, determination to change and evolving to a more compassionate being, aren’t pursuing angels of vengeance but angels that lift up higher.  At this level of teshuva, past sins are accounted as mitzvot because they, like mitzvot, bring us closer to G-d.


How do we begin to climb that ladder of teshuva?  I’m sure you already know what I am going to say… study the Torah!


But not just study.  The Torah’s narratives are filled with pathos -- with love, fear, jealousy, outrage, weakness and strength, hope and despair.  The highest highs and the lowest lows of human nature.  The Torah’s narratives are not presented with any hint of judgment.  Even Kayin, who kills his brother, is not called wicked.  Our patriarchs and matriarchs are not called righteous -- even though we know that they are the righteous pillars of the world.  Why?  So that we can enter into their world and their viewpoint, deeply empathize and understand them all.  


And from the text of the Torah, we arrive at the text of our lives.  Rather than focusing exclusively on our own point of view, we are called to enter the narrative of each other, even those with whom we might utterly disagree.  We must call out evil and reject bigotry and falsehood: but at the same time, we are called upon to try to reach the vulnerable human being that we all are.


So what do we do as Yom Kippur comes?  Nine times we repeat the vidui, the confessional, nine times we evoke forgiveness and ask for forgiveness.  Can we summon regret over the course of the day?  Can we summon one tear of regret, shame, sorrow for our own mistakes, misdeeds, missed opportunities.  In the imagery of the Torah, a tear shed out of teshuva, out of repentance is carefully gathered by the angels and strung into a chain of precious jewels for the glory of G-d.  

Repentance can transform and uplift.  The Talmud says that those who have sinned and repented stand in a higher place than those who have never sinned.  

May we achieve the wisdom to use Yom Kippur as a ladder for spiritual growth.  We embrace our vulnerability, our imperfection, our humanity and realize that it is through the cracks in the perfection of our nature through which light can come through.


G’mar chatimah tovah!

With love and blessings!


Rabbi Rudin

Thu, June 20 2024 14 Sivan 5784