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The Paradox of Teshuva by Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard
The Paradox of Teshuva by Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard

Volume 4 , Issue 1

The psychology of teshuva begins with a paradox and a temptation. First the paradox. In order to repent, we must be prepared to admit our errors, even grieve over them. In his classic discussion of teshuva, Maimonides makes it clear that not only must we confess our sins, but "the more one confesses, the more he is to be praised." Teshuva means confronting the fact that we have not been as good as we should be.

Teshuva also requires that we resolve to behave differently in the future. We cannot allow our sinful behavior to define who we are or limit who we may be. Paradoxically then we must also attain a profound recognition of our own goodness. The present possibilities for growth and improvement must master the existing realities of failure and error. Our resolution to avoid sin in the future rests on our present belief that we are good enough to become better.

This paradox suggests that religious development, like all human growth, lives with the tensions inherent in self examination. To be sure, the daily service offers us repeated confession of sin and admission of our limitations. But let us be equally aware of the profound note of affirmation on which the day begins.

We begin by washing our hands and making the blessing celebrating it (al netilat yadaim). Underlying this ritual lies the idea that we begin all over again every morning. We affirm that we, as is indeed the entire world, are created anew each day. However far we may have drifted, our soul is returned to us each day, refreshed. The message of this halakha is clear: Forget the mistakes of yesterday, turn toward the spiritual possibilities of today.

We then celebrate the body with all its limitations (the blessing of asher yatsar "who fashioned"). Our body, our physical self, with all its vulnerability is still a miracle. And, finally, in the elokai neshama prayer, we remind ourselves of the pure soul within us. We affirm that our deepest self is a well of holy power from which we may always draw. We are indeed good, and good enough to both recognize our errors and reach out for what is better.

The psychology of all human growth begins with this tension. We must remind ourselves of an important clich?: it requirestremendous strength to take an objective look at ourselves. The path of honest analysis is blocked with deep seated resistances. We prefer not to notice our limitations. We prefer to blame our problems on others. We are terrified of changing. And why not? We have been raised to present ourselves as good. We are trained young to make excuses in order to avoid parental wrath.

Overcoming Resistance

To outwit and overcome our resistan­ces we must feel strong enough to confront them. And to feel strong enough to confront them we must believe in the power of our own goodness. Without a recognition of strengths, there can be no awareness of weaknesses. Here then is the paradox: if we see only our own goodness, then we are unable to locate the changes that need to be made, but if we see only the faults that need to be changed, we are unable to find the strengths on which change will be based.

In order to live with teshuva we must, as a well known chasidic story tells it, live as if we have two slips of paper, one in each pocket. On one slip is written. "I am dust and ashes," and on the other is written. "For me the world was created." We must admit that we often resist and rebel, that we are small minded or mean spirited. We must see that we sometimes cause others pain so deep that we find it hard to imagine we shall ever make up to them. And yet we must also see ourselves as pure souls, created by the Holy One, as part of a chosen people with a sacred task, and as sanctified by the Torah.

So much for the paradox. Now for the temptation: an impatient perfectionism. A rebbe of mine used to describe this trick of the yetser hara (pure temptation) in the following way. The yetser hara, he said, shows you a tsadik, a fully formed righteous person, sitting at the top of a tall mountain. The sight is inspiring.

The yetser hara asks you if you wouldn't like to be just like this tsadik. Of course, you immediately agree. He then reminds you that, inspired as you are, you really ought to be just like the tsadik on the mountaintop. Why are you not yet there? "But how," you think, "does one go instantly from the bottom of a mountain to its top?" Jump, of course. So you jump. But, as we might expect. the mountain is too tall and you fall flat on your rear end. You jump again, and once again fall. You begin to feel very discouraged. After several more tries. worn out and feeling hopeless, you just give up. The yetser hara has his victory.

The moral of the story: Only Superman leaps tall mountains in a single bound. How does one climb a mountain, my rebbe always finished by asking? One step at a time. Spiritual growth is a process that requires progress one step at a time. Hurrying that process by demanding instant success will only undermine one's development. The temptation of perfectionism whispers in our ear, "You can't accomplish anything unless you accomplish everything."

As with any form of perfectionism, the need to be spiritually perfect engenders defenses against the inevitable failure to actually be perfect. We are all familiar with the alibis and rationalizations one can invent to avoid facing personal and spiritual failures. For example, we devalue the demands of Judaism we find difficult to meet. Or, more radically, we suddenly see all the drawbacks and faults of observance and of the observant Jewish community.

Best Defense a Good Offense

The best defense is a good offense. There is no fault in not having fulfilled these unreasonable demands placed upon us. Or we develop a preference for impossible dreams and religious programs. And we are then relieved to discover that there is really nothing wrong in not striving for the impossible, like becoming that tsadik at the top of the mountain.

In short, unable to tolerate the tension of having only come part of the way, we begin to insist that we have, indeed, come all the way. To relieve our spiritual and psychological bitterness and sense of failure, we insist that we have really come all of the way - at least all of the way worth coming. The result: no further growth.

Further growth, the process of teshuva, requires taking responsibility for setting realistic spiritual goals. Teshuva requires taking responsibility for setting realistic spiritual goals. Teshuva requires admitting that we are neither perfect nor ever likely to be perfect. It means accepting ourselves with all our limitations. As I noted before, to do teshuva requires believing that, with all our faults, we are good. hence good enough to be better.

But religious self-acceptance does not give us an excuse to stop working. We are instead required to formulate our "one step at a time" program for moving toward greater holiness. Acknowledging that we have quite a distance to go, we still have to take full responsibility for taking the next step. We remind ourselves of the simple truth that, to paraphrase a well known section of Pirkei Avot, our inability to do everything does not mean that we aren't responsible for doing something.

The temptation of perfectionism, as all. spiritual temptations, has its roots in the holy. It represents a mistaken understanding of what is, in reality, a very positive human characteristic. Spiritual perfectionism has its roots in our desire to transcend all limits, our desire to return to our Divine source - God who is without boundaries and limits.

Rav Kook, one of the most important Jewish mystics of the twentieth century, described it this way. He recognized that as we strive toward greater holiness, we often experience a bitterness which can lead to the denigration of the religious life. But, he understood that bitterness is the product of our painfully profound sense of the chasm lying between us and the Infinite God toward whose perfection we are striving.

Recognizing the Chasm

If we ignore God, if we deny our spiritual possibilities, then the chasm between us and the holiness to which we aspire is not part of our consciousness. As we come closer to God, as we return to God, we must confront and bear the pain of recognizing that chasm. God is infinite, unlimited, and unbounded. We are finite, limited, hemmed in on all sides. And our soul, which is like God, wants to be as God - infinite and unbounded. What a temptation to be bitter over our limited fate.

In Jewish mystical thought, all creation is seen as striving toward that unbounded, infinite holiness that is the Creator. All creation seeks to return to its source. A famous chasidic rebbe said it in this way: In the Midrash it says that when God created the Red Sea He made a deal with it. It is usually thought that the deal required the sea to split so that Israel could cross over. The rebbe, however did not think so. No deal, he argued, would be required for the sea to perform a miracle. All creation strives to be miraculous, to overcome the limitations set by the laws of nature. No, the rebbe insisted, the deal required the sea to agree to return to its natural state. After experiencing itself as a miracle, how painful it would be for the sea to return to the limits and bounds of being a mere natural phenomenon! The sea, as all objects of creation, had to agree that in return for being created, it would accept the necessity of remaining within its boundaries.

We now see both the paradox and the temptation. Impatience with boundaries is itself a necessary part of the force driving us to transcend our present lives. We need a transcending vision in order to grow beyond who we are now. But in measuring ourselves against our vision, we see how much we have failed, and this is painful. Our temptation then is to surrender our religious vision to the demand that we be perfect right here and now. Perfectionism understands only achievement. It allows no room for development.

Taking the Step Towards Teshuva

The essence of realistic teshuva is to "take the next step." Yet the paradox remains. On one hand, to take only the "next step" is to accept the limitations of the present. And accept them we must in order to resist the temptation to spiritual perfectionism. And, yet, on the other hand, to take even a "next step" is to transcend the present. To step even one step further means to go beyond one's given limits. We are limited and unlimited at the same time.

Teshuva as a process of personal change cannot work a miracle in the face of the laws of our created nature. People, as Maimonides noted, do not make radical changes in their personalities overnight. Real teshuva works only the little miracles by which we find ourselves able to escape from the boundaries of the present. Teshuva is a series of little miracles of religious ascent in which we work with our limitations as we go beyond them. Jewish methods for navigating the course of such ascent are, then, the next topic for discussion.

Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard, who holds doctorates in philosophy and clinical psychology, is currently the Director of B'nai Brith Hillel - JACY at New York University. He did his rabbinical studies at the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem and the St. Louis Rabbinical College and was principal of the Ida Crown Jewish Academy in Chicago.



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