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The Power and Miracle of this Season

L’Fi Dati: As I See It

A message from Rabbi Weintraub

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, in an essay about repentance/Teshuva entitled “Soul Searching” shares a classic folk tale about the animals who decide to repent because their sins had brought them disaster. “The tiger and the wolf confess that they prey on other creatures, and are vindicated. After all, it is in their nature as predators to hunt and kill. So, all the animals in turn confess their sins, and for one reason or another, all are exonerated. Finally, the sheep admits that she once ate the straw lining from her masters’ boots; here at last is obviously the true cause of their misfortune. All fall on the evil sheep and slaughter it, and everything is in order again.” (Rabb Adin Steinsaltz, The Strife of the Spirit, page 20)

This tale, on one level, shows the hypocrisy of the animals, who ignore the sins of the strong and attack those of the weak. The story also portrays one of the most powerful obstacles to repentance. We admit that we may have acted harmfully but decide that this somehow reflects unalterably our basic nature, or the force of habit, or the weight of custom, the “way things have always been.” Because of inertial force, whether of our own personality or social custom, things just have to be a certain way.

Consciously and unconsciously, this is the most common and obstinate assumption which prevents serious individual and social change. And it is precisely why we must energetically follow the ideals and protocols of Teshuva/repentance during the High Holiday season.

Both the Talmud, and later codifiers, affirm that the position of a ba’al t’shuva, the penitent, is higher than that of a saint who has never sinned. This teaching seems counter-intuitive. Shouldn’t the person who is pure be regarded as higher than one who has sinned? Judaism answers “no,” from an understanding of human nature which is at once realistic and optimistic. It is a greater step for an angry person to control himself than one who is constitutionally easy going; it is a bigger achievement for an addict to forswear alcohol or cocaine than one with no issue with harmful substances; the madreiga, the spiritual level of the risk taker who invests prudently is higher than the one who is naturally cautious and risk-averse.

Still, the forces of personality and habit are often overwhelming. As addicts know – and we are all addicted to something(s) — trying to force yourself into constructive behavior by guilt and self-lecturing alone is futile, and even leads to regression and hopelessness, which only aggravate the wrongdoing.

We have to rely on forces outside of ourselves. So, In Genesis Rabbah 1:4, Rabbi Ahava in the name of Rabbi Z’eira teaches that G-d created repentance even before He created the world. The ability to change, even overturn reality was given before creation itself. G-d knew that we would inevitably misuse free will. So, we were given t’shuva as an eternal antidote for harmful behavior.

For similar reasons, the High Holiday prayers anchor our redemption not just in t’shuva but also in Prayer and tze’daka, social righteousness. We need the loving and dependable support of G-d. Who does not get fed up with our endless excuses and relapses, but extends strength and hope no matter what? And we need to give charity and volunteer to repair the world beyond our immediate circle because much individual wrongdoing is abetted by unfairness and want in society.

The forty day period from Rosh Chosesh Elul (August 16) through Yom Kippur (September 23) is the most spiritually intense season of our year. We make efforts to rise, and Heaven comes down to meet us. In the spiritual physics of the Zohar, when there is impulse from below, there is stirring above. By taking stock of our sins, approaching those we have harmed, making amends at home and work, beginning or re-starting regular prayer, giving charity and volunteering, taking stock of our finances, and asking our relatives, friends, and mentors for honest feedback, we chip away at all the rationalizations and denials which have harmed us and those around us. We re-own our dignity and rightful pride as human beings created in the image of G-d, and as Jews, with the potential, every day, to lead lives of holiness through mitzvot.

K’tivfa v’chatima tova
May you and your family be inscribe and sealed for a good New Year,
Rabbi Weintraub

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