Let him who is convinced that his views are true and right express them . . . at every opportunity . . . without considering how much support or how much opposition he will encounter. Only falsehood is in need of many supporters in order to win the day; falsehood must have the authority of numbers to make up for what it lacks in justification. Truth, by contrast, will always prevail, even if it takes time. Noble, courageous and pure, expressed with all the fiery zeal and conviction and with all clarity of sure awareness, stated again and again at every opportunity, truth will ultimately gain respect and admiration even of those who do not accept it. The only truth that can be lost beyond recall is that truth whose adherents no longer have the courage to speak up candidly on its behalf. Truth has never gone down in defeat as the result of opposition, it has done so only when its friends are too weak to defend it. - R' S.R. Hirsch

Friday, September 18, 2015

Teshuvah

Surely, if you improve yourself, you will be forgiven.  But if you do not improve yourself, sin rests at the door.  Its desire is towards you, yet you can conquer it (Genesis 4:7).

Kayin and Hevel (Cain and Abel) were the second generation of humanity.  We are told that while Hevel was a shepherd, Kayin was a farmer.  When they both brought their respective offerings to the L-rd, they naturally brought from their individual areas of activity.  The L-rd accepted Hevel's offering but rejected Kayin's. 

The Scriptures tell us that Kayin was furious when his offering was rejected by the L-rd, and a short while later was asked by the L-rd: "Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen?" followed by the verse quoted above.  This verse contains the first explicit mention of repentance (teshuvah) found in the Torah.  The Targum Onkelos interprets the verse:

If you correct your ways, you will be forgiven, but if you do not correct your ways, your sin will await the Day of Judgment - to be collected from you if you do not repent; yet if you repent, you will be forgiven.  

Rabbi Nachmanides (The Ramban) comments: "He (Hashem) taught Kayin about repentance, that it is up to him to repent at any time and he would be forgiven."  It is critical to understand that the Torah views repentance as one of the greatest gifts the L-rd has bestowed upon mankind.

Strict justice would dictate (1) that a sinner be punished immediately after his transgression; (2) that the punishment should be with the full fury appropriate for the person who rebelled against the word of his Creator; and (3) that there should be no way to rectify one's infraction; indeed, how would one mend his error when it has already been committed?  If someone commits murder or has an illicit relationship, how can his action be undone or withdrawn?

G-d's chesed (loving kindness and mercy), however, provides for the above three points: (1) the sinner is given time, and is not immediately punished after his offense; (2) the actual punishment is not fatal; and (3) G-d's kindness provides that sinners be allowed to repent - that the withdrawal of the desire to sin is considered as the eradication of one's actions, not to mention the provision available to all of us in Yeshua the Messiah:

If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.   My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Yeshua the Messiah the righteous.  And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world (cf. I John 1-2).

There is another important teaching contained in the Genesis verse: Our Sages relate that if you mend your ways you will be "raised"  - even higher than the level of your brother Hevel - because completely righteous people cannot stand in the place where someone who has repented stands.  And even if you fail to mend your ways, do not think that you have lost the chance to repent, because once you open the door of repentance, the sin does not attack as long as you busy yourself with the service of the L-rd.  However, it crouches, lies at your door, and awaits to conquer you as soon as you stop busying yourself with obeying Hashem. 

Hashem's intention is that we have the power to rule over the evil inclination that is present in our flesh.  A sinner should not say, "How can I repent?   I am so distant, full of desire, and possessing a blocked heart."  He has to but truly see and analyze his situation, regret his actions and beseech the L-rd, and his work will be done for him by Hashem. 

We find this concept illustrated when Jacob decided to return to the place where his father and grandfather had prayed.  The Sages tell us (Chullin 91b) that as soon as he decided to turn back, that place immediately jumped towards him.  Lamentations 5:21: Bring us back to you, Hashem, and we shall return.  This means that a sinner need only repent of his actions and truly pray that Hashem will bring him back to Him.  Then, Hashem will have mercy upon him and consider the sinner's return as if he had accomplished it himself, as it says, we shall return.

If our hearts are broken, and we truly regret our wanton deeds and pray to Him, He will give us a new heart, a circumcised heart, so that we can relate to Him in a whole new way, without the barrier of sin between us and Him.

I read about a rabbi last week who described an experience he had at a rehabilitation center for heroin addicts.   He found it incredibly moving.  Here were kids, 16 to 18 years old. Most of them came from broken homes.  Some had suffered abuse when young, others simply neglect. They’d had a terrible past. Trouble was, by seeking refuge in drugs they were going to have an even more terrible future.

He related that the people running the center were amazing, and that they were changing lives.  The rabbi at one point asked the director what it was that the center did for the young addicts that helped them change their lives. She replied: this is the first place they’ve been to that offers them unconditional love. Then she said: We are the first people they’ve met who care enough about them to say "No."

This is what G-d does for us this time of the year. We are sin addicts. We do things we know we shouldn’t, whether it’s taking drugs, or taking liberties, or not respecting others, or blaming someone else when we should be blaming ourselves.  G-d, too, offers us His unconditional love and yet cares about us deeply enough to say "No."

The rabbi later commented about his experience and what he had learned: 

We can carry on for years deceiving ourselves, blaming others for what goes wrong. We are our own infallible counsel for the defense. But there has to be a time when we allow ourselves simply to weep for the things we know we could have handled better. That’s when G-d reaches out to us, as parent to child, and holds us close while we weep together, then He comforts us and gives us the strength to begin again. There’s nothing closer to G-d than a broken heart and nothing stronger than a heart that’s been healed by G-d’s forgiveness.

Teshuvah, repentance, is truly one of the most precious gifts that has ever been bestowed upon us. The future can change because we can change. Who we are is not pre-programmed in our genes. We may not be able to go back and change the past as most of us would probably like, but we can take hold of the present, repent, and act differently tomorrow than we did yesterday.

When Yeshua confronted the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4, He not only told her the truth about her situation (i.e. that she had had five husbands, and was shacking up with a sixth), but He told her to go call her husband and come back. What was her testimony as she dropped her water pitcher by the well and ran back into town?

"Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did."  At this special season of reflection and return, may we too have the strength and the courage to come back and see a Man Who has told us everything we ever did.

Happy New Year! 
               

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