This wonderful group is devoted to discussing issues that are important to ba’alei tshuva. And we are now in the season when everyone should be attempting, each in his or her own way, to grow to higher levels through teshuva. There are two Halachoth that the Rambam includes in the laws of teshuva that are addressed to everyone involved teshuva, and which I think should be highlighted for ba’alei tshuva who are struggling in their growth and commitment to Judaism.
The Rambam (Hilchoth Teshuva, Ch. 3, Halacha 3) writes: Anyone who reconsiders the Mitzvoth that he has done, and in place of the meritorious deeds he has done he says to himself “What have I accomplished by doing them? Better that I had not done them.” This person has lost (the merit of) all of them. No merit is remembered for these [deeds], as it is written (Yechezkel 18:24) “And the righteousness of the righteous person will not save him on the day of his evil.” This refers to none other than one who questions his original actions.
This Rambam is based on a Gemara (T. B. Kiddushin 40b) which teaches as follows: Rebbe Shimon ben Yochai said: Even a person who was fully righteous his entire life, and rebelled at the end, loses the original [righteous deeds], as it is written “And the righteousness of the righteous person will not save him on the day of his sin”(Yehezkel 33:12). And even a person who was evil his entire life, and repented at the end, we never remind him again of his evil, as it is written “And the evil of the wicked person – he will not stumble over it on the day of his repentance” (ibid). (The Gemara asks) Let this person (the righteous person who rebelled at the end) be considered as one who has part sins and part meritorious deeds (since he did both good and bad deeds during his life)? Reish Lakish answers [that we are speaking about] one who questions (regrets) his original (good) actions.
I believe the implications of this Gemara, and its incorporation in the Rambam as a Halacha, have significant lessons for individual teshuva, as well as kiruv methods and goals.
A person who simply goes “off the derech” would be judged by taking into account both the Mitzvos he did while “on the derech” as well as the sins done subsequently. But if abandoning Torah observance is coupled with regret over the past observance, then he has lost all merit for those good deeds.
There are those that think that since a person is starting out non-observant, what could be worse than his or her continued violations of Shabbat, eating non-Kosher, failure to put on tefillin, etc. We could reason that there is very little down side in our push to get them as observant as possible as quickly as possible. We may succeed in both the short term as well as the long term. And even if the changes don’t last, at least we tried, and they are still better off than when they started, since part of their life, whether a few months or a few years, was spent being observant.
Pushing too fast, whether ourselves or others, has a serious potential down side. If a person changes in a way that lasts for a certain amount of time, then he drops the changes with regret (which, unfortunately seems to be evidenced in “angry” ex-BT’s) then not only is he unlikely to return at a later stage, but the time he spent doing Mitzvoth is negated.
The fact that a person can have all his sins erased, even later in life, should teach us to have patience in our own growth, and certainly with the people we are influencing to get more connected to Torah. A quick change that gets dropped may close off the option of the long-lasting teshuva later on. Slow change may mean a delay in fully observing Shabbath, Kashruth or other Mitzvoth. But when it is finally reached, the repentance that accompanies it wipes out the earlier sins, and ensures that the changes will stay with the person.
The person in the Gemara who is called THE Rebbe of Teshuva is Rebbe Elizer ben Dordai. (See the famous story in Avodah Zarah, 17a.) Here was a person who spent his entire life sinning in the most hedonistic way. But his honest repentance in the last moments of his life led Rebbe Yehuda HaNasi to cry, saying “There is one who spends many years acquiring his world (eternity), and there is one who can acquire his world in one moment… It isn’t enough that ba’alei tshuva are accepted, but they are even called ‘Rebbe’ (teacher)”.
Patience in our growth, patience with the growth of others, will ensure that the changes that happen will be stable, creating a foundation that can be used for future growth. Decisions about change must be made with a realistic and penetrating assessment of their likely long-term consequences.
The second Halacha that I would like to share is Ch. 7 of Hilchoth Teshuva. In Halacha 3, the Rambam writes: Don’t say there is only repentance from sins which entail actions, such as sexual transgressions, stealing and thievery. Rather, just as one is required to repent from these, so, too, he must examine his evil character traits, and repent from anger, hatred, jealousy, from levity, from pursuit of money and glory, from gluttony, et al. From all these a person must repent. In fact, these sins are more serious than those which entail action, for when a person sinks into these [personality traits] it is difficult to change. So, too, [the prophet] says: “A wicked person [will abandon his path…]” (rather than abandoning his actions).
Today’s society is a self-centered and hedonistic one. Pleasure is at the center of most people’s worlds, and “what’s in it for me” is the governing mantra. Altruism is in short supply, if one is even willing to admit that it exists in normal human beings. The Rambam teaches us that teshuva is required from such behaviors and character traits.
Going further, I believe that such an environment and such an attitude is incompatible with the Torah’s mandate for man, or in his ability to properly be one who accepts Torah.
Rav Chaim Vital, the preeminent student of the Ari z”l writes an amazing lesson in Shaarei Kedusha, The Gates of Holiness, Part 1, Gate 2. “…Good character traits are not mandated among the 613 commandments, but they are the fundamental preparation for the fulfillment or annulment of the 613 commandments. For the transcendent life-force has no ability to fulfill the 613 commandments through the 613 organs and limbs of the body, except through the fundamental life-force that is connected to the body (which is reflected in the character traits)… Therefore bad character traits are much more serious than the commandment violations themselves.”
Transforming a self-centered, immediate-gratification seeking human being into an altruistic, giving and patient one is a necessary step in the road towards proper acceptance and observance of the Torah. While we like to think that good character traits are a nice addition, with the primary goal being for a person to be Mitzvah observant, Rav Chaim Vital teaches us differently.
In fact, the Talmud in Yoma (86a) does, too.
“And you should love G-d” – that the name of G-d should become beloved (to others) through you. That a person should read and study Torah, serve Torah scholars, his business dealings should be affable. What do people say about him? Praiseworthy is his father that taught him Torah, praiseworthy is his Rabbi who taught him Torah. Woe to those who didn’t study Torah. This person, who studied Torah – see how pleasant are his ways, who perfected are his actions…But one who has read and reviewed and served Torah scholars, and is business dealings are not honest, and his interactions with his fellow man are not affable – what do (those same) people say about him? Woe to that person who studied Torah. Woe to his father…to his Rabbi who taught him Torah. See how corrupted his actions are, and how ugly are his ways…
The correct understanding of the Gemara implies that the Torah studied by the latter person has amplified his corruption, just as the Torah studied by the first person amplified his good character. The balance between proper behavior as a prerequisite for Torah study and Torah study and observance as a vehicle to grow in proper behavior is a complicated one, and I know the many sources for encouraging study and practice of Torah, even if their are ulterior motives. The commentators, Mussar and Chasidic masters all deal with the seeming inconsistencies. My point is that much more attention needs to be paid to character development as a primary element in kiruv as well as in our own teshuva.
Much of Jewish education focuses on educating our children (and grown-ups) towards observance of ritual matters, and adopting proper ideological beliefs. Most efforts are devoted to increasing knowledge and commitment to Shabbath, Kashruth, Family Purity and Prayer; and to believe in the Truth and Divinity of Torah. What seems to be ignored is a fundamental lesson taught to us by our Rabbis, and developed by the Mussar and Chassidic masters: “Derech Eretz Kadmah LaTorah,” proper behavior precedes Torah, and “Im ein derech eretz, ein Torah,” if there is a lack of proper behavior and respect towards other, there can be no Torah. Character development is the foundation upon which Torah is built. It is the reason why there was a seven week delay between the time the Jewish nation left Egpypt and the time they received the Torah. Those forty-nine days of Sefirath Haomer were spent perfecting their character deficiencies from the depths of hedonistic Egypt to the heights of altruistic unity when they stood at Sinai. We are taught that character perfection is a necessary prerequisite for the proper acceptance of Torah.
Let’s not ignore this important dimension of teshuva as we take stock of our deeds, confess our sins, and seek to become closer to G-d on this wonderful day of Yom Kippur.
Originally Published on Sept 21, 2007