From the Archives, November 2014: As Long as the Candle Burns

We are now in the full swing of Aseret Yamei Teshuva, the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur (which begins on Tuesday at sundown). I’ve already posted about this period and these holidays, which focus on repentance and forgiveness. As I wrote there, the High Holidays are really about repentance as a community, but many use it as an opportunity to do some soul-searching on an individual level, too. There is a custom to take the opportunity to ask forgiveness of those you may have hurt in the past year.

Josep asked me a while ago about forgiveness in Judaism, and I wrote him this e-mail last November to explain about the process of teshuva (repentance) in Jewish law and thought.

Enjoy, and gmar chatima tova (roughly, may you be sealed in the Book of Life) to all.


Dear Josep,

“For you shall return to the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and all your soul. For this commandment which I command you this day, is not concealed from you, nor is it far away… Rather, [this] thing is very close to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, for you to do it”

–Deuteronomy 30:10-14

The above passage is part of a larger section towards the end of Deuteronomy, discussing the “blessing and the curse” that God gave the nation of Israel. It is considered the Biblical source for the commandment of teshuva (repentance).

The concept of teshuva is based on two fundamental principles in Jewish thought:

1) No matter how low a person sinks, now matter how horrible his actions, he is always capable of redeeming himself and changing for the better.

A story goes that Rabbi Israel Salanter, a famous rabbi who focused on the study of moral conduct and ethics, was walking down a dark street one night, and saw a faint light flickering in a window. He approached the window and saw a shoemaker repairing an old shoe by the light of a dying candle. Rabbi Salanter said, “Look how late it is! Your candle is almost extinguished. Why are you still working?” The shoemaker said, “As long as the candle burns, it is possible to mend.” Rabbi Salanter was struck by the deep allegorical wisdom in those words. In Judaism, the flame is a symbol of the soul.

"As long as the candle burns, it is possible to mend"
“As long as the candle burns, it is possible to mend”

(This principle is, by the way, in sharp contrast to my understanding of Christian thought, which–as I understand it–argues that man is inherently sinful and is constantly pulled towards sin. According to Christian thought, the only way to redeem oneself from one’s inherent sinfulness is to accept Jesus as having died to atone for it. In a sense, Christians also believe that “as long as the candle burns, it is possible to mend,” but the Christian idea of “mending” is fundamentally different from ours.)

2) God is infinitely merciful and anxiously awaits our repentance. This is true in Christian thought as well. In the liturgy for Yom Kippur, there is a line that reads, “Until the day of [man’s] death, [God] will wait for him, and if he repents–[God] will immediately receive him.” The image we have is of a God who is waiting for you with outstretched arms and great anticipation. He is like a father whose child has done something wrong, who is waiting anxiously for the child to say he’s sorry, so He can embrace him, forgive him, and end the child’s suffering from the distance between them.

The word teshuva comes from the root ש.ו.ב., sh.u.v., which means “to return”. There is something very important to learn from this. It’s not just about returning to God. It’s about returning to yourself, to your “source”. We are all created with a Divine soul, and underneath all the layers, we are totally pure and good. Teshuva cleanses us from those layers.

In another sense, however, teshuva changes us fundamentally. One might ask, I have done something so terrible–my act was real and tangible. How can it simply be erased, as if it were no longer there? The answer, from the Jewish perspective, is that maybe the consequences of the sin still exist, but the person who committed that sin no longer exists. You are not him anymore, and when faced with the same temptation, you would turn away and not do what he did. Maimonides (who wrote a very important work on the practical aspects of teshuva) actually recommends symbolically changing one’s name as part of the process to demonstrate that you are no longer the same person as the one who committed the sin. Bringing this together with the idea I mentioned in the previous paragraph, you are a different person–one who is closer to your source, to what you could be, to the potential of your Divine soul.

According to Maimonides, there are four steps to the process of teshuva.

1. Regret (“In Your Heart”)

Notice that the word for this is “regret”, not “guilt”. The word in Hebrew for guilt is אשמה, ashma, which comes from the root א.ש.מ., a.sh.m., meaning to blame. Guilt is self-blame. It is a natural emotion to occur when we’ve done something wrong, but it can lead us further down the spiral of self-destruction and negativity. Shame and guilt are the sense that there is something inherently wrong with you. The Hebrew word for regret is חרטה, ḥarata, from the root ח.ר.ט, ḥ.r.t., which means to chisel, to smooth, to engrave. To refine, to make a permanent and enduring change to something. Regret is the recognition that you are inherently good, and you have failed to live up to your potential. That what you did is not an expression of who you really are and who you really could be.

This step is crucial, because obviously, if you don’t genuinely understand what you have done wrong, you can’t really change. And if you don’t genuinely recognize your own potential to be someone who would never commit that sin, there is also no way to move forward.

2. Cessation

This part is fairly obvious. To repent for a sin, you have to stop committing it.

3. Confession and Asking Forgiveness (“In Your Mouth”)

Both Christianity and modern psychology also recognize that thinking and feeling are not enough. We cannot truly be free of something that torments us until we have given it a name and spoken that name out loud.

There is no special formula for this in Judaism, and it doesn’t matter where you are when you do it. All you have to do is speak to Him aloud, asking forgiveness, and explicitly naming what you did, in your own words. Unlike Christianity, this process is straightforward and does not involve a spiritual leader as intermediary. It’s just you and Him.

Asking forgiveness from the person against whom you sinned is also a crucial part of the healing process–for both of you. Again, this has to be totally sincere. Whether that person is able or willing to accept your apology doesn’t have a bearing on your process of teshuva; what’s important is that you express your regret verbally to the person you hurt.

4. Resolution Not to Repeat the Sin

Obviously, all of this doesn’t mean very much if you are not sincerely committed not to sin again. This is the real expression of the fact that you have changed. Maimonides says that teshuva is complete when you reach a point that when faced with exactly the same circumstances and temptations, you would make the right choice.

Love,

Daniella

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