How can we know, when we stand before God time after time to do teshuvah, whether we are truly “returning” to God, or if we are merely deluding ourselves?
Teshuvah is how the soul, our spiritual aspect that remains cloaked in our earthly bodies, can repair or deepen its connection to its Source, which is God.
Being a sinner is tantamount to being cut off from God. Of course nothing, physical or spiritual, can be a barrier before the Almighty. “Do I not fill heaven and earth!” (Jeremiah 23:24). There is no free space into which something else could interpose. God is not stopped by any kind of a barrier. Barrier suggests an entity that is “other” – and what could be other than God? Whatever exists comes from Him, is filled with Him. Yet as the prophet says: “Your iniquities interpose between you and God.” (Isaiah 59:2). A single exception is capable of separating God and man: transgressing the will of God. Every transgression is in a sense suicidal, severing the life flow between the soul and its Source.
There are innumerable accounts of individuals who throughout their lives were utterly apathetic, regarding Torah and commandments as irrelevant; but when the moment of truth arrived, they sacrificed their lives to sanctify God’s Name. Every Jew, even the simplest and most oblivious to the love and awe of God, is still a “lover of Your Name.” True, his love of God is concealed, invisible during his lifetime. But when the ultimate test presents itself, he will forfeit his earthly existence rather than be separated from his Source.
This leads to the question: Why, then ? if every Jew, even the most unworthy, is prepared to sacrifice his life rather than go against His will and be separated from God – with all this, why does an individual transgress? The Talmud explains (Sotah 3a): “A man does not sin unless a spirit of folly enters into him.” This is not the foolishness relating to any particular transgression that results in embarrassment and astonishment at oneself: How could I ever do such a thing? Rather, it is that touch of madness, the lunacy of self-deception on which people build their lives.
One goes about his life doing whatever his heart desires while assuming with complete confidence that he is still a good Jew. The starting point of a transgression is never an unspoken wish to discard everything and abandon Judaism, to sever oneself from God. The starting point is always the foolish notion that one can transgress, and still remain a good Jew. Or as one often hears: “In my heart, I’m a good Jew.”
Because every Jew has the innate ability and desire to attach himself to God, he possesses the strength, as well, not to transgress, not to cut himself off from God -with the exception of one foolish enough to think that, despite his actions, he is still connected to God. The foolish person imagines that there is a distinction between a major transgression and a minor one. But every transgression is a separation; there is no small separation or large separation – there is only separation.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi’s purpose in writing the Tanya was, to a large extent, to assist us in taking an accurate measure of where we stand; not to imagine that we have reached some lofty height or that our connection to God is strong and sound when it is not. This awareness enables us to instruct our souls ? and ultimately to repair our very beings.
The Tanya relates how Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev was unable to lead the prayer service one Yom Kippur. His Hasidim pleaded with him but to no avail. “Last year,” he told them, “I promised God I would do complete teshuvah. And look, the year passed by and I still haven’t repented. How can I possibly lead the prayers again?” Finally his son said to him, “Father, last year it wasn’t true, but this time it will be!” Upon hearing those words, the Rabbi took heart and began the prayers.
Cultivating the self-awareness necessary for teshuvah is an incremental process. Part of this process is acknowledging that we may not have lived up to our goals or promises from last year – or if we have indeed made progress, that last year’s teshuvah does not suffice from our new vantage point. Who we are now is different from who we were when we repented last year. If I did not fulfill last year’s promise, that does not contradict my ability now to promise sincerely.
What is important is not what has happened – or did not happen – in the past, but whether or not a person is prepared to accept it, learn from it, and to go forward. If we are not prepared to accept our past, including our sins and our suffering, it will come back repeatedly. The Baal Shem Tov said that the penitent has the possibility of repentance when he is on a higher level of consciousness than he was at the time of the sin.
The sign of real development, then, is that one’s previous level no longer holds true for him. When one genuinely grows, his personal truth now must surpass all his previous truths so that, by comparison, they are not true at all. Teshuvah demands that one pursue his individual truth at all times. Yesterday’s heavens should be today’s earth, and we must know: there is a Truth still higher than this. Our goal is to always aim for greater heights, to be constantly struggling and striving to do better and to be closer to God. It is not enough to just be.
This essay is based on concepts found in Rabbi Steinsaltz’s Learning From the Tanya.