TESHUVA

Following are Rabbi Menachem Schneerson's (1902-1994) word and ideas, not mine. They are an exquisite description of teshuva (a Hebrew word meaning “a return to one’s good essence”) and remind me of:

  • Alan Watts' quote from The Joyous Cosmology: "the foundation upon which I sought to stand turns out to be the center from which I seek"

  • Rabbi Kalonymus Shapira's quote: "all that is required of you is already within you. All you have to do is give your soul a forum, within you, where it can express itself and grow stronger. Broaden the arena for your soul."

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin describes the inner strength that Schneerson saw in people:

 

 

 

 

 

 

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"Judaism teaches that even if a person sometimes fails to live up to expectations, there is always the knowledge that nothing stands in the way of teshuva.  

Everyone’s soul is encased in a physical body that is often the source of confusion and distraction, to the point of blundering from the right path and robbing one of peace of mind. Even where (a) one has relapsed in committing the same transgression for which one already has done teshuva, or (b) while doing teshuva, one is not certain whether he could resist the temptation should it recur, this must not prevent him from doing teshuva again. 

Start a new life. Never think the battle lost. Keep on fighting. There must be no pause or hesitation on this road, which must be trodden step by step, with gradual, steady advancement. A feeling of dissatisfaction with oneself is a good sign, for it indicates an urge to rise and improve oneself, which is accomplished by withdrawing from the present state and turning to a higher level. No matter what the past has been, it is always possible to change. There is always room for improvement. 

No one should consider themselves (and certainly should not be considered by others) as having terminated their goodness even though a long time of fruitlessness has elapsed. Don’t pay attention to the scoffers. Given the proper inspiration and stimulus, the state of “winter” can easily and suddenly be changed into “spring” and blossom time, which will eventually ripen into good fruits. But it is up to a person to overcome his difficulties by his own efforts and determination. 

Recognize sin for what it is: a failure. There are times when things do not seem to go as expected or as desired. But there is a great difference between (a) someone failing on occasion to withstand a temptation and therefore committing a transgression, and (b) one who tries to justify such sins by saying they are not transgressions at all. The essential aspect of teshuva is in the sincerity of the heart, since it entails profound feelings of regret for past failures and the strongest resolve and commitment for the future. 

Overcome sin and do better the next time. Stop dwelling on thoughts that only lead to despondency and inertia. Use your spiritual resources with the appropriate determination and don’t get discouraged by an occasional relapse. Even in the case of spiritual failure, don’t feel depressed, for gloom discourages a person from changing. 

When it is dark outside, one must not be discouraged, since that is precisely the time to start kindling the lights. Act with the fitting warmth, cheer, and inner joy in the conviction that you are changing for the better, achieving harmony, happiness, and peace of mind. The real bright light in life is the ability to see the right path and follow it faithfully in terms of daily conduct, filling it with all that is bright and good, in a state of consistent inner peace and tranquility. This is dependent upon a person’s world outlook, which has to be expressed in appropriate conduct, in actual practice, for the essential thing is the deed. 

Consider difficulties and obstacles as a challenge to be faced unflinchingly and surmounted. Far from being stymied by such obstacles, they can evoke untapped powers. Adversity makes one stronger and more effective than before, with an added dimension of experience, and a keener acumen to put to good use when things turn upward. Sometimes, a temporary setback is just what is needed for the resumption of the advance with great vigor, as in the case of a runner negotiating a hurdle, when stepping back is the means to a higher leap. There must be no resting on one’s initial accomplishments. 

One must go on and on, higher and higher. Do not stop or be overconfident. Go further in your self-betterment. However satisfied you are today, do better tomorrow, and better still the day after, for there is no limit to goodness and holiness, which are infinite in their scope and depth. 

If a spark sets off a powder keg, the resulting explosion in all its force cannot be attributed to the spark exclusively, for the spark was no more than the immediate cause of setting off the reaction. The energy released was already contained in the powder keg. Similarly, everyone has a soul with potential energy. Everyone has the potential to rise from the lowest depths to the loftiest spiritual heights in a short time. The soul has tremendous stores of energy that can be found and harnessed for constructive purposes. Don’t underestimate your capacities, both those in evidence and, especially, those latent ones which have to be actualized."

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There is a legend about Moses that amplifies Schneerson's points about the metamorphosis and transformation of teshuva:

"After the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, a king of Arabia sent an artist to Moses to paint his portrait, so that the king would always have the likeness of the great man before him. The painter returned with his handiwork, and the king assembled his wise men, those in particular who were conversant with physiognomy. He displayed the portrait before them, and invited their judgment upon it. The unanimous opinion was that it represented a man covetous, haughty, and disfigured by all possible ugly traits. The king was indignant that they should pretend to be masters in physiognomy, seeing that they declared the picture of Moses to be the picture of a villain. They defended themselves by accusing the painter in turn of not having produced a true portrait of Moses, else they would not have fallen into the erroneous judgment they had expressed. But the artist insisted that his work resembled the original closely.

Unable to decide who was right, the Arabian king went to see Moses. The king admitted the portrait was a masterpiece. Moses as he beheld him in the flesh was the Moses upon the canvas. Moses said: 'Your artist and experts alike are masters. If my fine qualities were a product of nature, I would be no better than a log of wood, which remains forever as nature produced it at first. Unashamed, I confess that by nature I possessed all the reprehensible traits your wise men read in my picture and ascribed to me, perhaps to a greater degree than they think. But I mastered my evil impulses with my strong will. The character I acquired through severe discipline has become the opposite of the disposition with which I was born. Through this change, wrought in me by my own efforts, I have earned honor and commendation upon earth as well as in heaven.'"  

Rabbi Harold Schulweis noted that Moses' words in that legend square with Ecclesiastes 7:20--"For there is not one good person on earth who does what is best and doesn’t err"  (כִּ֣י אָדָ֔ם אֵ֥ין צַדִּ֖יק בָּאָ֑רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר יַעֲשֶׂה־טּ֖וֹב וְלֹ֥א יֶחֱטָֽא). Everyone needs to transform.

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If you don't feel worthy of teshuva's effort, consider this notion from Abraham Heschel: "Why is the Torah so concerned with idolatry? It's not because God has no image. It's because God has an image: you. The medium through which you make the image of God is your life: the way you live and treat others. To take anything less than a human being (a piece of canvas or marble) and say 'that's the image of God' is to lessen God's image. You’re an image of God like none other that has ever existed."

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The core idea explained by Schneerson, of repairing a break—repenting—and going back to a life of joy, is beautifully manifest in the Japanese art of kintsugi. (Rabbi Becca Weintraub)

Kintsugi is the repair of broken pottery by mending cracks with lacquer mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. It treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise.  Not only is there no attempt to hide the damage, but the repair is literally illuminated. Kintsugi is a manifestation of the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, an embracing of the flawed or imperfect. Objects are kept even after they are broken. Kintsugi values the marks of wear from the use of an object, highlighting the cracks and repairs as simply an event in the life of an object rather than allowing the object's service to end at the time of damage. There is acceptance of change as an aspect of human life. There is equanimity amid the changing conditions and vicissitudes of existence to which all life is susceptible.

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By necessity, a large part of teshuva centers on what to do with memories of the past. How many of the aforementioned cracks and breaks  should be kept in memory? All? Some? Which ones?

Michael Fishbane's book Fragile Finitude has very helpful thoughts on this aspect of self-examination. Most interesting is Fishbane's citation of Deuteronomy 25:17-19, in which God tells the Jews to remember how the Amaleks attacked them during the exodus, killing the stragglers at the rear: "When the Lord your God grants you respite from all your enemies around you, in the land the Lord your God gives you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of the Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget."
 

Fishbane acknowledges the need (as a surface reading of the text suggests) to remember persecutions, in order to guard against future catastrophes. We should not be naive about historical reality. But he suggests reading the text on a personal, not national, level and asking: is keeping alive memory of wounds a recipe for unhealed trauma? 

"Particularly characteristic is the way an individual, weighed down by the past, plods along under the constraints of prior events. Such memory is a grave burden as one proceeds forward. Distracting thoughts hobble the heart and leave the will in distress. The negative event is sustained in memory for a future time when revenge can be enacted. Resentments become a psychic burden with a great emotional cost."

With that in mind, Fishbane rereads Deuteronomy 25:17-19, transforming it to mean: "When the time is ripe, and one has found rest from psychic pain, try to give the memories of evil some respite: not by denying the undeniable or expressing forgiveness through unwarranted generosity, but by letting the memory be a real memory and not a lens for present resentment. It is just this truth that one is bidden (on this rereading) to 'not forget.'  Sometime, perhaps not yet, when you find respite from your enemies, within and without, 'blot out the memory of the Amalek.' Let it be. Heal its traumatic torment. Remember this and 'do not forget'--and so find rest, for the sake of your soul."

On a more general level, Fishbane describes teshuva's transformation process as being inaugurated by a "sudden awakening of spiritual need, through a sense of lack, a realization that one's inner life is in a state of tohu."  The latter word comes from Genesis 1:2, which describes Earth as being unformed (tohu) and void - תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ.  Tohu refers to "inchoate and unformed elements, without shape or sense. But then, with a sudden insight, our intuitive spirit may generate meanings from the vast realm of possibilities. The mind is awakened to its epistemic potency and affirms there is something here."

Fishbane describes the "psychic state of being overwhelmed by circumstances: to be without breathing room or the capacity to conceive any life alternative. This is the state of qotzer ruah, or shortness of breath."  He is referring to Exodus 6:9, when Moses tells the Jews he will bring them to Israel but they wouldn't listen because their spirits were crushed (which is the common translation of qotzer ruah - קֹּ֣צֶר ר֔וּחַ) by slavery. "Oppression burdens both spirit and body, and narrows the horizons of thought and feeling. It's an invisible force, crushing the individual."

Fishbane notes that to remember slavery in Egypt one must also remember the exodus from it: "imagine the radical suddenness of an improbable or unexpected change....freedom, release from oppression, transformation, rebirth of self-awareness, revitalization, a new sensibility and consciousness. Where torpor had darkened vision and hope, there is now a sense of a future. One feels the regeneration of life and the transformation of an enslaved will. Release and personal renewal conjoin. Newborn freedom marks the onset of new horizons, dispelling the anxieties that induce the sureties of habit."