Four Images of Teshuva
We are now in the month of Elul and as such our lives cannot be the same. We are supposed to use the month of Elul as an opportunity to rededicate our lives to God and devote ourselves to teshuvah, repentance.
The whole year we grow lax in our observance and distant from God, but then Elul comes and reminds us to return to Hashem in preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
It is not enough in the month of Elul to just say I will do teshuvah this month. That is too general of a statement. Instead we all need to pick one thing, a specific item or character trait to work on. If we focus our teshuvah efforts then we have a greater chance of success.
Let me give you an example. One night this week at our dinner table, we discussed with our children that we should take upon ourselves a family project in the month of Elul. Different ideas were thrown out. But then we got a winner idea. One of our children suggested that they should devote attention this month to being nicer to their siblings. What a beautiful idea. We come closer to Hashem by first working on our interpersonal relationships.
But then another child asked: Well, what if we mess up and we make a mistake in this area. So the suggestion was made that whoever misbehaves in this area needs to go to a different room and spend a few minutes practicing to blow the shofar.
A very special person from our congregation told me that every year during Elul he adds another mitzvah to his life. Last year he started putting Tefillin on every day. This year he is making a bracelet that says, Guard my tongue from speaking evil, to help him refrain from negative conversations.
Rambam says that there are 6 ways we can behave in order to help us repent:
1)prayereveryone should increase their intensity in prayers during Elul
2)charityincrease our charitable giving
3)distance oneself from the source of sin
4)change our name as if to say I am a new person. (I suggest signing our emails with our Hebrew name in the month of Elul.)
5)change all of our behavior for the better; i.e. dont just change one aspect of our behavior. I once heard an exercise teacher say, There is no such thing as spot reduction. So too, with respect to self-improvement....
6)travel in exile in order to cause humility. (For most of us this is not realistic. But perhaps we can break our routine for one day in order to give us a feeling of discomfort.)
Once we approach Elul with the right goals and perspective then we will start to notice that there are lessons about teshuvah everywhere we look. Here are four lessons about teshuvah that appear in parashat Shoftim.
Lesson #1 Dont think the law doesnt apply to you
The Torah tells us that when the Jewish people will appoint a king, he too will need to obey the law. The king needs to write a Torah scroll and carry it with him at all times. Ve-katav lo et mishneh hatorah hazotvehaytah imo vekarah bo kol yemei chayav, and he shall write for himself this Torahand it shall be with him and he shall read from it all the days of his life. (17:18-19).
Every Jew has a commandment to write a Torah scroll, but the king has a commandment to write two Torah scrolls. With respect to a king we are especially concerned that he might feel that he is above the law. The king might say, Oh those laws are for everybody else. But I have unique needs and responsibilities. After all, I am the king. Indeed, this is how Shlomo Hamelekh (King Solomon) sinned. He married one thousand women. He perhaps justified it by saying it was a matter of national security to make alliances with other nations, but in the end he deviated from the law and this was a sin.
The rabbis tell us that Shlomo Hamelekh was the smartest person ever. Yet, he sinned by thinking that the law shouldnt apply to him. This is the general lesson for why we have these laws about a king: It is to remind us that no one can say that this law doesnt apply to me, since I am unique.
The Torah tells us the law of the king, not only to teach us about a king, but also to teach us about ourselves, for we sin by thinking we are like a king.
Ramban writes (17:20) that the Torah here teaches us the laws of the king in order to instruct us in the prohibition of geiut, arrogance. Ki hakatuv yimanah et hamelekh mi-geiut ve-romemut halev vekol sheken ha-acheirim she-einan reuyan lekakh, for the Torah prohibits the king from being arrogant and haughty and certainly others who might have less reason to be so arrogant.
How often do we sin by thinking that we are personally entitled to a separate set of rules just for ourselves? After all, we work so hard and we deserve a little break now and then.
But the lesson of the king is that no one is above the law.
Here is an image from our every day lives. Suppose you parked at a meter and your time expired. The officer comes to give you a ticket. Instead of accepting your ticket you say, Dont give me a ticket. Im really basically a good guy. I just missed it this time. Guess what? Most of the time that wont work. Not only will you get a ticket, but if you dont pay your ticket it will double in thirty days.
Remember that parking meter next time you are about to disobey the commandments of the Torah. No one is above the laws of Hashem.
Since we sin by thinking we are above the law the first word of our confessional statement is always about humbling ourselves before God. We start our confessional statement with the words, Anah Hashem, please God. These are humbling words. With these words we are begging God. When Elul comes we realize that we are not too proud to beg. We are not too proud to throw ourselves on the floor and ask Hashem for help. When Elul comes we need to realize that we are just like everyone else, we too are not above the law.
Lesson # 2 The Sin of Deception
After the Torah teaches us about the laws of a king, the Torah teaches us about the laws of a prophet (navi).
Professor Suzanne Last Stone points out that the communal concern about a prophet is different than that of a king. If the central dilemma of kingship is how to guard against despotism, the central dilemma of prophecy is how to guard against deception. (Mitokh Ha-Ohel, 42.)
The Torah warns us against a prophets deception. Akh et hanavi asher yazid ledabber davar bishmi et asher lo tzivitiv ledabber, the prophet who will say something in my name that I did not command him to speak...that prophet shall die. (18:20). So too, if the navi predicts a future event and that prediction is false then, that prophet has spoken deceitfully, and you must not fear him (lo tagur mimmennu). (18:21).
With a navi we are being warned about the sin of deception. It is too easy to be fooled by the charisma of a navi. So the Torah teaches us that no matter how charismatic the navi seems to us, we cannot follow him or her if his or her path deviates from the Torah.
The sin of deception is another one of our great sins that we need to repent for in the month of Elul. But it usually manifests itself not only as deception, but in its more dangerous form of self-deception.
We sin by deceiving ourselves. What does this mean? It means we dont even think we are sinning. In reality we are just lying to ourselves.
Here is another image: Sometimes when I wash the dishes after we eat a meal I will get lazy. I might pretend that I did a good job and that I really washed the dishes. But if instead of pretending that I washed the dishes well, I actually looked at the dishes closely then I would see that they are full of dirt. It is only because I deceived myself that I thought I washed the dishes. But there they are nice and dirty, right in front of my eyes. So too, on a spiritual level. We deceive ourselves and such self-deception is the root of many sins.
This is why the confessional statement that we make says, chatati, aviti pashati veasiti kakh vekach, I have sinned and I have done the following sins. We must specifically list our mistakes otherwise it is not a valid confession. This confessional statement is designed to force us to confront our self-improvement needs and acknowledge exactly what we have done. Elul is about ridding ourselves of self-deception. It is about reminding ourselves that we can say what we want but the dirt is still on the dishes.
Lesson # 3The Sin of Omission
Another sin that appears in parashat Shoftim is the sin that requires the elders of the city to decapitate a calf (eglah arufah). (Deuteronomy 21:1-9)
If there is an unsolved murder on the outskirts of the city, the Torah commands the elders of the city to decapitate a calf and then in order to achieve atonement, to declare: Our hands have not spilled this blood, yadeinu lo shafchu et hadam hazeh. (21: 7)
Rashi asks (21:7): Would one really think that the elders of the city are actual murderers? So with this ritual what the elders are saying is that they did not see him leaving and they did not allow him to leave without a proper escort.
In other words, if they had seen him and allowed him to leave without an escort then they would have been guilty of his murder even though they had not actively done anything.
The eglah arufah is reminding us that Judaism believes that there is a sin of inactivity; a sin of omission is still a sin. From a spiritual perspective, a sin of omission is a very dangerous sin because we dont even necessarily know that we have sinned. This is why the sin needs such a radical atonement like the strange ceremony of the eglah arufah; it is a warning not to sin through our own inactivity.
Here too, I want to share an image with you. This is a very tragic image from a murder that happened in the Lululemon store in Bethesda in 2011. The store shared a wall with an Apple store next door. The manager of the Apple store testified in court that she heard hitting and screams and cries for help coming from the store. She heard one woman say, "Oh God, please help me." But none of the Apple employees called 911. They ignored the cries and shrieks for help.
This is a graphic image of a sin of omission. But in a much smaller way, we all have our own images of our own experiences of our own sins of omissions. Images where we know we could have made a difference in someones life but we failed to step up and get involved. For this sin too we must do teshuvah in the month of Elul.
Lesson # 4-Everyone can do teshuvah
With all of these images of sins I want to leave everyone with a final horrible image.
The parasha discusses the wicked people of the biblical era: the members of the seven Canaanite nations who used to pass their children through fire as a way of worshipping their god. (18:10) That image of passing a child through fire is one of the worst images imaginable. This is why the Torah tells us that these nations must be utterly destroyed. Says the Torah that when one attacks these nations, lo techaye kol neshama, no one can be left alive. (20:16) It is hard to imagine a worse sin than that of the seven nations. And yet, even here there is room for teshuvah.
The Torah says that we must wipe out these nations so that they do not teach you all the revolting practices with which they worship their god. (20:18)
Rashi comments, Hah im asu teshuvaatah rashai lekablam, if they repent then you are permitted to accept them.
If the doors of teshuvah are still open to the evil worshippers of the seven nations then they are for sure still open for all of us. For all of us it is not too late to change our ways and to come closer to Hashem.
In another place in this parashah (20:9) Rashi writes techilat nefilah nesiah, the beginning of failure is fleeing.
We must not flee from the opportunity of Elul. We should not be afraid of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
The reverse is also true the beginning of success is not fleeing but embracing. Embracing our sins means recognizing them and embracing teshuvah. We should embrace Rambams six-step program of repentance. If we do that then we will make this an Elul of great meaning.