Back to the Future

A number of years ago I was walking through Barnes & Noble when I noticed a shocking book jacket. The title, emblazoned in big, bright red letters was Shanda and the cover picture was an overhead view of a man wearing a yarmulke; not just any yarmulke, but a royal blue one which had a bright pink pig emblazoned on the back. You can understand why the book caught my attention.

I am reminded of Rabbi Nosson Scherman’s quip that “Anyone who tells you not to judge a book by its cover never had to sell a book.”

I bought the book!

Shanda is the autobiographical account of Neal Karlen’s estrangement from the traditional Jewish home he was raised in. His approach to Judaism – and especially towards other Jews – is one that he describes as self-loathing. This continues until midlife when Karlen comes to the realization that, in fact, the Jew he hates most is himself. He is the shanda.

As it so happens, around this time he runs into R. Manis Friedman, a well known Chabad rabbi who he had actually met once as a teenager. Karlen and R. Friedman strike up a conversation about Judaism and the issues that Karlen has with it. This conversation leads to another conversation, which leads to another conversation. The book is about the continuing evolution of Karlen’s perception of himself, Judaism, and the relationship between the two.

One of the memorable moments in the story occurs during the initial conversation with R. Friedman when Karlen asks, “Do the Hasidim believe in reincarnation?”

R. Friedman smiles and replies, “I believe you can be reincarnated in your own lifetime.”

II.

Yom Kippur is less than 24 hours away and our primary focus during this magical day will hopefully not be on our hunger but on teshuvah, repentance. We will require focus because teshuvah is a demanding and multi-faceted enterprise.

In fact, the Rambam (Laws of Repentance 2:2) lists the following crucial components: azivas ha-chet – the sinner must cease and desist from the prohibited behavior; kabalah le’asid – he must then commit to not repeating this behavior anytime in the future; charatah al ha-avar – he should sincerely regret his sinful action; and finally vidui – he must verbally confess his sin.

It is striking that the Rambam lists kaballah, the pledge to stay the improved course, before requiring charatah, the regret over the misdeed. At first glance this sequence appears anachronistic, as the future is placed before the past. And more than just an issue of timing, logically it would appear that charatah would come before kabbalah.

In fact, most of the other commentators who discuss the Laws of Repentance, such as R. Sa’adiah Gaon and the Chovos Ha-Levavos do in fact list charatah first.

And the reason would appear obvious. Regret is the ground zero of repentance. If one doesn’t feel bad about what they have done in the past what would motivate them to change their behavior in the future.

How are we to understand the Rambam’s order?

I think it’s possible that the Rambam is teaching us a profound lesson in the psychology of spiritual growth.

III.

Deep down, many people don’t believe that there is a meaningful chance for lasting change. Past habits are deemed too hard to break and previous mistakes are considered too numerous to rectify; we feel unworthy of redemption. Even when God is ready to forgive us we are not always willing to forgive ourselves. This may be mistaken but it is a common feeling.

If a person focused initially on the guilt of the past, there would be a real danger that instead of charatah being a catalyst for positive change, he or she could become trapped by negative feelings of despair and hopelessness.

Thus cognizant of the ill, the Rambam offers us the antidote.

Of course the first thing we do is correct the misdeed – azivah – because that is a prerequisite for teshuvah. If we are still committing the averah there can be no integrity to the successive steps. But once that has been taken care then the transformative process of teshuvah can begin.

Even though it may be intuitive to focus on the past we are instructed to look towards the future because the Rambam understands that the most profound inspiration for change is the positive image of the new and improved person we will be. We must be able to hope for a better tomorrow before we come to grips with a disappointing yesterday. We need the vision of what lies ahead to give us the strength to face up to what came before. Once the kabbalah has taken place, then – and only then – are we ready for charatah.

Thus understood, the Rambam’s sequence isn’t curious, it’s ingenious.

Similarly attuned, The Meiri begins his Chibbur Hateshuvah by stating the following goal: “Le’va’er she’ein la’chotei le’hisya’eish min ha-teshuvah b’shum tzad” – to explain that the sinner should never despair from the possibility of repentance.

IV.

The perfect compliment to this insight is another statement of the Rambam (Repentance 7:7):

How wonderful is the uplifting of repentance! Somebody can, on one day, be separated from the Lord, God of Israel, . . . we beg but are ignored . . . we perform mitzvot but they are discarded by Him . . . and on the next day he can attached to the Divine Presence . . . he performs mitzvot and they are accepted with repose and joy . . .

The transformation that the Rambam describes is so radical – from distant to close, detached to intimate – that it can accurately be described as a form of reincarnation.

As R. Friedman observed, “you can be reincarnated in your own lifetime.”

And perhaps this is what the Kotzker Rebbe had in mind when, in response to being told about another Holy Tzaddik who supposedly had the power to be me’chayyei meisim, bring back people form the dead, he replied, “Mechayei meisim – big deal! Mechayyei chayyim – to give new life to those who are spiritually dead, that’s an accomplishment!”

Hopefully the inspiring vision of a better future will give us the strength to engage in our own form of techiyas ha-chayim and may the coming year be one of not only reincarnation and rebirth, but of redemption as well.

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