This is a guide to repentance, in the form of a commentary on Psalm 27, intended to be used during the month of Elul, which preceeds Rosh Hashanah in the Jewish calendar. To start at the beginning, click here.
copyright Rabbi Amy R. Scheinerman
(For full text of psalm, click here.)
The psalmist, who heretofore has been speaking about God, now addresses God directly. In our process of teshuvah, we consider our relationships with God and others, and we apologize to those whom we have wronged, and make amends, and only then may we address God directly to ask for forgiveness. That asking is a joyous event on the High Holy Days, for we are confident that having genuinely repented, God will forgive. God is chanun v'rachum, gracious and merciful, and seeks not to punish but to forgive, our tradition teaches. This assures us that it IS possible to repent and repair our relationships -- with God, with other people, and even within our own hearts.
The Mishnah tells us that when Akabya ben Mahalalel was dying, his son said to him: "Father, commend me to your colleagues." He replied: "I cannot commend you." His son said: "Have you found in me some cause for complaint?" Akabya answered: "No, but your own deeds will commend you to them, or your own deeds will estrange you from them. " We know it is our deeds which bespeak who and what we are. As the old saying goes: "Nice is as nice does." In the world of teshuvah, it is our deeds which determine whether our repentance is successful: If we make different choices and proceed with righteous behavior in place of our failures and shortcomings of the past, then our teshuvah is a success. The true aim of teshuvah is not to gain absolution for past sins, but to create a better human being who will add to the goodness of the world. Rambam wrote of the final stage of teshuvah as the commitment to living a better life through righteous deeds and words.
It is for this reason that giving tzedakah is a traditional practice at this time of year. For some, it may be their atonement sacrifice; for others it is the first tangible step in their commitment to more righteous living. What better way to begin anew and renew one's life than to share one's blessings with those less fortunate!
Prayer is also an excellent way to maintain one's commitment to spiritual renewal. Our lives are so hectic and so filled with obligations and commitments that we barely have time to consult our day-planners, let our alone any sort of spiritual calendar. Prayer can be a spiritual day-planner, by providing a few quiet moments of meditation and introspection to clear our minds and focus on the direction of our lives. A few moments to connect with God allows us to more fully stay in touch with ourselves. Many of us think we don't have time for prayer, but the truth is we don't have time for anything. We make time for what is important.
Goodness is habit-forming. When we are young, our parents install us with their values and, hopefully, habits of goodness. When we are grown, we must install these habits in ourselves. Rambam wrote: "How do we fix [righteous] traits into our character? By repeatedly doing them, returning to them until they become second nature. And because these attributes are divine, this path -- the one that avoids extremes -- is called the Path of God, and Abraham taught his descendants to follow it."
In verse 11, the psalmist asks for guidance. It is no coincidence that the term for guidance has the same root (Y-R-H) as Torah. Torah, which guides the life of the people Israel, is also the personal guide of each and every Jew. We understand Torah in a broader sense, as well, encompassing the many sacred texts which form our people's spiritual constitution, and in addition as the process of discovering God through the study of sacred texts. Study is a spiritual activity, and the psalmist gently reminds us through the use of the term (Y-R-H) that we not only connect with God through Torah study, but that our lives are kept in balance in this way. One additional comment on the use of this term: I cannot help but be struck that in the previous verse the psalmist made the statement that one's father and mother can abandon one, in contrast to God, who is unfalteringly available. While the Hebrew employs the term "av" for father and "eim" for mother, in modern Hebrew we use the term "horim" for parents -- a term with the very same root (Y-R-H) as Torah. The Bible does not employ the term "horim" for parents (it is a modern usage) but the contrast is still striking from the perspective of the 29th century. God parents us through the Torah.
Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote: "A loving parent does not show genuine love by telling a child, 'Do whatever you want.' That would not indicate love, but lack of concern and abdication of responsibility. The truly loving parent says to the child, 'I care very much for you, and although I cannot live your life for you, I want you to have the benefit of my experience.' The Jew understood from the beginning that Judaism was a religion of love because it did not leave him to find the way through life alone and unaided. It offered advice, insight, and experience. It was out of God's love and concern for Israel that He gave them the Torah, so that instead of stumbling blindly, they might be aided by its principles, take heed of its warnings, and draw closer to Him." [To Live the Words of Torah]
Hence Torah is a gift, a guide, for our lives which can help us remain true to the commitments we make through the process of teshuvah. Torah study, like prayer, can keep us on the path we choose for ourselves. Our sages believed so strongly in the power of Torah to transform our lives for good that they expressed it this way in the midrash: Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar said: The will-to-evil is like iron in a forge: While it is there, one can shape it, make utensils of it, anything you like. So with the will-to-evil: There is only one way to shape it aright, through the words of the Torah, which is like fire.
When the psalmist asks God to keep him/her from falling prey to enemies and adversaries, I cannot help but think that in the context of teshuvah, the primary adversary is the Yetzer Ra (the evil inclination). The temptation to fall back into the same patterns of the past is overwhelming. Habit is powerful. That is why the psalmist continues with the reminder that we must believe in the goodness of God, keeping the vision in front of our eyes. If I have a vision of what I can become then I have a much better chance of success. Athletes visualize themselves winners. We should do no less in the moral realm. After all, far more is at stake.
R. Hama b. Hanina said: Great is repentance, for it brings healing to the world, as it is said: I will heal their backsliding, I will love them freely [Hosea 14:5]. R. Levi said: Great is repentance, because it brings about redemption, as it is said: And a redeemer will come to Zion, and unto them that turn from transgression in Jacob [Isaiah 59:20]. Resh Lakish said: Great is repentance, for because of it premeditated sins are accounted as errors, as it is said: Return O Israel, unto the Lord, your God, for you have stumbled in your iniquity [Hosea 14:2]. R. Samuel b. Nahmani said in the name of R. Jonathan: Great is repentance, because it prolongs the years of man, as it is said: And when the wicked turn from wickedness... he shall live thereby [Ezekiel 33:19]. [Yoma 861,b]
How do we know when our teshuvah has been successful? When we change and do not repeat it. The word for sin in Hebrew is chait and it comes from the world of archery. It connotes the act of "aiming" in the sense that each of our acts has a trajectory and depending upon our focus is our deed. The goal of teshuvah is to take aim in all we do at God. Look to Adonai when you aim your words and deeds. Avoid the lesser and false values that often trap us in this world and consider a higher plain of living. Be strong and of good courage. This takes both strength and courage because it is not usually the path of expediency. However, it is the path of greatest reward. Look to Adonai!