For years, with Yom Kippur approaching, I’ve been mystified by the Chazal’s statement that whenever a person repents out of love of G-d, his intentional sins (zdonot) turn into merits or good deeds (zchuyot). What kind of Divine hocus pocus can turn stolen money into charity or non-kosher cheeseburgers into kosher sandwiches? What does this mean for us?
This week I got my answer. Rav Dessler in Michtav Meeliyahu writes that each person is brought into the world on a different rung of a spiritual ladder. It doesn’t matter where on the ladder you are situated. All that matters is that you make a concerted effort to move upwards.
In this week’s lesson for Aseret Yemei Teshuva, Rav Ariey Nivin suggested that many people have difficulty with Yom Kippur, because as much as we feel sorry for our previous misdeed once the post-Yom Kippur high subsides, we just slip back into our previous ways. At the same time, even when we repent wholeheartedly, we don’t automatically become perfect. It would seem unrealistic to expect ourselves to never sin again.
Rather, teshuva means identifying one’s weaknesses, regretting our misdeeds, and committing to small but specific steps in the direction of positive change. For example, if a person neglected chesed, she can undertake calling or visiting a person in need of attention and consistently perform just this one action. Once this become part of her routine, she can choose an additional act of kindness and take it on.
The main difficulty with committing to any type of change is lack of motivation. For many people, the drive appears only after a fall. So long as things feel good and stable we live out of inertia. Yet when our reality crumbles as a result of emotional or spiritual challenges, we feel forced to start climbing the spiritual ladder.
Ironically, the push to fulfill our spiritual mandate of making a positive change is spurred by the fall. This is a way of understanding how repentance turns misdeeds into merits. When we recognize G-d’s hand in the crisis and grow from it, our past sins gain meaning as triggers of change. Since the religious crisis was the trigger for spiritual growth it is no wonder that it has not been wasted. On the contrary it has become a vehicle for coming closer to G-d.
In other cases, by experiencing and overcoming difficulties we develop skills and insights, which can be put to use for making a positive difference in the world. Such positive impact would have not been possible if not for the past sins. A distant cousin of mine was heavily involved with drugs in his late teens and early twenties. After coming clean, he went on to establish a successful network of rehab clinics, which has earned him the title “The Man of the Year” from a leading community publication.
We all have things in our past that cause us embarrassment. “I wish I had done this differently,” is a common refrain in our heads. At other times, we continue to judge people for their mistakes years after they had learned their lessons and moved on. Chazal teach us that when used for growth, our mistakes are precious. Without them, we would not be able to become the people we have become. Once the weakness is corrected, there is nothing to be ashamed about.
As we approach Yom Kippur, our challenge is to identify our weaknesses and commit to small actions towards the goal of bettering ourselves in these areas. There is no point in wallowing in shame or deprecating ourselves. In the long run, it is these very personal imperfections that enable us to serve G-d by doing the only thing we are commanded to do: be a little better tomorrow that we were yesterday.
Have your past challenges made you a better person today?
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