Rabbi Abahu said:
“In the place where penitents stand,
even the wholly righteous cannot stand.”

Even having written about “T’shuvah” in previous posts, the theme has remained on my mind. I think of it as a positive thing; something we should be eager to do. Yet, it commonly has such a somber, even morose connotation.

“Cheit” — “sin,” in Hebrew — is connected with the making a mistake, like an arrow missing its mark. But it’s in our attitude to “sin” that we generate such sadness.

If we’re driving somewhere and make a wrong turn, we might well become frustrated. A degree of frustration is appropriate, but a greater degree would be far less so. Taking a wrong turn, would we become filled with self-reproach, even self-loathing? Would we become angry at ourselves and question our entire worth as living beings? One hopes not.

Likewise, does guilt about the wrong turn help the situation? No. Does worry help us get there any sooner? No. Perhaps our husband, or wife, or partner, or child misread the map, causing us to make the wrong turn. Does getting angry at him/her make the situation any better? No (in fact, it probably makes it worse, adding hurt feelings to the situation).

Instead, perhaps even with some mild frustration, we determine where we are, then fix on where we want to be and see how to get there. The main thing is arriving at our destination; at our goal. Do advanced levels of exasperation help us accomplish that? I can’t see how.

Of course, our “mistakes” often seem much more serious than that to us. Perhaps we’ve truly hurt ourselves or another person (or other people). Shouldn’t we then “feel awful?”

While it seems like there’s a natural tendency to do so, does “feeling awful” help you or the others? No. A certain amount of sincere regret should come out of our own natural caring about doing the right thing. But as many Jewish (and other) teachers have taught: Regret is only useful to the extent that it motivates us to do better. If it saddens or depresses us, it’s not only useless, it’s actually counter-productive.

At some point, we have to accept that we’re not perfect. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to do better. It means that when we don’t live up to our own highest expectations of ourselves, we should accept that we are, and will always be “works in progress.”

Even more — we must always remind ourselves that those who don’t treat us as we feel that we should be treated aren’t perfect, either.

They’re “works in progress,” too.


[1] Ber. 34a

[2] (A subsequent email exchange between me and the author of the article:)

(sent 12/13)
Dear Rabbi Shaffner,
I enjoyed your piece, “Serving G-d in Every Moment.” I hope you don’t mind that I posted it unedited (except for adding a link to its online source) on my own blog.
I think we both graduated from Wurzweiler School of Social Work, but as I did in 2007, you did long before I was there. Interestingly, though, I was taking cantorial classes at the Belz school back in 1988 (before continuing to study privately with Cantor Jack Mendelson).
While I’m not Orthodox, I do feel that all of Jewry is in a critical position spiritually these days. There’s a hunger to feel close to G-d, but so many things in the way.
Cognitively, I agree with one of my teachers, Rabbi Morris Lichtenstein (founder of the Society of Jewish Science) that “faith” is the whole-hearted realization of the Divine Presence, combined with the undoubting belief in G-d’s Goodness. The second part of that — G-d’s midat Hesed — seems to be a bigger stumbling block for many people than the first part!
The “realization of the Divine Presence” isn’t mere intellectual assent. It’s an experience.
Yoga talks about various paths to this experience, among which are:
1 — The “intellectual” path. In Judaism, this might mean beginning with “kabbalat ole malchut ha-Shamayim” — taking upon oneself an assumption about G-d’s Rule over all things and events. To serve G-d in every moment also means seeing G-d in every moment. Granted, there are different levels of this, some more mystical than others. But it can begin with deductive reasoning about the meaning of the things that happen to us. “If G-d is in charge of this, then….”
2 — I also feel that “hitbodedut” as taught in Breslav Hasidut is a practice that should be encouraged for all. Rabbi Shalom Arush is doing some great things with this, and I like his books very much (especially “Garden of Emunah”). But with Hitbodedut, the more you talk about it, the more complicated it can seem. I think there’s room to talk about Hitbodedut in much simpler terms, especially for beginners.
I wanted to share my own recent piece on parshah “Va’Y’gash.” In some ways, it’s about how this experience transforms us, regardless of how we go about having it:
Thank you again for your wonderful piece.
Kal Tuv,
Rabbi Eli Mallon, M.Ed., LMSW

(rec’d 12/20)
Thank you.
Much beracha
Sounds like you are engaged in some deep approaches to our tradition.
My best