Repentance is Hypocritical

Venturing into the world of Jewish observance or self-improvement in general can be an awkward experience, potentially fraught with criticism from others and temptations to overcome. Some of these pitfalls are related to the sojourner’s awareness of his own paradoxes, such as, “How can I become an observant Jew when I am still involved in sin?” Such a question has the potential to decimate a person’s plan on increasing his observance, and in some cases preventing one from even considering it. When confronted with this question he tells himself, “Given my less than ideal state, which, by the way, I enjoy, increasing my observance would be hypocritical. Observance is something better left to those who are ready, able, or desire to completely abandon such behavior.”

What is important to understand is that transforming from an imperfect person to an immaculate angel overnight is not the stated goal of Torah observance. While it would be ideal to completely abandon inappropriate behavior, it is more realistic to wean off of it over a period of time. Judaism does not consider it realistic, nor does it demand, that a person who seeks to improve his character do so in one fell sweep. Rather, the Torah and its sages are well aware that improvement is something which takes time and effort. Jewish Law recognizes that an individual goes through a process of refinement and renewal, and that such a process necessarily reflects the individual’s ambition and capability to improve.

Further, Jewish wisdom and law understand that behavioral tendencies are deeply entrenched within a person’s psyche – some of which are positive and some of which are negative. It is the negative aspects which must be weakened while the positive are reinforced, exercised, and eventually fine-tuned.

Therefore, in no way is incremental increase in observance hypocritical or frowned upon. Much worst is when a spark of renewal bursts asunder within a person, which he then squelches with anxiety, hesitation, and in some cases fear and laziness. Regarding the attraction towards observance, one should feel comfortable knowing that expressing that desire to any degree is justified and encouraged.

What about when a person fails time and time again and falls into sin? Does sin make repentance and observance useless? To the contrary, repentance is encouraged, not mitigated, by a past splotched with sins. The strong desire to sin is as well not a sign that one has failed. Rather, the fact that a person is agitated by sinful desires proves that he has already begun improving.

One great thing about religion is that is institutionalizes morality in a way that secular idealism, some of which is noble, cannot. Then the critic might ask, “What about the famous criticism stating that religion is the opiate of the masses?” Doesn’t the inexistence of God undermine whatever good is to be apprehended by believing in an absolute conscience? In other words, believing in God might help you to behave well, but if God doesn’t exist, then it’s just a form of control.

This requires two responses.

The first is the following possibility; even if God didn’t exist, the God-driven desire to be a genuinely good person can work wonders in self-improvement and enrichment. If we accept for the moment that the existence of God is just an idea, it is an idea that fundamentally changes the way people think and act. However, just because it makes things better, does it make it true?

And this line of questioning took years to develop into a more mature understanding of religion. While truth is an ultimatum that an individual can never abandon, eventually one expands his understanding of truth to include within it peace. For example, while a younger man might fight to the end for the sake of defending truth, creating conflict with family and friends and even ending relationships, the same person in a more mature state might seek a path of peacemaking as a means to establish that same truth that years ago he would have killed for. The fight for truth can never end, and I do not agree that replacing a yearning for it in the external world with the internal world is correct, for then it becomes only an idea. The truth can be illustrated more accurately as follows:

Suppose that your wife comes to you with the classic "how do I look" question? The aim of Truth cannot be a mere delivery of facts, but rather a set of actions or words that arrives one at the necessary goal. In the case of marriage, peace between husband and wife is the ultimate goal. If so, the correct answer to the question of "how do I look" is anything that will bring you and your wife together.

This is demonstrated most aptly by a short section of narrative in the Book of Genesis. A careful reading of the following verses in Genesis (18:11-1) teaches us a great lesson about the relationship between truth and peacemaking:

Now Abraham and Sarah were old, coming on in years; Sarah had ceased to have the way of the women. And Sarah laughed within herself, saying, "After I have become worn out, will I have smooth flesh? And also, my husband is old." And the Lord said to Abraham, "Why did Sarah laugh, saying, 'Is it really true that I will give birth, although I am old?'"

Note that Sarah says that her husband is old, yet when God relates to Abraham what Sarah had said, His words are that Sarah said that she was old. In other words, God uses other words to relate Sarah's message. His purpose for doing so was to act as a peacemaker between this every-holy couple who loved each other so dearly and who together brought so many souls to God. He was operating with a description of truth that goes beyond the mere delivery of facts and definition of words, but focused on the desired outcome of the words themselves. The desired outcome of words is peace, and therefore it is truth. This does not provide one with an open ticket to say whatever he wants and manipulate words until they are unrecognizable for the Torah also says that one should not bear false witness, or lie. Words must operate within a specific framework that does not violate the simple meaning. Perhaps it can be understood that Sarah's statement that her husband is old indicates their closeness in years. If Abraham is old, then so is Sarah, and so God's statement operates within these parameters.

The resistance to forms of control is rooted in rejection of doing things for the wrong reason. While control (and fear, for example) is not the ideal reason to worship God, inexperience and immaturity sometimes require it. The ideal motivation to worship God is love for God, but sometimes a person must start with a more basic and perhaps easier concept, which is fear of sin. Fear of sin is the safety net that protects a person from engaging inappropriate behavior. With time and practice, fear of sin can be replaced with love of God, but is virtually impossible to arrive at love of God without first fearing sin.

Applying this concept to the larger search for Truth, a person might one day realize that this very search must include within it aspirations for peace with his neighbors, his friends, his family, with himself, and ultimately with God. Peace not as an indifferent settlement or abandonment of his ideals, but as an integration of a broader, more complete picture of more sharply focused ideals.

How great are Your works, Hashem! Your thoughts are very deep. A brutish man does not know, and a fool does not understand this. (Psalm 92: 6-7)

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