Forgiveness and Repentance

Here are some thoughts on Selichos as a preparation for Rosh Hashanah.  Gabbai Seth Fishman, BLOG Editor

Forgiveness and Repentance
Teachings for Selichos Compiled from the teachings of Reb Zalman
By Gabbai Seth Fishman (BLOG Editor)

Table of Contents

Levels of Forgiveness
Baal Teshuvah / Penitent
Kapparah / Atonement
Baal Teshuvah and Tzaddik

Levels of Forgiveness

There’s a nice mashal / analogy Reb Zalman has used to help explain the different stages of forgiveness as related to transgressions, (from A Guide for Starting Your New Incarnation, pp. 77-78).  Reb Zalman:

“Imagine that, chalilah v’chas / God forbid, I have an automobile accident.  I run into someone else’s car.”

The car accident is the transgression we will look at.  Assume it was your fault the accident happened.

“I get out of my car to talk to the other person.  It was my fault, my negligence.  The guy is ready to shrey / yell at me, to call me names, to accuse me of being blind. 

“Before he can do that, I say to that person how sorry I am, that I beg his pardon and I apologize. 

“Then, I say, ‘Let me see what we need to do about it,’ and I admit it was my fault. 

When you said you were sorry, at that point, it was the first stage of forgiveness, selichah.  Though the other party may have accepted the apology,  on a certain feeling level, there is still annoyance.

“Now, we exchange our insurance numbers and our drivers’ licenses, and we do all the things we are required to do by law.  Now the person says, ‘Okay.  We are in agreement that it was your fault.’    

“At this point, if we begin to have some more conversations, then we are beginning to move a step past slichah / forgiveness.” 

In the case of a car accident, it is unlikely that it would occur again with the same person.  However, with other transgressions, we might have apologized and then done the same thing again. 

When it happens a second time, it is clear to the one wronged that there was some remnant from the  first transgression even though the first transgression had been dealt with through a confession, an expression of regret and an apology. 

For example, if my child says, “I’m sorry,” then I might forgive her.  However if she does the same thing a second time, although I’ve forgiven, the memory of the first time is still with me.  For the first selichah / forgiveness, I forgave on an intellectual level, but because there may not have been a mechilah / pardoning, the second time I am still caught up in the remnant from the first.  There is a cumulative effect.  Now back to Reb Zalman and the accident:

“We’re having a conversation.  I’m speaking to the person whose car I damaged.  The fact that we’re having a conversation means we’re beginning to create a kind of connection between us.  Now we’re working on the m’chilah / pardoning.” 

It’s beyond the s’lichah / forgiveness.  The s’lichah / forgiveness is just focused on the transgression, but the m’chilah / pardoning is focused on a heart connection between me and the person whom I’ve wronged. 

If I come to my child who now did the the wrong thing several more times, and I focus on the underlying love I feel for my child, maybe, by focusing on and remembering that love, I can avoid the anger and deliver the right message, the one s/he really needs to hear, the one to which s/he might listen.  Putting my attention to the love brings the second stage of forgiveness, m’chilah / pardoning.

“So we’re awaiting the tow truck and decide to pass the time in a café.  We’re engaged in conversation.  I find out that he and I have common interests and that this is really a nice person.  I’m actually glad I ‘bumped’ into him. 

“At the same time I’ve made every effort to take care of every bit of damage I had caused, which means the costs of the pain, recovery time, personal embarrassment, etc..  I’ve taken these on and taken care of them.”

The m’chilah gets to something deeper inside.

“Later, we meet again.  We have another good conversation and we really become friends. 

“A few months afterwards, a third person asks the one whose car had been hit whether he recalls when his car was hit by me, the one who was careless.  He responds that he doesn’t remember it, that he doesn’t know to whom the person is referring.  After some discussion, it finally becomes clear to him that the reference was to me, his friend. 

“I’m describing it in this way to illustrate the third stage of forgiveness, kaparah / atonement.

Kaparah has the same root as Kippur as in Yom Kippur / Day of Atonement.

“I am kofer / denying the original experience had ever been negative.  Because by that time we had gotten close.

So the kaparah on Yom Kippur is as though the sins had never happened.  It’s not as the case I mentioned earlier of the child who does the same wrong thing again and again and the parent remembers and resents it; the love for the child comes into the fore, and the parent is able to treat the child as if the child has never done wrong.

These are the three levels of forgiveness:  Slachah / forgiveness,  m’chilah / pardoning, and kaparah / atonement.  Slachah focuses on the transgression; having real regret, and going through all the stages, i.e. first realizing I did something wrong, then confessing, not just keeping it to oneself, but actual sharing with someone close to one about something one needs to deal with in one’s conscience.  M’chilah comes from a higher place; you are basically a good person, deserving of love.  Kaparah removes the transgression altogether.

Baal Teshuvah / Penitent

Now, let’s move the discussion up to God.   It’s no longer a car accident; it’s a transgression between me and God. 

There are wrong things we do and we are sometimes not aware that they were wrong or that we did them.  For these, we need to be open-minded to the possibility that they are out there, and to be on the lookup for them, when we allocate time for cheshbon hanefesh / soul accounting.

The first stage of teshuvah / repentance is an awareness of having done something wrong.  Next is a sense of regret. 

The root of the word teshuvah is “return.”  hashivenu hashem elecha v’nashuva / Bring us back to you Hashem, and we shall return (Lam. 5:21).  So the idea is one is returning. 

It says in the morning prayers, Elokai neshamah shenatata bi tehora hi / God the soul you gave me is pure.  We all come into the world from a pure place.  For many of us, we move away from our places of purity, the purity of the soul, as we mature, a part of a learning process.  On a simple level, teshuvah means to reconnect to the purity we had before we did the wrong thing.

And here’s how the Rabbis explained the Baal Teshuvah; here’s how they said it. (Again, from A Guide for Your New Incarnation, page 17:

“How can one recognize a baal teshuvah? Rav Yehudah said:  ‘For example, he is presented with an opportunity to sin more than once and is saved from it.’  Rabbi Yehuda added:  ‘With the same woman, with the same temptation, in the same place, (Yoma 86b).'” 

So the transgression picked there was promiscuity or adultery.  But the principle illustrated is that one has returned to a place in one’s life where all the conditions are exactly the same as the time when one did something wrong, but this time one does not, one resists.

So a baal teshuvah is a stage where one has returned to a previously possessed purity temporarily lost.  It’s more than just regret.  It’s deeper.  It’s an internal correction of sorts.

A real baal teshuvah is able to resist a replay of a temptation that had once made him / her fail.

Kapparah / Atonement

I was once asked whether transgressing is necessary because the teshuvah leads one to a better place than before the transgression. 

It’s an interesting question.  It brings to mind a couple of stories that I had heard from Reb Zalman: 

“There was a man who came to a Rebbe (which Rebbe, I never heard, though he merits identification!), and he said, “Rebbe, Up front, I said to myself, ‘First I will sin and then I will do teshuvah.’  Now I realize one can’t do TESHUVAH for this.

(NOTE:  The Talmud says that this is a case where forgiveness isn’t possible.)

” ‘Please!  Can you help me?’  So the Rebbe asked him to give the quote.  And the Rebbe showed that if you read it differently, with the quotes differently it changes from ‘They don’t give him the opportunity to do TESHUVAH,’ to ‘We have no doubt that this one can do TESHUVAH,’ i.e., there’s no doubt this one will be forgiven.”

This reminds me of another beautiful story from the opera Tannhaueser. 

Tannhauser commits a sin.  The pope tells him, “If ever my staff will sprout leaves, you will be redeemed.  Otherwise, it will never happen.”  The sin he had committed was that he left humanity and he lived with the goddess of love, Venus.  When the community and the church heard about it, they said “Go to the pope, for you have committed the most heinous sin and we don’t know how you can obtain absolution.”  The pope also said he couldn’t deal with it.  But when the opera ends, the angels from the rafters sing, “There’s a miracle!  The pope’s staff has sprouted leaves and Tannhauser is redeemed.” 

Baal Teshuvah and Tzaddik

The above discussion is consistent with something I learned from studying with a local Lubavitch Rabbi.  He taught us that Baal Teshuvah is higher than Tzaddik

Reb Zalman taught me that there’s a story about the Leviathan and the Behemoth that this echoes, (from Rabbi Shneur Zalman Likutei Torah, vol Vayikra): 

There’s two mythical creatures:  Leviathan, the whale and Behemoth, the giant ox.  They were both created during the first week of creation.  And they were put aside for a feast at mashiach‘s dinner.  In olam habah, we are going to feast on the Leviathan. (Oy what a feast it will be.  “Dovid ha melech and his fiddle will play for us a liedl / song.”)

In the teaching from Shneur Zalman, the behemoth is likened to the tzaddik, one who does all the mitzvahs, one who follows the letter of the law.  The Leviathan is likened to the one who maybe makes all the mistakes, like the baal teshuvah, i.e. somebody who gets to that place that is higher than a tzadik

My Lubavitcher Rabbi also taught that the second temple, which was in many respects, much more full of transgressions than the first temple, was a higher level than the first, and he said this notion echoed the idea that the baal teshuvah is a higher level than the tzaddik.

The Sefer Tanya talks a lot about the psychology of baal teshuvah.  In the beginning of the Tanya Rabbi Shneur Zalman talks about the beynoni / spiritually middle-ground person, not tzaddik and not rasha.  He tells a story in the Talmud about rav saying, “I’m a beynoni”  and everyone else saying that if Rav is a beynoni then they are all r’shaim because in comparison to him they saw themselves as being wicked because he was so good. 

So thus begins a whole discussion in the sefer Tanya about the psychology of sin, the psychology of redemption.

In zichronot on Rosh Hashanah, and as it says in this week’s torah portion (netzavim), we need to deal with the things that are manifest, but the hidden things are dealt with by God. 

Each of us has hidden things that are the things that we will hopefully be working on during the high holidays, and these are between us and God.  If any of us can sit here and say that our bank account with God is in good stead, that’s a great thing.  So that’s what we need to work on between now and yom kippur.  It’s the annual conscience and consciousness maintenance.

(This article was compiled from a discussion held at Congregation Brothers of Israel, Newtown PA, on September 20th, 2008 as part of our Selichos service.)

May you be blessed with a sweet New Year.

 Gabbai Seth Fishman, BLOG Editor

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