Friday, September 7, 2012

HILKHOT TESHUBA 4:2. Teshuba and the King

Maimonides explains the difficulties of admitting by ourselves that we have sinned. Taking charge of our misdeeds -hakarat haChet- is probably the hardest step in the process of Teshuba. In the days before Rosh haShana, we are expected to act as our own judges, and evaluate objectively and responsibly our past actions. Objectivity, goes against our normal emotional behavior, which pushes us to justify our actions, acting as our own advocates. Thus, whatever bad things we do become "good in our won eyes" (4:2).

David haMelekh committed a terrible sin, when he took bat-sheba, a married woman and sent her husband to the battlefront. David, did not repent by the call of his own conscience. Natan, the prophet, was sent by God to admonish David and help him realize the seriousness of the sin he committed. Natan presented David, who in his capacity as a King was also the supreme Judge of Israel, with a (fictitious) case: A rich man owned thousands of animals. His neighbor, very poor, had only one lamb. One day, the rich man received a guest. In order to save one of his own sheep, the rich man decided to steal and slaughter his neighbor's lamb, which he dearly loved. As Natan had expected, the King reacted angrily. David said: "That man (the rich guy) deserves to die!"Natan the prophet then turned to David and said: atta ha-ish.... "You are that man!". Faced now with the objective facts, and with the sentence he issued as a judge 'against himself', David recognized his wrongdoing, repented and admitted: 'chattati laHashem...' , 'I have sinned against God'.

For these transgressions, David was not permitted to build thebet-haMiqdash, but God accepted his Teshuba. Natan opened the King's eyes helping him to realize the gravity of his actions objectively, allowing him to free himself from the psychological mechanisms of self-defense which represent one of the biggest obstacles  on the way to repentance.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

HILKHOT TESHUBA: The Obstacles on the way to Teshuba

In Chapter 4 of Hilkhot Teshuba Maimonides enumerates twenty-four actions or personality patterns or attitudes that prevent or make very difficult for a person to begin or undergo the process of repentance.

Some examples:

DOMINO EFFECT (4:1) Those who because of their teachings or their bad example, etc. induce or influence other people to sin, causing a negative domino effect. Teshuba, in this case, is virtually impossible because part of the process of repentance is repairing what one has done wrong. Once one prompted or influenced other people to do the wrong thing, how could he repair the damage he caused? From a practical point of view, he is beyond redemption, because despite his own personal repentance, his teachings are still exerting a negative influence in others to an unknown extent. 

CALCULATED TESHUBA (4:1) Sinning with the intention of repenting later. Maimonides refers here to a situation in which I'm about to commit a sin and I tell to myself   "I can repent for this sin later on." Or: "Since Yom Kippur is a day of forgiveness , God will forgive me for the sin I'm about to commit". In these conditions Teshuba is unacceptable. Because Teshuba is accepted by the Creator only when it comes from a sincere remorse, not as a calculated game plan. 

DEFENSIVE PERSONALITY (4:2) Someone who hates to be corrected or criticized. Imagine a person incapable of accepting a minimal dose of respectful criticism, even when coming from those who care for his or her well being. Many times, this type of personality disfunction is a consequence of a low self esteem, which prevents a person to cope with any rebuke because his self esteem will collapse. This person, Maimonides concludes, will likely continue with his or her bad habits because he is incapable to allow himself  to see himself as other people perceive him. This is one of those cases in which you cannot help those who don't want (or cannot) help themselves. 

 Great people talk about ideas. 
Average people talk about things. 
Small people talk about other people. 


Wednesday, September 5, 2012

HILKHOT TESHUBA 3:14: Teshuba and bullying

In the third chapter of Hilkhot Teshuba, Halakha 5,  Maimonides asserts that the Jews and the righteous among the gentiles (chaside ummot ha'olam) will have a share in the world to come ('olam habba, i.e., the afterlife). 

Then Maimonides writes about the exceptional cases. Those who because of the severity of their sin would be excluded from the world to come, unless they repent during their lifetime.  Maimonides enumerates twenty four categories of sins, some of them related to radical statements or ideas like, denying the existence of God, or His unity or His incorporeality, etc. and some of them related to severe sins, mainly in terms of their irreparable effects, like treason (moredim, moserim) killing, slandering (ba'ale lashon hara) etc.

Interestingly, toward the end of the chapter (3:14) Maimonides refers to eight cases, seemingly of a lesser severity, which were also mentioned (strategically) by the Rabbis among those sins for which one losses his or her part in the world to come. 

Four of these cases could be translated in modern term as "bullying" (nicknaming, verbal offense, embarrassing someone in public). Bullying is a kind of verbal abuse which's effects are not less severe than physical violence. Unlike physical violence, bullying is not penalized by the law and it could go unseen for a long time. It is uncommon for the victims of bullying, especially in cases of low self esteem, to denounce the perpetrators, and the torment might go on with devastating emotional effects. In our days bullying is unfortunately epidemic. In some cases the class (or the bus) is divided into three groups: the bullies, the victim/s and those who watch (=bystanders). 

As parents, we need to be alert and detect the symptoms of bullying.  We should educate our children to denounce bullying and, as importantly, we should teach them to respect, and when necessary defend the dignity of every human being. 

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

HILKHOT TESHUBA Teshuba and blame displacement

In Maimonides' opinion Teshuba consists of three steps:

1. hakarat hachet, or admission of our personal responsibility .

2. viduy, or confession with sincere remorse for the wrong we have done

3. 'azibat hachet ,or the resolve to abandon our bad habits.

hakarat hachet is probably the most difficult challenge in Teshuba. Because we naturally tend to justify and rationalize whatever wrong we have done. Or, we might be tempted to play the oldest human game: "blame displacement".

Everyone knows that God punished Adam and Eve expelling them from Paradise. But why did He punish them? Was it because they ate from the forbidden tree?

Try this. Put on a table all kind of candies, sweets, and cakes in front of a six years old child. In the middle of the table place a simple cherry-tomato. Now, tell the child: 'You can eat whatever you want except for the tomato'. It will be only a matter of time until the child disobeys, leaves all the carb-loaded foods and grabs the tomato. The forbidden fruit syndrome triggers an irresistible curiosity and desire for what we cannot have, just because we cannot have it. According to Rabbi Yosef Albo (Spain, 1380-1444), Adam and Eve's sin was not eating from the fruit. God, he reasons, knew they will succumb. God wanted to train the first couple to take charge, confess and repent for their wrong actions. Knowing that making mistakes is part of the human nature, HaShem was teaching them the way to repair and reset: Teshuba!

Adam's original sin happened when God approached him and asked him: 'What did you do?' and instead of admitting his responsibility and asking for God's forgiveness Adam 'transferred' the blame to Eve saying: 'the woman that You gave to me (You=God. Adam was now blaming God!) she offered me the fruit'. Then God approached Eve and she said: 'It wasn't me! The serpent made me do it'.

'Blame displacement,' i.e., holding others responsible for our own misdeeds, is probably the main obstacle for repentance, or at least the oldest one.

Intellectuals solve problems; geniuses prevent them.

                                                                Albert Einstein

Monday, September 3, 2012

HILKHOT TESHUBA 3:1: Teshuba and the tipping point

In the third chapter of his Hilkhot Teshuba Maimonides explains that in terms of religious behavior, we find three categories of people: rasha, tzadiq, benoni .

The rasha (wicked) is the person whose balance of actions is negative.  Then we have the tzadiq (righteous), the one who has done more good than bad. And then, the benoni, which Maimonides defines as the person whose good and bad actions are in a sort of a balance (3:1).

In the next Halakha (3:2) Maimonides clarifies that the calculation of good or bad actions is inaccessible to us. This estimation does not depend on the quantity of Mitzvot we do or on anything knowable to us. Part of this equation has to do with interior  psychological forces that drive us, our intentions, our inner potential, the effect our actions have in other people, etc. Those are matters that only God knows and can bring into account for a fair judgment. 

Now, since we ignore whether in His eyes we are righteous or, God forbid, wicked, how do we have to see ourselves? 

When I see myself as a completely righteous person I might relay too much in my merits and do nothing further to improve my life. Or if I see myself as wicked, I might think that I'm beyond redemption, and do nothing to improve.

Maimonides concludes that "a person should always perceive himself as benoni,  i.e., standing in a balanced scale between equal amount of merits and sins...". This balanced scale is not stable at all.  My immediate next action (or the next one, or perhaps the following one, etc.) will determine if I'm a good person or a bad person.

The best motivation to live a life of constant improvement is to perceive myself in the middle.  And live and act as if the very next action I'm about to do will define me: my next choice is the tipping point of my entire personality. 

“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.”
Albert Einstein