One of the most harrowing pictures I ever saw appeared in Newsweek. The camera caught a glimpse into a life that had, in many senses, vanished before it even began. A child, who could not have been more than three or four years old, was carrying building materials. We would call him a pre-schooler; in today’s Sudan, he ― and his parents ― are slaves.
He can be purchased by just about anyone; someone looked at him and saw two arms that will grow larger and stronger. It is not likely that they saw a mind or a soul. In the Newsweek interview, the child had no idea of the name of his country or his village. Looking at him from my home in Jerusalem, I mourned for his childhood far more than he did. I silently wished that he would somehow be able to return to himself and learn that he is more than his two strong arms.
In the course of our lives, we close doors to higher and deeper selves and sometimes forget that we, too, are more than earners, spenders, and travelers through life. Our thoughtless enslavement to mindless routine can leave us without much of a relationship to our souls. In a materialistic society, it is all too easy to view others as competitors. As toddlers we observed that when you have three cookies and give one away, all you have left are two. From that point onward we are afraid to give.
The problem is that the soul, unlike the body, thrives on giving, and on the love that is its offspring.
We also tend to become so self-involved that the God we all intuitively knew as children (children almost always believe in God, unless they are taught not to) becomes more and more removed from our moment-to-moment consciousness. We act as though we are more than mere creations. This alters our sense of dependency on the Creator and the concomitant realization that we are beloved recipients of endless free gifts. We end up amoral, with no one to account to for our lives. Like the child in Newsweek, we don’t know where we are or who we could be.
The solution is teshuva, which means “return” (not “repentance” or “becoming more religious”). Through teshuva we learn to re-establish a relationship as God’s creations. It is a way in which we learn who we are, and where we are.
How does it work? There are three primary steps. Let’s go through them one by one.
The first step is confession to God. In concrete terms, this means examining our lives and honestly admitting to our mistakes and to the possibility of having wasted opportunities for growth.
One method of doing this is to divide your life into eras (childhood, teen years, young adulthood, marriage, career, parenting, middle-age, etc). Spend time with a notebook going over each era. The question you should be asking yourself is: “What did I learn from this?” ― not: “How did I feel?” nor: “Whose fault is it?” which are ultimately irrelevant to our process.
We can examine the effects of our positive experiences ― e.g. When I volunteered in the special ed camp, I learned that people are beautiful in more ways than I had ever known. Or the effects of negative ones ― e.g., When I see my mother’s face today, as I review what happened when I was 16, after I said what I knew would pierce her as deeply as a knife would, I know how empowering destruction feels, and how damaging it is for all of us.
This process can take a few hours, and might be wise to divide over several days. When you finish, review what you have learned. When you look at the negative things you have done, look for patterns. Is impulsivity the reason that you made bad choices? Perhaps the culprit is an insatiable need to find validation. (Remember, if this is the case, we are not out to blame anyone. We are out to discover our highest and most authentic self.)
Once you have a sense of what the patterns look like, you can confess not only the actions that you now regret, but also the underlying causes of choosing those actions.
With teshuva, God opens doors that we may have locked years ago, erasing the negative impact of our choices.
The purpose of this confession is not to tell God something that He doesn’t know. It is to help us regain our identity, by seeing ourselves as we are, and asking God to help us heal the damage we have done to ourselves.
We can’t erase the imprint of our choices, but God created teshuva even before He created the world. It is the one creation that is not locked into the rule that “time only flows in one direction.” When we do teshuva honestly, God reverses time and opens doors that we may have locked years ago, erasing the negative impact of our choices.
The second step is regret, which entails a disassociation with negative patterns to the point where they are demystified and repugnant. Let us look at two scenarios to understand why regret is so essential to the process of return.
Scenario 1: Howie was a relentless hunter. As a college student, his prey was any girl who attracted him. As he grew older, he realized that he wanted the stability of married life and settled down with Bev. Last week he met Mark, his old roomie, in the airport waiting area. They both were headed to Detroit on a plane that was delayed. As they caught up with each other and reminisced about their college days, Howie waxed nostalgic about his macho conquests.
Scenario 2: Same beginning as Scenario 1, but with one critical difference: One evening after the kids had gone to bed, Bev opened up to him and told him how other men had treated her like an object, and how she had never trusted anyone until she met him. That night Howie couldn’t sleep. He realized how much disillusion and distrust he had sowed, and how much pain he had left behind him. When he met Mark later in the week, the last thing he wanted to bring up was his past. It was something he had to deal with, and the time and place was certainly not the airport lobby.
Regret and guilt are not the same thing. Guilt creates paralysis. Regret creates redefinition. Guilt is passive – e.g. I can’t deal with this right now. I think I’ll eat chocolate and go to sleep. Regret is active (eventually Howie called his rabbi and asked about what the next step should be). Regret leads to release from the prison of self-limiting behavior. Guilt goes nowhere, and is so unpleasant that we tend to blame anyone available ― just to liberate ourselves from its violent grip on our souls.
Resolution To Change
The third step is making changes within you that are so real that the old patterns will slowly fade. Eventually the day will come when old choices are just plain unappealing. This is analogous to our no longer biting a friend who annoyed us as was our practice at the age of two.
How do we change our patterns? There are various ways that are recommended by different sages over the course of the centuries. None of them are meant to be “The Only Way.” Use whatever works for you, and recognize that as you change, methods that worked at one time in your life may not work forever. You will need to change methods now and again.
Method 1: Daily Accounting
This method was developed by the 19th century Baalei Mussar (ethicists):
1. Once you identify your patterns, and you sense which traits are the underlying cause of your errors, learn as much about the trait as you can. For example, if you find that time and again anger has been the cause of misjudgments that you regret profoundly, try reading Rabbi Zelig Pliskin’s book “Anger: The Inner Teacher.” If there are several problematic traits, you may have a lot of reading to do.
The point of gathering information is to find a sentence that really resonates. This should become your mantra, so to speak. Using anger as our example, the phrase “Don’t be reactive. Be the person you want to be” may speak to you. (It speaks to me.) If you wish to work on several traits, you will have several sentences.
2. Get a notebook. (That makes you feel good already!) If you are working on four traits, begin by structuring four pages as follows: On the top of the page write your key phrase. Underneath it, divide the page into seven sections, leaving a large margin on the left side of the page. Write the days of the week on top of the seven sections. In the left-side margin, write the name of the traits you are working on ― e.g. Anger, Dishonesty, Insensitivity, Arrogance. (Notice that I have presented the traits negatively rather than positively. The first one on the list is the trait that matches the key phrase on top of the page.)
3. Every day of “week one,” look at the key phrase first thing in the morning. Repeat it a number of times. At the end of the day, pencil in the number of times you forgot that phrase in the course of the day, by writing one dot for each error. Even though you are not dealing with traits 2-4 as intensely this week, review your day and write in the number of slip-ups that have taken place.
4. The next week, put the first trait on the bottom and move the second trait to the top, so that within a four-week span, you would have had each trait as the central one on the list.
5. Does it seem childish? Yes! Does it work? Yes ― and with startling rapidity. Within 40 days, you will begin to see dramatic results, even with traits that you have lived with your entire life. Of course if you don’t continue the process, the results fade, but it is an amazing method.
Method 2: Maimonides’ Method
1. Picture yourself in a moment of failure due to your inability (or lack of desire) to overcome whatever negative trait(s) are the source of your difficulties. Now picture yourself responding to the same situation in an entirely different way. It is important to actually visualize these two scenes so that the emotional self, which is moved by imagery, will be as involved as the intellectual self.
2. Ask a critical question: Since the gap between how I would like to respond and how I actually respond is so great, what can I do concretely today to narrow the gap? For example, if I tend to fly off the handle when my plans are ruined by other people’s choices, today I can decide that no matter how upset I am, I won’t raise my voice. Although I have not yet come close to saying only the correct response, or judging people favorably, this is, however a good first step.
3. Be careful to see that the steps are small enough to be comfortably attainable, and big enough to actually generate change.
4. Once you are at home with the first step, be sure to take a second step.
5. Go beyond where you would like to be. For instance, if your problem is anger, aim at serenity, not merely at “not losing my temper.”
There are two advantages to this method. One is that it works, with rare regressions. Secondly, you are working from the “outside in,” which allows you to be less defensive than if you had to confront your devils directly. The “disadvantage” is that, as you can see, this requires a long-term commitment.
Method 3: Turn to God
The third method is radically different than the other two. It is the method recommended most by the Hassidic masters.
Don’t focus on yourself. Don’t chart your behavior. Turn to God directly, openly, passionately, in your own language. Ask Him to free you from the prison you have erected around yourself. Tell Him where you have been, what you have done, and how you now know that you have done great harm to yourself and to others. Tell Him about the times you have tried to change and failed, and how you now acknowledge that He loves you and has given you life, and that only He can help you.
Make this a daily practice in which you include Him in every aspect of your journey.
The last month of the Hebrew calendar, Elul, is called the Month of Compassion and Forgiveness. It is a time when we have more capacity to draw close to the Almighty than any other month of the year. It is a time when we can return. As Rosh Hashana approaches, let us use the time to also approach other people with compassion, and see them in the way that we ourselves would want to be seen by God. Let us ask forgiveness from those whom we have wronged, and by doing this, fill our world with compassion and grace.