Benjamin Franklin, the American statesman, scientist
and thinker, has acquired a poor reputation in recent years. His downfall
did not come about because of Grand Jury Subpoenas, or Special Investigators,
but from his own account, in his introspective autobiography.
In youth, after rejecting religious strictures, Franklin
borrowed Drydenís line as a motto: "Whatever is -- is right."
Later, he saw the fallacy in this way of thinking. In the autobiography,
he relates and enumerates his errors. Eventually, he was able to establish
a system to scrutinize and develop character, aiming for nothing less than
Tínuas Hamusar relates that Franklinís system was
the source for the Hebrew ethical classic -- Cheshbon Hanefesh -- and,
eventually, Rav Yisrael Salanterís thirteen virtues (Tínuas Hamusar --
"The Mussar Movement," chapter 23).
Isnít it strange? The man, the product of whose soul-searching
went down in history in the Jewish Ethical Movement, has become defamed
in the secular world -- based on nothing other than his own introspection.
Perhaps the explanation is as follows: Many commentators,
based on the Medrash, relate that Teshuva only exists for the Jewish People.
If Teshuva meant repentance, it would be difficult to understand why the
nations of the world cannot repent. Of course, anyone can say that he is
sorry, and sincerely regret his mistakes. When we see that he has changed
his ways, we would forgive him, as well. Teshuva, however, is a phenomenon
in which the errors of the past are eradicated completely. Without the
Torah, past mistakes cannot be totally erased.
Indeed, the world has not forgiven Franklin, even
though the source publicizing his misdeeds is his own account -- the account
in which he attempted to teach the world the logic demanding ethical standards.
If Franklin is not our model of character, his resolve,
analysis of human virtues and moral rejuvenation have shown themselves
to be, indeed, very useful. Even if unable to rid himself of the past --
or perhaps, as a result of a troubled past -- a person can teach others
the need for introspection and examination of character attributes.
Approaching Rosh Hashanah, the month of Elul marks
the end of the year. It is the time most propitious for examining our ways
and fortifying our resolve. Analysis of past mistakes and resolve for improvement,
can elevate those mistakes and turn them into positive lessons. Through
Torah, Teshuva, motivated by love, can eradicate the mistakes of the past
altogether. The energy produced by committing crimes becomes converted
into positive energy -- kedusha, sanctity -- through the mitzva of Teshuva.
Rabbi Yaakov Bernstein
11 Kiryas Radin
Spring Valley, NY 10977
Phone: (914) 362-5156