Who Are We?
Chapter 7, Law 3
"Do not say that teshuva (repentance) is only for sins which involve
doing an action, such as adultery, theft, or burglary. [Rather,] just as a
person must repent these, so too he must examine his bad qualities and
repent over them, [such as] from anger, hatred, jealousy, rivalry, mockery,
greed (lit., 'chasing after wealth'), honor-seeking, gluttony (lit.,
'running after foods'), and the like. From all these one must repent. And
these sins are more difficult [to repent from] than ones which involve an
action, for when a person becomes deeply immersed in such it becomes
difficult to dissociate [from them]. So too does it state, 'Let the wicked
one forsake his way and the man of iniquity his thoughts' (Isaiah 55:7)."
In the last class, we introduced this chapter of the Rambam. We asked why
the Rambam appears to re-introduce man's obligation to repent -- although
that had basically been the subject of his entire work. As we explained, the
Rambam here discusses repentance from an entirely different perspective. Now
that he has established the concept of man's free will, teshuva assumes an
entirely higher dimension.
In the earlier part of his work, the Rambam presented teshuva basically as
an obligation to G-d: We wronged Him and we must make it up to Him. The same
G-d who told us not to sin to Him in the first place now demands that we
come back to apologize. We must humbly and contritely make our amends.
Now, however, repentance can be viewed as our own path towards
self-fulfillment. When we sin we get out of touch with our true inner
selves. We act in ways which we know deep down are not how we really want to
be. We feel wasted, upset with ourselves, as failures in life. But free will
teaches us that we are not bound by our mistakes. We are free not only to
choose our actions, but to dissociate ourselves from our outer, corrupted
selves. Free will is an enormously empowering feeling, the sense that we can
toss it all away -- in an instant -- and truly be ourselves.
This law clearly follows the same theme. Teshuva on this level is not
limited to repenting our specific past mistakes. Of course every wrong deed
will have to be accounted for sooner or later. But we are really dealing
with a much more profound issue: who we are as people. Are we the outer
front we put on for others -- our corny acts and routines, the affected
image we project to the world? Or are we our true inner selves -- which want
nothing other than goodness and closeness to G-d? And this is not a matter
of the precise actions we did, but whom we really are as people, which
aspect of our psyches we identify with.
Thus, the Rambam points out here that the issue is really one of our
characters. What kind of people are we actually? Of course we basically are
the sum total of our actions. That is true, but the question here goes
deeper. The repentance of Chapter 7 relates to our basic personality type,
our basic self-definition, more than the specifics of our behavior. And
again, though retraining our actions may take a lifetime to master, how we
see ourselves is something we can really correct right away.
This also explains why the Rambam focuses on death in this chapter. In Law
2, the Rambam advised us to imagine we may die at any time, and so we must
repent before it is too late. Why not repent simply because it's the right
thing to do? Why must we have the macabre image of death hovering over us to
get us to do what we anyway should be doing in our lifetimes?
The answer is that teshuva on this level focuses on whom we are as people
more than the specific actions we have done. And when we think about it,
this is really who we will be after we die. After we die, we will be souls
without bodies. None of the things which interested or excited our bodies
during our lifetimes will mean anything to us then. All we will be left with
is our *selves* -- the sum total of what we have made ourselves during our
lifetimes. Were we angry, impatient people? Were we petty and self-centered?
Was all we cared our popularity, our ability to come up with that good
comeback? Did we care only about ourselves, or did we develop a sensitivity
to others around us? After we pass on, we will be *us*, for better or worse.
It's true, we will also undergo purgatory for the specific sins we have
done. But who *we* will be really depends on our characters.
And this is precisely what our World to Come will be based on. The Talmud
(Brachos 17a) describes the World to Come as follows:
"The World to Come has no eating, drinking, reproduction, commerce,
jealousy, hatred, or rivalry. Rather, the righteous sit with their crowns on
their head, enjoying the shine of the Divine Presence, as it says 'And they
saw the L-rd, and they ate and drank' (Exodus 24:11)."
Thus, in a word the World to Come is not pleasure or enjoyment per se. We
will not just be sitting back enjoying an infinitely large banana-split or
chewing on an infinitely long Twizzler. Rather, the World to Come is one
thing only -- closeness to G-d. The righteous will be enjoying the shine of
the Divine Presence (Shechina). And only someone sufficiently righteous will
be able to achieve that closeness.
More accurately, in the World to Come we will be having a relationship with
G-d in Heaven. We will sit right before Him, enjoying that closeness. And as
with all relationships, it really depends on how much the two parties have
in common. If our inner souls are all jealousy, anger or hedonism, there is
no way we could have a relationship with a perfect G-d in the World to Come.
How can we be "close" to a Being we have nothing in common with? We might
not even *want* to be close to Him if all we cared about was our ball team's
record or the latest high-tech gizmo to come out. And all of this might be
in spite of mountains and mountains of mitzvos (commandments) such a person
fulfilled in his lifetime.
Ultimately, our World to Come is not based on a bunch of actions -- even if
they happen to be "good deeds." It depends on who *we* were. Did our mitzvos
change us? Did they transform us into spiritual people who can appreciate
G-d's values? Or did we live for ourselves, merely being careful to keep
within the parameters of Torah law? If the former, we can approach G-d's
Presence. We and G-d will have a lot we can share. And the resulting
communion will be the ultimate bliss. If the latter, we may have technically
done many good deeds, but we will not be truly spiritual people. And there
will be no place for us in G-d's domain.
The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 3b-4a) writes as follows: "There is no Hell
(Gehenna) in the days to come. Rather, the Holy One, blessed be He, will
remove the sun from its sheath and cause it to pierce through. The wicked
will be judged by it and the righteous will be healed by it." The Talmud
then proceeds to quote Malachi 3:19-20 which describes the sun as both a
fiery furnace consuming the wicked and a balmy source of warmth, bringing
healing to the righteous.
The implication, as my teacher R. Yochanan Zweig (www.talmudicu.edu &
www.torah.org/learning/rabbizweig) explained, is that at least this opinion
in the Talmud holds there is no Purgatory per se. There is the exact same
World to Come for us all. We will simply be brought before G-d's Presence.
For those of us who spent their lifetimes preparing for it, such an
encounter will be the ultimate rapture. We made ourselves into people who
could relate to G-d. And after our deaths we will return to our Maker and
enjoy the fruits of our efforts in man's Ultimate Pleasure.
For those, however, whose lives were devoid of spirituality, it will be
absolute torture. They will spend an eternity before a G-d they cannot
handle, whom they never conditioned themselves to connect to. And they will
burn. This is only in part because they will become paralyzed by the intense
reality of G-d's presence. A major part of it will be their mortification in
the knowledge that they failed in life, that they never fulfilled the
mission they were sent to earth to accomplish. They will stand before G-d
with all their faults revealed. And that in itself -- more than any sort of
physical pain -- will be the most agonizing torture imaginable.
This again is why the Rambam invokes the notion of our deaths to obligate us
in repentance. Teshuva is not just about fixing our mistakes. It's about
figuring out who *we* are, what really is inside us. And that is precisely
who we will be when our souls at last depart their bodies. We will be the
sum total of our *selves*. What kind of people are we actually? That is a
question we ask ourselves very rarely. Yet everything rides on the Ultimate
Text Copyright © 2012 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org