"How lofty is teshuva (repentance). Yesterday this one was separated from
the L-rd, G-d of Israel, as it is stated, '...your sins had separated
between you and your G-d' (Isaiah 59:2). He would cry and not be answered,
as it is stated, 'Even when you increase prayer I do not hear' (ibid.,
1:15). He would do good deeds and they would tear them up before him, as it
is stated, 'Who asked for this from your hands, to trample My [Temple]
courtyard?' (1:12) ''Oh that there would be one among you who would close
the [Temple's] doors and not light up My altar for naught. I have no desire
for you,' says the L-rd of hosts, 'and an offering I will not be pleased
with from your hands' (Malachi 1:10). 'Your burnt offerings add to your
peace offerings and eat meat' (Jeremiah 7:21; meaning, rather than offering
burnt offerings which are burnt entirely, offer them as peace offerings so
you can eat most of them. In other words, G-d doesn't care for them anyway
so you might as well at least eat the meat.)
"Today, however, [the same person] cleaves to the Divine Presence, as it is
stated, 'And you, who cleave to the L-rd your G-d [are all alive today]'
(Deuteronomy 4:4). He cries out and is answered immediately, as it is
stated, 'And it will be before they call out I shall answer' (Isaiah 65:24).
He does good deeds and they accept them gently and joyfully, as it is
stated, 'for G-d has already accepted your deeds' (Koheles / Ecclesiastes
9:7). And not only that, but they (viz., the angels of the heavenly court)
desire them, as it is stated, 'And it will be pleasing to G-d the offerings
of Judah and Jerusalem, as in the days of old and as the earlier years'
This week's law builds on a theme we've spent some time discussing already,
yet one so significant it deserves further mention. Teshuva (repentance) at
its core is really a very fast process. A person can transform himself from
being despised by G-d to being beloved by Him in the course of a single day.
Yesterday, the Rambam writes, G-d hated everything about you. Even the
little bit of good you do He'll tear up in your face. G-d has no interest in
the "good deeds" of someone He basic can't stand. They're more an affront
than an appeasement. If someone's behavior 99% of the day makes it evidently
clear he doesn't care a fig for G-d, G-d will hardly be interested in the
few good deeds he does. "What, you think you're going to *bribe* Me? You're
going to buy some pardons, do a few nice acts which you know every bit as
well as I are no indication you give a damn about Me?"
It is true that G-d's justice is absolute and our every act is rewarded or
punished appropriately. Even the mitzvos (good deeds) of an unrepentant
sinner will be rewarded on some level. But there's reward and there's
reward. G-d will most likely pay back such a person in this world only --
the only world he seemed to care about. And further, G-d will most certainly
not present such a person with opportunities to perform mitzvos. In the
verses the Rambam quoted, G-d told the sinful outright that He does not so
much as want their mitzvos. Don't waste your time. The needy won't find his
door, opportunities will not knock, and the few good deeds such a person
does do will be begrudgingly rewarded on the physical plane alone.
As the Rambam continues, however, such a person can transform himself
quickly, almost immediately. How so? Simply by finding out whom he really
is. If we look deeply enough inside ourselves, we will find that our true
essence is a beautiful soul -- which wants nothing other than spirituality
and closeness to G-d. Teshuva at its core is simply becoming in touch with
our inner selves, discovering and identifying with whom we truly are.
And once we do this, our relationship with G-d will likewise change. If I
know about myself that I'm someone who cares about G-d, who wants to do
what's right, and who wants to make amends for my past mistakes, G-d will
adore me. I will be His precious servant. He will anxiously await my every
good deed. He will root for me and gently give me opportunities to improve.
If I want a relationship with G-d, He will be there for me -- instantly. But
as always, it depends on me and only me to take that first critical step.
All of this raises a very basic question. Doesn't G-d love us all? Is it
really true that G-d despises a person who is a sinner and detests even his
good deeds? But don't we all possess precious souls? Doesn't the Mishna
state, "Beloved is man for he is created in the image of G-d" (Pirkei Avos
Talmud likewise states that when the Egyptians were drowning in the Red Sea
the angels wanted to sing their daily praises and G-d quieted them: "The
works of My hand are drowning in the sea, and you are singing song before
Me?!" (Sanhedrin 39b). G-d did not rejoice even when His worst enemies were
meeting their well-deserved fate.
Along the same lines, there are just mounds upon mounds of verses we can
quote. Psalms 145:9: "G-d is good to all, and His mercy is on all His
works." Malachi 1:2: "I have loved them, says the L-rd." Jeremiah 31:2:
"With an everlasting love I have loved them." I could spend the rest of this
class doing nothing other than quoting more such verses -- as well as
basically the entire Song of Songs. Most of what Scripture and the Sages
tell us about G-d is that He has an eternal, unremitting love for Israel
even at times when our behavior badly lapses. I'll top this off with a quote
I've heard in the name of a great Chassidic Rebbe -- I can't recall which
one (I actually usually can't) -- who wished he could have as much love for
the greatest saint as G-d has for the most vile sinner. If so, how are we to
understand G-d's "hatred" of the sinners? Is it to be taken literally?
The answer is that G-d does not hate any of us per se. Our default position
is to be loved by G-d, whether we are perfect or far from it. What G-d does
do, however, is react to how we view ourselves. If we see ourselves as good
people -- if we become in tune with our inner souls -- then G-d will love us
in kind. We are precious souls which have much in common with our G-d --
even if we have many faults we must atone for.
If, however, we identify with our outer selves and do not see ourselves as
the good souls we are -- or really as souls at all, G-d will see us
likewise. G-d gets His cues from our own self-perception. If we ignore our
souls, then we're a bunch of smart animals, of homo sapiens. And why
*should* G-d love us? What makes us stand apart from the rest of creation?
Our greater intelligence? Our higher IQ's? At most such a person will merit
Psalms 145:9 which we quoted above -- "and His mercy is on all His works" --
although even that is a discussion among the commentators because a sinner
is inferior to a hound which does no sins. But the closeness of being a
precious soul in the image of G-d? That is reserved for those who recognize
themselves as precious souls to begin with.
This principle is not only the key to understanding repentance but to
understanding G-d's relationship with mankind altogether. G-d's relationship
with us depends far more on our own self-perception than on our deeds. We
can sin, but so long as we still see ourselves as precious souls -- just
ones which have slipped -- G-d will still love us. R. Berel Wein uses the
example of King David to illustrate. David sinned grievously to G-d with
Bathsheba (see II Samuel 11). Although the Talmud (Shabbos 56a) makes it
clear that technically David did not sin -- as it was standard practice then
and since for Jewish soldiers to divorce their wives before departing for
war lest they disappear in battle, David's act was far beneath him. Yet you
can sin and still be close to G-d -- so long as your perception is not
harmed. If you see yourself as the soul you really are, your relationship
can be as strong as ever. Repenting to G-d you must certainly do, but a
relationship with Him you can have as soon as you are ready. It is usually
we who stand in the way of that -- not G-d.
Needless to say, there is certainly a limit to this. If a person sins all
the time, he cannot honestly claim he still sees himself as a soul, and that
he really feels close to G-d on the inside. If such a person really were a
soul, he certainly listens to his body a heck of a lot of the time. There is
only so long such a charade can go on. At a point, your actions speak louder
than your words, and G-d will not be swayed by your imagined closeness to Him.
The flip side of this is equally significant. Say a person does virtually no
sins. He grew up in the right circles and scrupulously adheres to his
strictly religious upbringing. Such a person may have no sins separating
behind him and G-d -- no Bathsheba-type barrier he most surmount. Yet that
is no assurance of closeness to G-d. If you do everything right but do it
out of a sense of religious obligation, peer pressure, nostalgia, or any
other external reason, not even thinking of the G-d who commanded it, it is
hardly an expression of your closeness to G-d. G-d may have nothing
*against* you, so to speak -- it's not that you did anything wrong, but will
G-d see you as His precious and beloved servant? It's hard to believe.
I will close by restating this week's message in a slightly different way.
Our relationship with G-d is almost exclusively in our own hands. It does
not depends on our actions or our track record -- although of course a G-d
of absolute justice is not going to simply gloss over our faults either.
Rather, it depends on our attitude, on how we see ourselves. If we identify
with our souls, if we know in our hearts that we are people who want
closeness to G-d, He will be there for us, faults or not. If we want Him, He
will respond. If, however, we do not make G-d a part of our lives, He too
will respond in kind -- regardless of how good or bad our actions happen to
be. For as so many things in life, our very relationship with G-d is in our
own hands. G-d loves us and is waiting for us. But it's our souls He loves.
And only we can determine if our souls are whom we truly are.