The Gates of Repentance
The Twelfth Principle of Teshuva: EXAMINING, KNOWING, AND RECOGNIZING THE
SERIOUSNESS OF EACH SIN
This principle provides us with a unique opportunity to explain our concept
of "spiritual excellence". Simply because it uses terms that are so
off-putting to the modern mind and have us forget the Torah's spiritual
basis. Terms like "the seriousness of each sin" in the title for example, as
well as the idea of suffering "punishment" for our misdeeds.
Most of us reject such terms. We might describe them as somehow Non-Jewish,
Medieval, or a throwback to a different age with different values than our
own. And some might even be so taken aback by them that they reject the
Torah's system of holiness and "spiritual excellence" altogether, G-d forbid.
So allow us this diversion.
Rather than translate Hebrew terms like "onesh" for example as "punishment"
(which is its usual rendition), I translate it as "consequence". And I speak
of "suffering the consequences" of having erred or sinned rather than
enduring punishment for it.
It's a subtle difference, but a vital one, I'm convinced. And I do that for
a number of reasons.
Primarily because it's clear to all of us that everyone enjoys or suffers the
consequences of *everything* he or she does. And that nothing we do goes
My moving a paper clip across a desk has its consequences, to use a silly
example, simply because *as a consequence of having done that* I'd changed
the layout of my desk to some degree, and would have to adjust to that. My
having eaten fruit for lunch has its consequences, simply because that
affects my digestion a certain way, and also because it necessarily implies
that I hadn't eaten protein. And on and on.
The point is that everything we do has its consequences-- petty, grandiose,
or somewhere in between. And that while some of those consequences are benign
or minor, others are serious. My having had *spoiled* fruit for lunch, for
example, would likely lead to indigestion or illness.
The person in pursuit of spiritual excellence would understand that his or
her moral actions also have their consequences. And that those consequences
play themselves out in our soul and in our entire beings.
Simply because I'm no longer the person I once was now that I've done thus
and such. I'm either somewhat besmirched or somewhat blessed-- *as a
consequence of having done it*.
Rabbeinu Yonah's point is that the sensitive soul who's indeed in search of
spiritual excellence would do well to know the consequences of his or her
errors. And would gauge his or her options accordingly.
After all, if I'm bound to lose my appetite for what's expected to be a
delightful and bountiful dinner by having a sandwich late in the afternoon,
I'd forgo the sandwich. The loss-- the "punishment" of having had that
sandwich (i.e., missing out on that dinner)-- would simply be too great. And
it just wouldn't be worth it.
Put spiritually, if the lie I might tell, or the act of petty thievery I
might engage in will separate me from G-d to one degree or another (which it
will), I as a person of spiritual sensitivity would simply not want to endure
that. And I'd either not do it, or I'd do teshuva for having done it in the
past, and thus return to G-d.
I use terms like "consequences" rather than punishment for another reason as
In the course of the years I've been studying, teaching, and writing about
Mussar (the art and science of spiritual excellence) I've come to understand
that while most of us are certainly willing to acknowledge that we're capable
of lowness and meanness, we're likewise aware that we're capable of loftiness
and greatness as well.
The great and holy works of Mussar like our current one, "The Gates of
Repentance", and the ones we hope to get to in the course of our studies
together, like "The Duties of the Heart", "The Path of the Just", and "Eight
Chapters" recognize that dichotomy, too.
Their righteous authors knew only too well the depths and heights of human
reach. But they wrote in eras *far* more attuned to spiritual stature than
our own. And they addressed readers who could claim to know righteous and
holy individuals up close, which few of us today can.
As such, the original readers of these holy works knew what they could
attain-- and knew as well how off the mark they themselves might be in
comparison. So they were less inclined to be uncomfortable with terms like
"punishment" and "the seriousness of sins", simply because they placed them
in a spiritual context, and had living examples from whom to cull.
For unlike many of us, they understood that what matters most is achieving
spiritual excellence and thus drawing close to G-d Almighty. And that is what
they strove for. Were we to make those our goals, we too would understand the
terminology often used in Mussar texts, and we too would want to "examine,
know, and recognize the seriousness of each sin" so as to avoid them.
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