The Gates of Repentance
We turn to certain intangible issues this time that touch upon our hearts and
souls. These are the sorts of mitzvahs (commandments) that "many people
forget,... or know about but aren't careful about-- simply because they don't
involve actions." They "only" involve our attitudes and inner convictions.
Yet they're the very kind of mitzvahs that the person in search of spiritual
excellence would want to "specialize" in.
Our first is the mitzvah of always keeping G-d in mind, based on the verse
that reads, "Be sure not to forget G-d your L-rd" (Deuteronomy 8:11). But how
are we ever to do *that*? After all, the world and its sorrows and delights
impinges upon our consciousness; and G-d is often the very first to be
There's only one way, Rabbeinu Yonah points out. We're to "embrace the sorts
of practises that would necessarily have us remember Him, like fearing Him,
being demure, ennobling our thoughts, and putting our character in order."
Which is to say that by acting the way one who truly *does* remember G-d all
the time would act, we ourselves will come to remember Him, too
We’re bidden to remember the things we learn in our Torah studies, as it's
said, "Be sure to be very cautious, lest you forget the things your eyes have
seen" (Deuteronomy 4:9) when we all stood at Mount Sinai to receive the
Torah. What that comes to is delving into G-d's message to us deeply and
seriously, the way one would read a long-awaited, but pithy and inscrutable
letter from a friend who’s far, far away.
We’re "never to imagine that our success stems from our righteousness or
virtue". For as it's written, "Do not say to yourself when G-d your L-rd
casts (your enemies) out from before you, 'G-d has brought me in to possess
this land because of my righteousness'" (Deuteronomy 9:4-5). For while indeed
we do have our spiritual successes and triumphs, and do deserve reward for
that-- the truth be known, it's the better part of righteousness to disavow
one's own role in the give-and-take of things, and to just be good for it's
Some people might say something like this on a slow day, I suppose (as
Rabbeinu Yonah depicts it). "I'm going to see now if my being charitable
will convince G-d to make me successful. And I'm going to test out whether
being honest in what I do will bring me a lot of money." But what soul
preoccupied with the glories of a spiritual life would ever say that? The
Torah thus warns us not to "test G-d your L-rd" (Deuteronomy 6:16). As
Rabbeinu Yonah puts it, a "good person would never stop acting out of wisdom,
knowledge, and honesty, or be discouraged if he's not successful at making
money or satisfying his bodily needs."
Sometimes we lapse into dread and fear, and forget G-d's Ever-Presence, His
Omniscience-- and His great plans for our Nation’s salvation. But we're never
to lose heart, and never to despair of the great Redemption. As it's written,
"Should you say in your heart, 'These nations are more numerous than I. How
could I ever dispossess them?' Do not be afraid of them" (Deuteronomy 7
:17-18), "When you go to battle against your enemies, and see horses,
chariots, and a people more numerous than you, do not be afraid of them"
(Ibid. 20:1) and, "Do not fear any man, for judgment is G-d's" (Deuteronomy
The sensitive soul would never let his "heart be lifted up above his
brothers" (Deuteronomy 17:20) in arrogance for his good fortune. "For what
good is having a lot of money and wealth" Rabbeinu Yonah pointedly asks,
"when all your revered splendor is abominable and foul?" If you’re to be
proud of anything, we're taught, you’d do well to be proud of your devotion
to G-d. For "He is your praise, and He is your G-d" (Deuteronomy 10:21) and,
"Let not the sage glory in his wisdom, .... But let him who glories glory in
this: that he understands and knows Me" (Jeremiah 9:22-23).
We're to foster a bold and mighty-enough sense of generosity that we'd
"surely give (to the poor) when asked)" rather than "grieve when (we) give"
(Deuteronomy 15:10). For that would only lessen us. After all, we’re charged
not to "harden (our) heart, or withdraw (our) hand from (our) poor brother"
On the other hand, though-- because even the best of us live in a world of
wrongdoing and maliciousness, we're to look an evil person straight in the
eye and despise him, and to "not pity him, have compassion for him, or
conceal him" (Deuteronomy 13:9). For as our sages put it, "Whoever has
compassion for the cruel will eventually be cruel to the compassionate"
(Yalkut Shmuel 121). Should that take us to the other side, though, and seem
to allow us to have our way against any wrongs done us, we’re told to "not
take revenge or bear a grudge against (our) people" (Leviticus 19:18) and to
"not hate (our) brother in (our) heart" (Leviticus 19:17). In order to
maintain that delicate balance between recognizing evil full-face, and
fending it off from within as well.
And finally, we're told to "keep away from every bad thing" (Deuteronomy
23:10); to "not stray after (our) own hearts, or after (our) own eyes"
(Numbers 15:39); to never "bear a false report" (Exodus 23:1) or "covet (our)
neighbor's house". For the heart that would be insensitive to the
implications of all these things would indeed stumble into spiritual
mediocrity day after day.
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