By Rabbi Michael Strassfeld
The place that those who do teshuvah can attain; --- those who are completely righteous can never attain.
Be-makom she-ba’alei teshuvah omdin ein tzadikkim gemurim ye-kholin l’amode (Tractate Berakhot 34b)
At first glance, this statement seems another example of the rabbis exaggerating to make a point. Could they really mean that someone who has been hurtful to others can reach a more elevated level of holiness than someone who has never strayed from the true path? Isn’t this really a way for the rabbis to encourage people to repent by enabling them to feel that change is both possible and deeply valued?
Or just maybe they meant it. Are there completely righteous people without even a single flaw? Even if they are, do they offer a useful model for us to strive to emulate? After all, Adam and Eve spent only a short time in the perfection of the Garden of Eden before they were exiled into the imperfect world that we know so well. That exile comes about because they exercised choice, without which we could not be fully human. Alternatively, the kabbalistic myth imagines that the world is created by a cosmic shattering that scatters the shards of holiness everywhere. In that myth we begin in exile, never knowing a world of perfection.
The importance of teshuvah is that it offers us the potential to choose goodness over folly. It is why the midrash says that teshuvah was one of the things that God created before the world was created. Without the ability to change, we would rapidly despair about our future. Humans are called to continue the work of God’s creation. To be able to effectively do that, we need to believe in our ability to improve and to change.
It is difficult not to hear the voice that tells us we can’t change or that reminds us of all our New Year resolutions that never make it past even Yom Kippur. The enemy of teshuvah abounds and it lies in wait within each of us. It is the voice of skepticism. It is the voice doubting our sincerity or questioning our motives, the voice that says it is a small violation or that everyone does it, or even that you deserve this more than all those other people who have what you desire. Buddhism teaches that, alongside the enemies of change or goodness, there are qualities called near enemies that are easily confused with good qualities but are actually bad. For example, compassion is a good quality. Indifference is the far enemy of compassion. The near enemy of compassion is pity. At first glance it seems the same as compassion—you care about those in need. However, pity suggests that you are different from the people in need. It comes with an attitude of patronizing superiority. Near enemies are particularly dangerous traps.
The near enemy of teshuvah/change is a sense of perfection. As a near enemy, perfection leads to a sense of futility when trying to change. Setting an impossible goal will surely lead to failure. Teshuvah is about the possible, not the impossible. The truth is we are all people born with imperfections who are then raised by imperfect parents, who themselves were raised by imperfect parents.
There is a traditional short blessing, (borei nefashot), recited after food that is not eaten as part of a meal. One understanding of the blessing is that it recognizes and validates our imperfections. “Blessed are You Adonai. our God source of the universe who creates innumerable beings and their imperfections (ve-hesronan). For all that You have created to enable the life of all beings, we praise You, the giver of life to all existence.” The blessing suggests that imperfections enable us to live in the world. If we were all perfect, the world of human choice and freedom couldn’t exist.
Why can ba’alei teshuvah, those who struggle to change attain a place that those who are completely righteous never can attain? Because the ba’alei teshuvah know of the brokenness of the world from their own experience and are committed to making the world a better place. They are the agents of change in this new year. For like God they know that the world can only change for the better if we move from the seat of judgment to the seat of mercy. In the High Holiday liturgy over and over again we ask God to treat us with compassion. And God asks us to do the same to our fellow human beings and most of all to have compassion on our imperfect selves.
Based on the chapter on Teshuvah from Judaism Disrupted: A Spiritual Manifesto for the 21st Century by Rabbi Michael Strassfeld (Ben Yehuda Press 2013)
Rabbi Michael Strassfeld was one of the editors of the Jewish Catalog (1973) a guide to do-it-yourself Judaism that sold over 300,000 copies. He authored The Jewish Holidays (1985), co-authored A Night of Questions: A Passover Haggadah (1999) with his wife Rabbi Joy Levitt, and authored A Book of Life: Embracing Judaism as a Spiritual Practice (2002). His newest book Judaism Disrupted: A Spiritual Manifesto for the 21st century published by Ben Yehuda Press has been published on the 50th anniversary of the Jewish Catalog. He is the rabbi emeritus of the SAJ (Society for the Advancement of Judaism).