Jewish tradition is not about perfection. We believe in the continual effort toward improvement, with recognition that we will never get to that state of complete purity. Even the Hebrew word het, or sin, means to “miss the mark.”
I love to shoot archery – traditional recurve archery without sights or other aids in targeting. When I went to my first lesson my instructor, Mike, told me that if my goal was to hit a bullseye then I was in the wrong sport. Even the best archers miss a shot now and then. Not to mention the beginning student. At first I was unconvinced. But, with a clearer understanding of the sport I understand now what he taught me at that first meeting. Perfection is the goal, not the expected outcome. But, if we believe that we can hit a particular spot with a small grouping in a round of archery, then we can adjust in future rounds to move that grouping toward a desired location. The same is true of teshuvah. If we understand where we are, we can then seek to change.
To believe that a particular characteristic has become part of our personality is to give up the high ground that change is possible. Surely, if you believe that you cannot change, then you will not change. However, if you go through the process of teshuvah and commit to trying to make different choices, then you can ask for forgiveness in good conscious. Whether realistic or not, the question is not whether we are able to change, but whether we commit ourselves to making an effort.
Yours is a very honest and pertinent question. Put another way, how can we ask God for forgiveness of sins that we are about to commit again?
In truth, it is ridiculous to ask this of God, as ridiculous as asking forgiveness from a friend whom we just cheated, and are already planning to do so again.
But there are two words in your question that are critical. These are the words - "probably unrealistic." What is "probably unrealistic" is still nevertheless possible. Once we are aware of our failing, as you seem to suggest in your question, we are at a very advanced stage of maturity. We can take an honest, detached look at ourselves.
We can, and should then ask ourselves the basic question - why am I committing this sin? And what stands in the way of my rejecting it, and renouncing it?
The focus on that question is more important than asking God for forgiveness, because that launches the critical process of repentance. The process is not easy, but once we are serious about it, we are on the way.
Then, we can approach God with the following - I am doing my best, trying to erase the demons. Please help me.
As we approach the Yamim Noraim or Days of Awe, we begin to engage in the difficult process of teshuvah ,literally return, where we attempt to change our ways and seek forgiveness for the New Year. This process is all the more complicated by the fact that we can begin to see our sins as defining who we are. Are we liars? Or people who told one lie? Are we gossips? Or did we share just a tale (or two) that we should not have?
In my opinion, the go-to source for an organized process of teshuvah has always been the Laws of Teshuvah section of the Mishneh Torah by Maimonides. Here, Maimonides catalogues the steps one must take in order to have an effective teshuvah process. While not directly, I think he addresses the question.
In the second chapter of the Laws of Teshuvah Maimonides writes; “What does teshuvah consist of? That the transgressor ceases to do the transgression… and make up his mind to never do it again..also that he regrets doing it…” It seems here in the case of our question that the transgressor does not think that they can refrain from this act, what then?
Maimonides takes a harsh position on this matter, I will present it, but ask that you keep reading to see how we can work with it. Maimonides writes; “One who confesses but does not make up his mind to stop doing that which he confessed, what is it like? Like one who immerses in the ritual bath while holding an unclean reptile—the immersion will do him no good until he releases the reptile.” That is to say, if we want to be forgiven for our sins, we first must let go of them and commit to refraining from them.
This is quite difficult then, if we both, seek forgiveness, and cannot imagine escaping our sinful ways. Apart from Jewish law on this matter, I think that if a person sees their transgressions or sins as fixed parts of their personalities, then it may be time for a more serious intervention. Finding a mental health professional, who can help this person address their challenges, would to my mind be its own form of teshuvah, or at least a vital first step.
This reminds me of when I taught this section of Maimonides to a class of college students. One wise student pointed out, that to him it seemed, there was a great parallel to be made between the steps of teshuvah articulated by Maimonides, and the Twelve Step recovery process used to address addiction. In that sense we are all in a state of recovery from sin, we are sinners always, by virtue of the fact that we are human, but we can do better by looking to God and finding support in our community. Maimonides writes; “ What is complete Teshuvah? This is when one has the opportunity to commit a transgression s/he committed before, but refrains from committing it.” In that sense our teshuvah is never quite complete; we will be tested throughout our lives. However, if we are trying and working on avoiding our temptations, we can still find ourselves forgiven. Even though we don’t know if we will live up to our best hopes for ourselves in the coming year, God on Yom Kippur finds a way to forgive us in advance.
Bad practice (sin) is part of everyone’s personality. Judaism teaches that we have two tendencies within us; a yetzer tov (inclination to do good) and a yetzer ha-rah (the inclination to do bad or towards selfishness). We understand that these two are at war with one another and we strive to do more of the first and less of the second.
Not doing bad is simple but not easy. Eating right and exercise is a good example. We know what to do and how to do it. Simple, yes? Ahh, but the actual doing is the trick. Not easy at all. So too with changing those parts of our personality and character that we know we should change. We strive, with the help of our best intentions, friends, family and Hashem to change knowing that it is not easy.
In moments like this, I ask Hashem for forgiveness for my sins and for the strength and resolve to change my ways. I understand that God is both just and merciful and will judge me as to the balance of my sins and merits. We Jews don’t believe in a “state of sin,” only in individual actions that are measured against our good deeds.
We are human and we can change. The Israelites leaving Egypt did not take 40 years to reach the Promised Land – they only took two years. But because of their lack of confidence in God and in themselves – because they only listened to the negative report of the spies (see Numbers 13 & 14) – because they couldn’t or wouldn’t change their personalities, they were condemned to spend their entire lives at the edge of their promised land.
Hashem begs us to have the faith, courage and confidence to make the changes in our lives to take the steps to go to that promised land where we live as our best selves. May the Holy One strengthen us in this simple but difficult journey.
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