Repentence Out of Love and
Repentence Out of Fear
Yom Kippur, 1994
by Harold M. Schulweis
I remember a passage of rabbinic imagination. Rabbi Yochanan in the Talmud
asserts that God also prays. What does God pray and to whom? "May it be My
will that My mercy may suppress My anger and My mercy may prevail over My other
attributes and that I deal with My children in the attribute of mercy and
beyond the lines of justice." God prays that the quality of love within
Him should prevail over the quality of strict justice and punishment. And what
do we pray? Let's look at the focal point of Yom Kippur liturgy.
No less than ten times during the Day of Atonement, the Ashamnu and Al Chet are
repeated. Ten times we strike the left side of the chest with our right fist,
each time the word "chatanu"
is said. No two persons do it the same way. Some strike the chest with fierce
energy, a sort of self-flagellation. Some do it gently, softly, caressingly.
Behind that body language lies two philosophies. For there are many ways to
deal with sin, transgression, guilt, and the desire for repentance.
There are many layers to explore. Some of the confessions are recited in
public. They are for the sins of society in which we live and take a part. They
are led by the Cantor and repeated by us all: Ashamnu, Bogadnu, Gazalnu, all public, all aloud.
But there are confessionals that are only recited privately during the
silent, meditative prayer. During that time the individual specifies the sins.
These sins must not be recited out loud. They are not for a neighbor to hear.
What does the Al Chet deal with?
Firstly, notice that they do not deal with violations of ritual laws between
man and God. They do not deal with the violation of the Sabbath or dietary laws
or not coming to the Synagogue. Secondly, they deal with matters that are not
subject to litigation. Its not a matter for the courts. There are no witnesses
to be summoned, except one's self.
The Al Chet deals with the inner
life, with the injuries that we do to others and to ourselves beyond the reach
of the law. The Al Chet deals with the life of the emotions. This is
important to stress because there is a stereotypic notion that Judaism is
concerned only with the outward acts, only with deeds. But that is entirely
misleading. No one put it clearer than Maimonides in his Laws of Repentance 7:3:
"Do not say that one needs only
repent of evil deeds such as fornication, violent robbery or theft. He needs to
investigate and repent of evil dispositions that we may have such as hot
temper, jealousy, quarrelsomeness, cynicism, eager pursuit of wealth or honors,
greediness in eating and so on. These attitudes are graver than acts. For when
one is addicted to them it is difficult to give them up. Therefore it is said
in Isaiah 55:7, 'Let the wicked forsake his way and the man of iniquity his
Thoughts are important. What we believe is important. Our inner beliefs
affect our feelings. What we believe affects how we deal with our environment,
with our fears, depressions, loneliness, crises. As the book of Proverbs puts
it "As a man thinketh so he is."
To believe and to know what and why you believe affects the way you handle
On Rosh Hashanah, I referred to the two cultures in our Synagogue, and one
of them is found in the study. Individuals come with problems. They do not come
to me as a lawyer, they do not come to me as a psychologist. I used to think
that the presenting problem, the problem they articulated, was only prima facie, superficially religious,
that they mask their emotional problem with more respectable religious
concerns. But I have come to realize that they intuitively and correctly see a
connection between their image of God and their image of their selves, that
their concern is theological.
They come with heart sickness. Unlike the more sanitized public
confessional, in my study the language is specific, concrete and highly
personal. The language and the problems are filled with hatred, anger,
jealousy, revenge, confessions of betrayal in the world of business and
infidelities at home and genuine feelings of guilt.
It is a different Jew that I encounter in the study. As opposed to the
sanctuary, in the study no one has ever said to me "Rabbi, keep it
short." Here, in the study, no one has ever claimed that he is bored and
no one has ever complained that what we are speaking about is repetitive.
What do they want? Some of those who come are burdened with guilt and ask
for judgment: right or wrong, guilty or innocent. But invariably as the
conversation deepens, it enters into the area of belief. They want Jewish
belief, Jewish wisdom and they want a personal connection, a personal way of
"Rabbi, look at me. I am 54 years of age and I have made a mess of my
life. I am a disappointment to my parents and to my children and to my wife. I
am a failure. I don't like myself. I don't know whether I can start again,
whether I can go back to my wife after the separation. I cannot forgive myself.
But above all I want a breath of sanctity in my life. I want forgiveness. I
want to make repentance."
Now he is here, and this is the Day of Atonement. What does the culture of
the sanctuary, what does Jewish wisdom have to say to him?
I turn to the Talmud Yoma (86b). There we find a discussion that
distinguishes between two ways, two philosophies, two modes of tshuvah -- of turning your life around.
One of them is called tshuvah m'yirah,
repentance out of fear. The other is called tshuvah
m'ahava, repentance out of love.
Fear-repentance we know best. Its fingerprints are all over the Machzor. We
will find it in dozens of prayers. God knows the secrets of the heart. "Thou art acquainted with our sins of
presumption and ignorance. What are we? What is our life? What is our goodness?
What is our righteousness? What is our help? What shall we say before Thee? Are
not the mightiest like naught before Thee and the men of renown as though they
were not?" And then at the end of the Al
Chet the series of transgressions for which we should incur forty lashes,
chastisements, flagellation, untimely death, excision.
And after the litany of confessions, this statement: "Lord, before I
was formed I had no worth and now that I am formed I have no worth. Dust am I
in my life, and even more so in my death. Behold I am before Thee like a vessel
filled with shame and confusion. May it be Thy will, O Lord our God, that I sin
no more and as for the sins I have committed before Thee, purge them away in
Thine abundant mercy but not by means of suffering and affliction.”
"Yes Rabbi. That's exactly the way I feel. I'm filled with shame and
confusion." This is the man who has borne "the dark night of the soul.”
For the sins he has acknowledged he
needs punishment and he fears it. He seeks repentance, an interesting term
which is derived from the Latin "poena,"
which means pain. He must suffer pain to expiate. Expiation is another
interesting term derived from the Latin "piare," to appease. The intent of fear repentance is
punishment for the sake of acquittal. Punishment for the sake of appeasing God.
The goal is to "forgive and forget.” As on Tashlich, cast the sins into the waters,
bury them in the seas. Get rid of the burden. The goal is "kapparah," which is acquittal. And
that term has filtered down into folk psychology in the notion of shlogen kaporres. To place the sins upon
a hen or rooster and to substitute it for your deserving punishment.
When I broke a dish, my bubbe would console me, "Zoll doss sein a kapparah far dir.”
There is a bumper sticker that has captured this idea of expiation. It reads,
"The man who can smile when things are going badly has just thought of
somebody else to blame.”
Fear-repentance in the shul is like my going to traffic school. I confess. I
had to go (it wasn't my fault of course. Who could see the stop sign hidden by
the luxuriant leaves of the trees on Hayvenhurst?) I went not to learn, but to
have the citation expunged from the record, all for the sake of retaining my
insurance premium. So I prayed off my ticket. It was annoying, repetitious,
boring, and I soon forgot about it. That's fear-repentance.
But according to the Jewish tradition, fear-repentance is not the highest
form of tshuvah. The highest form of tshuvah is love-repentance. For love-repentance
can not only lead to the expiation of the transgression, but converts the
transgression into something meritorious. It makes a virtue out of a sin.
How do you repent out of love? You have to respect the image of God in you.
And that includes a certain respect for your sins as well. It is emphasized in
the Kaballah and in Chassidic literature,
and recalled in the philosophy of J. B. Soloveitchik, "However great a
man's transgression may be it cannot ever penetrate the innermost core of his
soul." Whatever the transgression there is an aspect that remains pure,
holy and precious. You must repair the damage, but in the process of repentance
don't destroy the image. Do not supplant the faith in the image of God with a
doctrine of original sin.
Respect the person who has failed, who has injured, who admits culpability.
Again, it is Maimonides in his Laws of Repentance (7:4) who puts it
succinctly: "Let not the penitent
suppose that he is kept afar from the merits attached by the righteous. This is
not so. He is beloved and precious in the eyes of his Creator and his reward is
great. He, the penitent, has tasted sin, renounced it and overcome his evil
passions.” Therefore the sages in the Talmud declare, "In the place where
penitents stand, even the holy righteous cannot stand."
How then do you repent out of love? In respecting yourself, you must include
your sins. Respect, from the root "rescipere,"
means to think again. Do not hastily drown your transgression in oblivion, for
it is too important to be cast aside. Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev suggests a
brilliant homily: "On Rosh Hashanah, on Tashlich, you cast sins into the
waters, but on Sukkoth we sing with the prophet Isaiah 17:3, ‘With joy shall ye
draw waters from the wells of salvation.’" In love repentance you lift up
the net and retrieve the sins that were cast away in fear, and turn them into
song and strength.
The Jewish theology behind this notion is based on the belief that sin is
not devoid of some worth. Poetically, it is described in the Zohar (III 80b).
"When God created the world, light and darkness were wrapped in one
another. Therefore light emerged out of darkness...so too from goodness issues
evil and from mercy issues judgment, and all are intertwined, and good impulse
and the evil impulse."
So search your sins with love to discover the spark buried in the husk.
Moshe Leib of Sassov said, "Where will you find the spark except by
combing through the ashes?"
I surely am not proud of all my dispositions. But in the prayers of my
heart, I know behind so much of my ambition, my drivenness, my anger, my
jealousy, is a yearning to be recognized, to be approved of and to be loved. In
the quiet moments of prayer when I think about my sins I recognize how
desperate is my need to be loved and how twisted my longing for approval has
become because of my frustration.
When I become a filter to the family album we call Torah, I know myself. Why
did the brothers turn against Joseph and seek his death? Because of their
unrequited love for father, Jacob. His favoritism, the coat of many colors,
felt like rejection by their father. They heard too often from him and it hurt
them deeply to hear him say, "Why can't you be like your brother
Joseph?" The evil and good dispositions are intertwined.
And wasn't Esau's hatred against Jacob provoked by father Isaac's first
blessing upon Jacob? He hates Jacob but he issues a plaintiff cry, "Have
you no blessings for me Papa?"
And Cain murdered Abel because his sacrifices, meager as they were, were
rejected by God in favor of the sacrifices of Abel. "Accept my limited
gifts Papa.” And when he thought that he received no respect from the Lord, Cain
rose to slay his brother.
Sift through the ashes of the sin, and you will find it intermingled with
noble motivation, arrested by frustration and stupidity.
What to do with them, with the sins that are foul, that spread a stench over
our lives? Consider the symbol of the katoreth,
the incense of the Day of Atonement. Why should the mixture of the incense to
be burned in the innermost sanctum of the Temple
include galbanum, one of the most odoriferous spice? It is meant to instruct us
that when you take evil and understand it and use it for your growth, then it
may be mixed with the good, and it may be elevated. On the Day of Atonement,
incense mixed with galbanum is burned. On that very day, evil ascends to the
Holy of Holies to be sanctified. So before we even began the Kol Nidre, our
tradition deliberately introduced in the thirteenth century the paragraph, "By the authority of the heavenly court
and this holy congregation we declare it lawful to pray with the sinner."
A public fast where there are no Jewish transgressors to participate is no
fast. “For behold the aromatic odor of the galbanum is unpleasant but it was
included among the fragrant spices of the incense offering." (Keritoth 6b)
Transgression must be recalled and respected. What happened to the broken
tablets of the law which fell from Moses' hands when he descended from the
mountain and beheld the sins of the golden calf? What did they do with the
broken tablets, a reminder of the humiliation and betrayal of the people? Were
these broken tablets buried, blotted out of memory? We are told that the broken
tablets were placed in the Ark of Holiness along with the whole tablets. For
the memory of that stumbling, that transgression gives us a reminder, an
awareness of the temptation of idolatry. The tablets that were broken are holy.
As the Chassidic saying has it, "Nothing is more perfect than a broken
Love repentance is not cheap sentimentality. Love repentance does not say
"forgive and forget.” Love repentance
says "remember and transform.” Love
repentance is based upon wisdom, upon the Jewish reality principle.
Consider the wisdom of love from a legal disputation in the Mishnah of
Gittin (5:5). What is the law if Chayim stole a beam of wood and built it in
the structure of his home and then his theft was discovered?
The house of Shammai says the law is clear. Chayim has to return the beam.
And if the beam has been placed in the structure of his home, let him demolish
his home and restore the stolen property to its owner. And even is he has to
travel to Media, he must do it himself and not send it with an agent, not even
The house of Hillel says let him pay the worth of the beam. He need not
demolish his home. This latter reply of the house of Hillel was adopted and
called by the sages takkanath ha-shavim
-- the repair for the sake of the penitents. It is based upon a Jewish reality
principle. Do not place so severe an obstacle in the way of the penitent that
it will be onerous for him to make restitution. Remember: the goal of
repentance is to change the heart and transform the person, not to humiliate
The reality principle of Judaism which is essential to the understanding of
Judaism itself aims for balance. In the matter of dealing with your
transgression, the belief that you are created in God's image must be balanced
with the admonition, "you are not God.” Consider the meaning of this dialectic. There
are two apparently contradictory views of the self both of which block
transformation of the self. One is under evaluation of the self and the other
is over evaluation of the self.
We have heard the voice of the under evaluated self. "I am nothing but
dust. I am worthless." But there is another side of the self which is
engaged in over evaluation that is equally harmful. On the surface of things he
appears to be full of conceit, pride, and arrogance. But after speaking with
him and with so many people, it is clear that he has been afflicted by a
blessing turned into a curse. It is perfectionism and it haunts our lives and
turns us into well-meaning masochists. Perfectionism is a great obstacle before
change and repentance.
Where does perfectionism come from? Does it perhaps come from parents who,
well intended, raised us to believe, "You can do anything you want to do"
? Or, "If you set your heart upon it there is nothing that you cannot
accomplish. There is nothing that you cannot be…" ?
I hear them in the study. It is well meaning in its intent, but over and
again we have heard how it's internalized voice insists, "You must excel.
You must surpass all others. Thou shalt not fail." The voice that would
motivate us insists, "I will accept nothing less than excellent" and is
translated into a threat. "If you are less than excellent, you are not
acceptable." "If you are not on the Dean's list, if you don't get
into that college, if you don't succeed in your business or in your career or
in your marriage, you will lose your lovability.
That is the dybbuk that haunts so many people. That benign motivation
translates into fear. Perfection is driven by fear – fear of failure, fear of disappointing others,
fear of disapproval, fear of withdrawal. The greatest terror of perfection is
being ordinary, of being average.
Perfectionism spawns a spider's web of "all or nothing" thinking
over our life. "All or nothing" –I am genius or moron, I am success
or failure, I am accepted or rejected. For the perfectionist there is no middle
ground, there is no compromise. The exalted standard of perfection is frozen
into hardness, into unforgiving, stubborn commitment. The perfectionist cannot
admit fault or error. Admission of imperfection is to him failure and failure
means rejection. The trail of the serpent perfectionist is over all our lives.
Why is it so hard to say "I'm sorry"? Because perfectionism sees
it as a confession of weakness. And weakness is a sign of imperfection, and
imperfection will be punished by abandonment and rejection.
Perfectionism on everybody, not less on yourself. Perfectionism inadvertently
turns into cruelty. Perfectionists have a difficult time to forgive others or
themselves. Maimonides, in his Laws of Repentance 2:10, says, "It is forbidden to be cruel
and not allow yourself to be appeased." Do not bear a grudge against
"What a man thinks, he is." Judaism's reality principle here
demonstrated on the Day of Atonement offers deep insight. It helps us
understand that we all fail, that we are all flawed, that we are all blemished,
that there is no one who has walked the face of this earth who having done good
has not transgressed.
That wisdom is expressed in Jewish philosophy. The religious, metaphysical
critique of perfectionism is based upon Jewish insight expressed in a Midrash
Genesis Rabbah 11:6, "Nothing is created perfect. Whatever was created on
the first six days requires preparation. The mustard seed needs to be
sweetened, the wheat needs to be ground, the lupine needs to be soaked and man
needs to be repaired."
Nowhere in the whole of the Bible or in the Talmud does it say "be
perfect.” To the contrary, the myth of
Adam and Eve banished out of the Garden of Eden, the garden of perfection, is
to instruct us that we are not perfect and that the environment which surrounds
us is not perfect. But the rabbis add that when Adam and Eve were banished from
the Garden they were given hope and power. They were given repentance.
Repentance out of love means then acceptance of imperfection. We are, all of
us, able to become better, but we are never able to become perfect. On the Day
of Atonement, the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies, fell upon his hands
and knees and cried out, "I have sinned. I have transgressed. I have
That is the reality principle of Judaism to establish a delicate balance in
our lives: "I am created in the image of God" and "I am not God.”
I am a finite being with talents to
dream of infinity. I am a mortal being with a capacity to yearn for
immortality. I am an imperfect being who can imagine perfection.
So, we are asked not to bury the sin and not to be dominated by the sin. We
are asked to resurrect from the watery graves of oblivion the injuries we have
done to others and ourselves and use them to raise us up. So, the highest form
of tshuvah is that of love. To accept
your imperfection with loving repentance is to recreate yourself.
There are two ways at least of seeking tshuvah,
out of fear or out of love; but the greater way is repentance out of love. I
ask of you to consider that you beat your chest not to punish it but to do it
softly in order to redeem your heart and to remember with love. Our goal is not
to wipe the slate clean but to turn another leaf. I end with the sermon that
was preached by the Rabbi of Ger. "What would you? Rake the muck this way,
rake the muck that way. It will always be muck. Have I sinned or have I not
sinned? What does heaven get out of it? In the time I am brooding over it, I
could be stringing pearls for the delight of heaven."
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