By Rabbi Daniel Bortz
In 1985, The Aleph Institute, serving the needs of Jewish inmates in prison, was granted permission to bring inmates for a Shabbat program. Director Rabbi Shalom Ber Lipskar brought them to Brooklyn to experience a “Farbrengen” – Hassidic gathering of songs and talks led by the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
Sensitive that they may be questioned and embarrassed in some way, the Rebbe asked that they split up into small groups around the room. Now this was after Shavuot with lots of visiting Rabbis in attendance. Thus, the Rebbe focused his talk on how some Rabbis may tend to rest on their laurels and not review their studies, and admonished those that aren’t constantly growing and learning. He went so far as to demand that they receive Rabbinical ordination again on their original studies.
Then in the middle of the talk, he suddenly shifted his focus to inmates in jail. He described how a soul descends into a body and feels like its imprisoned by physical desires. And then when that body is in an actual prison, it’s in a doubled exile. Yet, an inmate is only in such a position because he or she is being entrusted with a special mission there to shine light in such a dark place and find the good there too. The prisoners voiced their wonder to Rabbi Lipskar: “Your Rebbe admonishes your leaders and praises us!”
As we approach the “10 Days of Repentance” from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur, from Sept. 18 – 28, this story can teach us how to view “Teshuva” – Repentance, or more accurately, Return – to your true self and path.
On one hand, we must know that we are essentially perfect. Unlike the idea of “Original Sin,” we look at our souls as pure and perfect, regardless of our deeds. Like the way thee Rebbe viewed these inmates, we are like a diamond covered in some dirt. All that’s needed is one true moment, a pure desire to be connected to G-d and live as good a life as we possibly can, to shake off the dust – like a rooster powerfully shaking its feathers free of all dirt. A moment of sincere regret and a desire to live right can move worlds.
But on the other hand, like the Rebbe’s talk to the Rabbis in the room, we shouldn’t ever be spiritually satisfied and complacent. Teshuva isn’t only a one-time thing – it’s a way of life. It’s a state of being. For ultimately, we are not human beings, we are human becomings, constantly moving upward closer to our highest source potential.
The Sages ask a fundamental question: How can we even be able to do Teshuva? If Torah, Mitzvot, and an ethical life stem from G-d’s Infinite will and wisdom, how can mere mortals mess that up and then have it all be good through a simple change of heart? The answer is, that we are rooted deeper within G-d than the Torah. A King may demand certain things of his prince and princess in order that they grow to their greatest potential, but if they mess up, as much as it hurts the King, they can be forgiven because they are rooted higher within the King than even His desires and wishes.
Let’s always remember the power of one moment of good, while never being satisfied with all the good we’ve done. Wishing you a good and sweet new year, materially and spiritually!