A mother of six recently came to visit me in my capacity as a parenting counselor. “Five of them,” she said, “are perfect.” They behave well, are calm and orderly, listen to parents and teachers, and achieve good grades in school. “But Esti,” she continued, “Esti is something else.”
Esti, it turns out, is a young teenager who is less organized, less calm, and less accepting of authority. She likes to test borders and stretch boundaries, gets her mother called into school more times than the other kids combined, and is generally a major headache for concerned parents. Due to her unusual behavior, she was sent (at the age of eleven) for diagnosis by a child specialist (a psychiatrist and psychotherapist). The specialist, to her credit, found nothing unusual about the child, certainly not to the degree that warrants drug treatment, and wished her parents much success. Success has been elusive, and, following a recommendation, she found her way to my living room.
I patiently heard the mother’s monologue, listened to the melody of her words, and pretty quickly realized that the problem does not lie with Esti. Not for the first time—the issue I am about to describe is all too common—I gently shifted the conversation from daughter to mother.
Real life has its own ways. It possesses great beauty, to be sure, but also no few moles and blemishes, and it is absolutely not the same as the picture we revel in imagining
Like many parents, my guest had developed a specific mental image of family and home, and Esti was anomalous: she just didn’t fit into the picture. For this reason, her mother found it necessary to “fix” Esti, to shape and re-engineer her so that she blends harmoniously into the idyllic reality to which her parents aspire.
We quickly found ourselves discussing her willingness to come to terms with the fact that reality is never a perfect reflection of the image we have in our minds. Real life has its own ways. It possesses great beauty, to be sure, but also no few moles and blemishes, and it is absolutely not the same as the picture we revel in imagining. Reality includes Esti. If you want to nurture and educate her, I told the mother, you must first learn to accept her—to accept her as she is.
In our everyday life, we meet a broad range of people who do not identify with their reality: with their relationships, their workplace, their country, and so on. The systems of their lives suffer from flaws, sometimes serious ones—like most of the systems that exist in our world—and these flaws generate a feeling of foreignness and lack of identification, sometimes reaching a point at which the flawed reality is simply not perceived as being “theirs.”
In these cases, the reaction may be a true disconnect from reality. Instead of accepting the reality of their lives and trying to get the most out of it, they simply try to replace it with another, alternative reality. On the emotional level, this disconnect can be manifest in resignation and despair: “this is just how it is,” “this is what I was predestined for,” “this is a consequence of a previous incarnation,” and the like. The result is a regressive deterioration process that may also lead to clinical depression and self-hatred. On the physical level, the disconnect can include severing the connection with the existing reality—divorce, quitting the job, moving away, and so on—in the hope of a better future reality. It is not possible to initiate a process of repair and improvement when the object of the process—the defective product we call life—does not belong to me.
The systems of their lives suffer from flaws, sometimes serious ones—like most of the systems that exist in our world—and these flaws generate a feeling of foreignness and lack of identification, sometimes reaching a point at which the flawed reality is simply not perceived as being “theirs.”
By contrast, when we identify with the reality of our lives—my relationships, my children, my community—then we can suddenly find the good in it. I should emphasize that this acceptance is not a simple, passive acceptance. Rather, it forms the foundation for a positive process of growth. Only when we identify with the reality of our lives can we begin to take responsibility for it and start to improve it, instead of erring on the side of vain imaginings of replacing it with a fictional reality.
In English, we even have a catchy expression for the idea I am describing: “to own your life.” In my opinion, one of the most basic principles in life is to “take ownership” of our lives and our reality, to make the world “ours.” Apart from many consequences for our daily lives, I believe this has special meaning for the labor of teshuvah.
Making the World “Ours”
How do we identify with our world? How does reality become “ours”? I would like to open this issue from a perspective of optimism or, as I will explain later, with “a good heart.”
“Optimism is normal, but some fortunate people are more optimistic than the rest of us.” Thus wrote Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, and continued: “If you are genetically endowed with an optimistic bias, you hardly need to be told that you are a lucky person—you already feel fortunate. […] “If you were allowed one wish for your child, seriously consider wishing him or her optimism.”
Optimism, indeed, is an important element in a good life. It spurs us to action, encourages us to take calculated risks, and allows progress without stipulating the destruction of the current version. Of course, optimism is not just a genetic trait, one that a person inherits from his or her ancestors. Along with a genetic predisposition, it is definitely an acquired perspective that a person can choose to adopt.
This principle is emphasized in a comment by Rabbi Yitzchak Shlomo Zilberman’s on the Mishnah in Avos, in which R. Yochanan ben Zakai describes the praise of his students and calls R. Elazar ben Aruch “an ever-strengthening fountain” (Avos 2:8). In the next Mishnah, R. Yohanan ben Zakai asked his students to determine the “just path a person should adhere to,” to which R. Elazar ben Arach’s response was “a good heart.” R. Yochanan b. Zakai concluded his words by favoring R. Elazar’s response over the alternative qualities mentioned by his disciples, “for his words include yours.”
But what is a “good heart”? Today, we might be tempted to translate this as care and compassion, in line with the common usage for “good-hearted” people. Yet, in the Torah and the writings of the Sages, the heart does not necessarily refer to our emotional center but to basic human consciousness. So what makes a heart “good”? Rabbi Zilberman explained that there is a connection between the quality of a “good heart” and the disposition of “an ever-strengthening fountain.” A “good heart” refers to optimism. An optimistic person, somebody whose heart—the center of his being, his inner core—focuses on the good in the world and knows it can be augmented and strengthened, can become “an ever-strengthening fountain.”
On the one hand, choosing a path of optimism involves faith in God. Absent faith, and without the magical genes that Kahneman mentions, the optimism shelf can seem way out of reach. As the Ramchal emphasizes (in his “Treatise on Hope”), a condition for every beginning or initiation is hope—without hope, why would anybody start something new?—and true hope, he continues, inheres in Emunah. Beyond this, however, optimism involves recognizing that the reality of our lives—our home, our children, our community—is fully “ours.” This, too, depends on Emunah: trust in Hashem implies that our lives, problems and all, are, indeed, ours. They are exactly the lives we need to be living.
The optimistic person understands that the imperfection of his or her reality does not mean it is flawed; It is human, imperfect. Since it belongs to me, I can recognize the good in my imperfect reality, seek to strengthen and augment it, and overcome the challenges and obstacles that stand in the way
The optimistic person understands that the imperfection of his or her reality does not mean it is flawed; It is human, imperfect. Since it belongs to me, I can recognize the good in my imperfect reality, seek to strengthen and augment it, and overcome the challenges and obstacles that stand in the way. I do not mean to declare such a process is ubiquitously possible. In certain cases and circumstances, divorce, moving house, and quitting a job would be the right (or only) option. But in many cases, the path of greatest fulfillment is going the long route and embarking on a growth process. For this way to be an option, a necessary condition is acceptance of our reality. One cannot undergo a process within a reality that belongs to others and that I’m living only by chance.
Going back for a moment to Esti and her troubled mother, the “acceptance of reality” approach will ask her parents to recognize the challenging daughter as an integral part of the reality of their lives and not to perceive her as an unwanted flaw that requires “correction.” Moreover, if God gave them Esti, then it is within their powers to grant her just what she needs to grow and flourish in her way, while the entire home, parents and other family members included, also benefit from the process. Obviously, such processes will know ups and downs, like any human process; but it will give them much more joy and comfort than the disconnect lurking at the feet of every “flaw fixer.”
The Optimism of Teshuvah
There is nothing more optimistic than teshuvah. Even when the gates of prayer are locked, the gates of repentance remain forever open. The mitzvah of teshuvah calls us to face up to our imperfect reality and to see our flaws as incentives for positive action.
How does one perform teshuvah? According to the Rambam, the basic essence of teshuvah is the act of confession: We confess our sins before God and declare, “We have sinned, we have betrayed,” “We have strayed from your good judgments.” Vidui, confession, declares that we “own” our sins. We “take ownership” of our reality, its flaws and sins included, and prepare ourselves for a correction process.
Owning sins—“owning up,” we might say—is no simple feat. On the contrary, our natural tendency is to project them onto others: parents, circumstances, difficult childhood experiences, etc. But just as we can’t educate children to take responsibility for any given area without releasing it from its parental grip, it is impossible to repent for sins that are not ours. Viduy declares that we do not blame others for our sins, nor do we see them as random mistakes that deserve to be ignored or suppressed. We own them.
This ownership allows us to begin a process of correction. If my sins are not “mine,” then I am denied the possibility of repenting for them: one cannot repent or correct the sins of others. The process of teshuvah we undergo in the month of Elul and during the ten Days of Repentance assumes that I have standing (so to speak) in my petition for forgiveness—that the actions are mine, and that I recognize my ownership of them and their consequences.
By ensuring that all sins are included, we indicate that the Yom Kippur teshuvah is broader than our personal stories. We recognize that our world is flawed, and since it is our world, it is within our power to initiate repair processes within it
This understanding sheds light on the service of the High Priest on Yom Kippur. Among the most central of his actions is Viduy: “He must lay his hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities and crimes of the Children of Israel—all their sins—and place them on the goat’s head” (Vayikra 16:21). The centrality of confession is consistent, as noted, with Rambam’s opinion, according to which confession is the essence of repentance, as the verse states: “They shall confess the sins that they have committed” (Bamidbar 5:7).
Even our prayer service on Yom Kippur revolves around the central theme of confession, which we repeatedly recite (ten times in total). Moreover, we even confess transgressions that we have not committed and never occurred to us. By ensuring that all sins are included, we indicate that the Yom Kippur teshuvah is broader than our personal stories. We recognize that our world is flawed, and since it is our world, it is within our power to initiate repair processes within it.
As the Rambam emphasizes, confession is an act of speech before God; we “confess before God, may He be blessed” (Teshuvah 1:1). Blemishes in our reality can be viewed from two different perspectives. One way of seeing the blemish is as a flaw, an anomaly, a bug. From this point of view, the flaw is not really related to me; it is not my choice, and therefore it has no practical implications. Even when the failing is deeply personal—I might be quick to anger, greedy, arrogant, messy, and so on—the realization thereof will bear no consequences. “That’s just how I am,” we often hear (or think to ourselves). I was born defective.
The second perspective, however, is that of faith, which invites God to be part of the picture. This perspective dictates that the flaw is deeply meaningful. Insofar as there is a defect, it is my own, placing the responsibility on my shoulders to initiate a healing process. The order of Viduy is thus the beginning of a process. If sin is a question, then recognizing and “owning” is the beginning of the answer.
In the act of teshuvah, we become God’s partners in the act of Genesis.
The verse in Yeshayahu deals with the matter of the teshuvah: “Come now, let us reason together, says Hashem: Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall whiten as snow; though they are red like crimson [lit. like years], they shall become like wool” (1:18). R. Yitzchak, as quoted by the Talmud (Shabbos 89), was puzzled by the expression kashanim, which literally means “as years.” Surely, the appropriate word is kashani, as scarlet or crimson, rather than the plural shanim? To this, he responds: “God said to Israel: If your sins are like these years that are ordered and coming from the six days of Bereishis until now—they shall whiten like snow.”
The duty to repent, the mitzvah of teshuvah, calls us to take ownership of our lives with their flaws, to recognize that they are ours, and to embark on the process of healing that brings us and our world to its final destiny
Our sins can be like the years of the world, ordered from the Six Days of Creation. Sin, explains R. Yitzchak, is not a bug in the system. It is an essential part of the reality of our world and part of our relationship with God. When we repent, we discover how the sins themselves, those that seem anomalous to the goodness of the world, are part of the process that began with the creation of the world and continues to this day—“like these years that are ordered and coming from the six days of Bereishis.”
The Sages teach that were it not for teshuvah, the world would be unable to stand (Pirkei de’Rabbi Eliezer, Chap. 3). Shortcomings and deficiencies are essential to the world, for were not for the flaws, there would be nothing to motivate us to action, and were it not for our action the world would not fulfill its basic purpose. The duty to repent, the mitzvah of teshuvah, calls us to take ownership of our lives with their flaws, to recognize that they are ours, and to embark on the process of healing that brings us and our world to its final destiny.