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Repenting for What You Thought Was Right

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Maimonides (Hilchot Teshuva 1:1) states that in the personal and private confession of a person -- necessarily instrumental in describing and reporting on the repentance process - the individual must first articulate the sin, then express remorse and shame for his/her misdeed and then, finally, commit to not repeating it. As one reads these words, the obvious impression is that the most difficult part of this process would be the final stage, the commitment not to transgress again. The classic models of repentance presented in the Bible, though, may not point to that conclusion. It may be the first stage – the identification of the sin – which may actually be the most difficult one.

Within Torah thought, there are two great individuals who are identified as the classic models of proper and full repentance – Yehuda, the son of our forefather Yaakov, and Dovid, King of Israel. In the presentations of what occurred to these two individuals, Yehuda and Dovid have no perception that they have sinned until they are informed of it. Immediately upon recognizing their transgressions, both feel intense regret and remorse and powerfully commit to rectifying their misconduct. It should not really be surprising that two such righteous individuals would respond in such a manner. What is interesting, though, is that both did not initially see what they did as a sin. That such remarkable personalities as Yehuda and Dovid could make such a mistake in perception really informs us of the extreme difficulty that may exist in the very recognition of our sins and, as a result, the very need for repentance. This may actually be the great challenge of this time period surrounding Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur – the Yomim Noraim [Days of Awe] -- which face us. The specific call may be to especially repent on what we think we are doing right.
 
In the case of Yehuda, his transgression was in his relationship with Tamar (Bereishit 38). In this case, Yehuda actually believed himself to be doing a mitzvah by not arranging for Tamar to marry his son, Shelach. In the climax of the story, Tamar powerfully indicates to Yehuda that it was actually wrong for him to have done this and that her forceful actions in this regard were to correct this error. When confronted with the recognition that his behaviour indeed was a mistake, Yehuda simply declares that she, Tamar, is more righteous than he is. It still, though, needed the actions of the righteous Tamar for Yehuda to see the truth. It is not easy for one to see that his/her viewpoints, which he/she adamantly upholds, may be wrong. Arriving at such a conclusion, though, is also part of the process of teshuva. We may have to repent, at times, on what we think is right. We have to keep our minds somewhat receptive to possible new ideas.
 
This was also the case with Dovid. In regard to the beginnings of his relationship with Bat-Sheva (2 Shmuel 11-12), Dovid believed that he did nothing wrong. (The Talmud explains how Dovid came to this conclusion and why his actions were actually, in the micro sense, technically correct.) It took Natan haNavi [the Prophet] to explain to Dovid why what he did was actually wrong. Immediately, on incorporating this lesson from the prophet, Dovid responded Chatati l’Shem [I have sinned to God]. There was no attempt to justify his viewpoint. He saw that he was wrong and responded appropriately. It, though, still took a teaching from another to see this truth. It is often not easy to see when one’s self is wrong. The undertaking of teshuva is also to meet this challenge.
 
This may actually be the reason why a specific period of the year is devoted to teshuva. We are actually directed to repent every day of the year and our prayers, throughout the year, clearly point to the continuous, personal obligation to repent. The question is, as such, often asked: why is there a need to have a specific season for repentance when the obligation is really daily, in fact, in every minute? It may be that when a sin is obvious and one recognizes the need to repent even at the very moment of sinning, the daily requirement to repent is apparent and instantaneous. However, the need for one to search through one’s life and to investigate one’s thoughts and actions to determine if all that is presumed to be proper is actually proper, demands greater time and concentration. It is with this is mind that the Torah gave us this time period to concentrate on this endeavour and to discuss who we are with respected others. Our models are Yehuda and Dovid who in the pursuit of truth and righteousness were able to confront their own misperceptions of themselves.
 
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht is the Founding Director of Nishma, which fosters the critical investigation of contemporary issues. For further info, see www.nishma.org and nishmablog.blogspot.com. You can follow Rabbi Hecht on Twitter @NishmaTorah.
 
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