Repentance from love transforms rebellion into obedience means that, as Israelis say: the intention is the essence. When we change past intentions, we change (the essence of) the past.
Yet, this rule does not always hold true. That is – and I say this with the greatest amount of respect – a mistake of classical Christianity. Feelings, love, thoughts are not enough. Rather, most of the time, we need to act (and for other Commandments: refrain), in order to improve. And our improvement is the reason for the Commandments; not “serving G-d.” He needs naught. All’s for our good (end of Deuteronomy 10:12-13).
Intention is the essence only after the act. First act well. That may teach you to intend well (Exodus 24:7). Intention without acting is hypocrisy.
We need to obey in order to become better people. Modifying behavior was only really promoted in modernity by behaviorist Edward Thorndike just a century ago, but Judaism teaches it already for millennia – not as one of our options but as the main way to live well.
Thus we may understand how eating swine meat may be transformed retroactively into dining on super-kosher stake. However, we cannot cunningly violate Commandments saying: we’ll repent later. That illegal “leeway” is a corruption, which itself is extremely hard to atone for.
Further, if we stole or in other ways hurt people, the rest of nature, the course of history and their Creator, regret is not enough. We must undo harm caused, in order for apologies to work. And sometimes we can’t. (We can’t return the dead. We may not be able to return all we stole. The wronged person may have died already – even if not by our actions. We may be unable to trace or find all the people we wronged. How do you ask forgiveness from an animal you hurt? How do you undo ruining someone’s life or the course of history?) That’s one additional reason why we need to be extra careful not to hurt, murder, slander or destroy.
But generally, if we did something not kosher, repentance may turn it into kosher action. If we did not do what we should have, repentance may turn our passivity into kosher action. And it transforms punishment into reward. We need to be serious enough that our change should be permanent. Pretending does not work here, but really trying does.
Happy, Humble and Friendly
Now a question. Repentance can after the fact turn sloppy praying into articulating and intending well during prayer. It can also turn not praying into praying. Now, which one was worse, hardest to atone for? Not praying, because sloppy prayer at least was some kind of prayer? Or sloppy prayer because it least we did not degrade prayer? And if they are equal, does that mean that not praying equals sloppy praying?
With sloppy praying, at least we spend energy and took our time (though probably not enough). We tried. No one is perfect. At least, we carried and preserved the holy tradition that others turned away from.
True as this may be, we also increased falsehood into the world – a very serious sin. We also acted as we should but without happiness – which is what brings the worst of curses into the world (Deuteronomy 28:47). We also repelled others from prayers – if this is to pray, it’s not for me. (It’s us religious who create the non-religious. Reb Shlomo Carlebach says: If the restaurant is good enough, people will come and eat there.) We prided ourselves into being G-d’s lackeys but were actually embarrassing the Throne of Glory – the worst sin that can only be repented for by repentance, confession, going through Yom Kippur, suffering and eventually death combined. (Although intensely and continuously glorifying G-d’s Name may also work.) And arrogance almost makes it impossible to repent because (falsely) we see ourselves as the cream of the crop. The Mishnah (Avot 5:19) calls haughtiness as one hallmark of only three that characterizes someone not worthy of being a Jew.
So would it be better to pray extremely well or not at all? Yet, the law of all or nothing and perfectionism are not part of Judaism. We need to humbly allow ourselves to grow, step by step. And we need to serve G-d, not norms of perfection. It is true that paying attention to detail shows that we care. If we can’t even show care for detail, how are we going to take care of bigger tasks? However, most hairsplitting and hyper focus on details are born from a lack of courage to look at the big picture.
(Perfectionism is a mental illness. It doesn’t mean to do things extremely well. Rather, it sets very high standards for only a very small range of activities. Even if we would manage to live up to them – though normally they unnecessarily discourage or delay (complete) performance – this comes at the expense of all other things we need to take care of.)
It seems to me that in doing Commandments we should be zealous, but make sure to stay or be or act as if happy, humble and friendly. Not: make it or fake it. Rather: if we mean it, we will become it. It is not worth it to public obey Commandments while being stern, serious, self-content and distant. If you don’t want to trouble yourself, at least to come across as happy, humble and friendly towards others, do yourself and others a favor and hide yourself from everyone, at least as a Jew. The damage otherwise done might be beyond repair.
No, I do not conclude that if you can’t be nice, you are exempt from public performance of any and all of the Commandments. Rather, I conclude that is hardly costs any energy to lift those corners of your mouth, look at others and smile and shut up instead of argue. If you’re not willing to spend that kind of energy, but rather would superficially play being Jewish, you will only make things worse. So: lift those corners of your mouth, look at others and smile and shut up instead of argue!