Teshuvah is like dieting (Eruvin 14)

Following the sin of the Golden Calf, Moshe re-ascended Mt. Sinai to plead for God’s forgiveness for our people.  Eventually, our Father in Heaven acquiesced and offered us a second chance.  The 40-day period of receiving the Torah was renewed and from the beginning of Elul, once again Hashem taught all the laws to Moshe, culminating in his descent on Yom Kippur, bearing the Second Tablets.  That first Yom Kippur signalled God’s pardon of our sins, and ever since, it has become a Day of Atonement, when Hashem forgives us for our iniquities.

During the 40 days from the beginning of Elul until Yom Kippur, we are tasked with engaging in a process of teshuvah (repentance).  As the period progresses, the teshuvah is intensified.  We begin by blowing the shofar each day from the start of the month, to awaken us to teshuvah.  The next stage is the week before Rosh Hashanah when we begin reciting Selichos, special prayers of penitence (sefardim recite from the beginning of Elul).  Rosh Hashanah then inaugurates the Ten Days of Teshuvah, crowned by Yom Kippur.

Our Sages teach that during these days, one should aim to be particularly scrupulous in the observance of mitzvos and pious practices.  For example, one who is ordinarily accustomed to eat (kosher) bread baked by a non-Jew, called pas palter, should endeavour during this period to consume only bread baked by a Jew, pas Yisroel.

But what kind of teshuvah is that?  If you know that, as soon as Yom Kippur is over, you’re going to go right back to your old habits of eating pas palter and dropping every other act of piety you’ve adopted, aren’t you only fooling yourself?! God knows your intentions, so how could that be deemed sincere teshuvah?

הַשּׁוֹתֶה מַיִם לִצְמָאוֹ, אוֹמֵר: ״שֶׁהַכֹּל נִהְיָה בִּדְבָרוֹ״. רַבִּי טַרְפוֹן אוֹמֵר: ״בּוֹרֵא נְפָשׁוֹת רַבּוֹת וְחֶסְרוֹנָן עַל כָּל מַה שֶּׁבָּרָאתָ״. אֲמַר לֵיהּ רַב חָנָן לְאַבָּיֵי: הִלְכְתָא מַאי? אֲמַר לֵיהּ: פּוֹק חֲזִי מַאי עַמָּא דָבַר
שהכל נהיה בדברו – לפניו ולאחריו לא כלום
מאי עמא דבר – היאך נוהגים וכבר נהגו לברך בתחלה שהכל ולבסוף בורא נפשות רבות וחסרונן על כל מה שברא

One who drinks water to quench his thirst recites the Shehakol bracha prior to drinking: By Whose word all things came to be. Rabbi Tarfon says he recites the Borei Nefashos bracha: Who creates the many forms of life and their needs, for all that You have created. Rav Chanan said to Abaye: What is the halacha? He said to him: Go out and observe what the people are doing.

Rashi: This bracha is recited prior to drinking, and afterwards no bracha is recited.
Likutei Rashi: What do the people do?  Normative practice is to make Shehakol prior to drinking and Borei Nefashos afterwards.

Why would the Gemara suggest that you don’t need to make a Borei Nefashos after drinking water?  Don’t we make an after-bracha subsequent to everything we eat or drink?  Tosfos explains (Brachos 37) that the meaning of the Borei Nefashos blessing is our appreciation that the Almighty created a world of pleasure for us to enjoy.  We thank Hashem for “everything in the world that, even had He not created them, the world could still live without. For He created them merely for our pleasure, such as apples and the like.”

Water is a staple of life, and so the initial thought of the Gemara is that Borei Nefashos would not be relevant.  Borei Nefashos is all about food that is unnecessary.  God wanted us to enjoy this world and so He gave us a variety of foods to entertain our palate.  We don’t really need apples.  But it’s nice to have them.

Most of the time that’s true.  It’s wonderful to have apples and apples juice, as opposed to just having water to drink.  But it’s not always the case.  If you’re trying to lose weight, you could probably do without the extra carbs.  When you’re watching the scales, even fruit sugar is no longer pleasurable.

Teshuvah is like dieting.  For most people, it’s not forever.  It’s a measure we take to get back to a place of equilibrium.  Ordinarily, we sing “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.”  But if you’re trying to lose weight, as nutritious as apples may be, you’re going to want to avoid the unnecessary carbs.  Does that mean apples are bad?  Of course not.  Just right now, due to your lax attitude you’ve had towards eating generally, you need to follow a stricter diet regime to shed those pounds.  Once you reach your ideal weight, you can go right back to enjoying fruit and other worldly delicacies.

Have you ever been on a diet and watched someone eat a piece of cake?  You say to yourself, ‘How could they be so indulgent and careless about the calories?’  The truth, of course, is that last week, before you began your diet, you would have eaten that same piece of cake, without thinking twice.  But now you find yourself filled with self-righteous indignation over the inability of this other individual to watch what they eat.

That same attitude can happen when you’re engaged in teshuvah.  You see some people engaging in certain behaviours and you’re overcome with a sense of bewilderment as to how they could be so unserious in their mitzvah performance.  You now find yourself on a spiritual high.  It’s easy to forget that just last week, you were conducting yourself no differently.  So it’s important that when you are engaged in teshuvah, you don’t become judgemental.  Everybody’s running their own race.  This is between you and God.

While most of us aren’t able to keep up the pace of constant teshuvah throughout the year, that’s really the ideal.  According to Chassidic thought, teshuvah is a continuous process, a ceaseless endeavour to ‘return’ to our heavenly source.  Every day we should strive to improve on the previous day.

Using the dieting analogy, you can think about achieving such a level of devotion in terms of the rare individual who is able to maintain ideal health and weight constantly.  Most of us will use Atkins or Keto to lose weight and then ease up a little.  But then there are some people who are able to stay in a state of ‘ketosis’ on an ongoing basis.  We all know that cake isn’t good for you.  But they’re able to practice what they preach daily.  Nevertheless, even if we can’t be perfect, the hope is that once we reach our ideal weight, we’re able to keep the right attitude so that we don’t find ourselves having to start all over again.

The same goes for teshuvah.  Even if we do ease up a little after Yom Kippur, the hope is that the process has impacted our long-term attitudes and relationship with Heaven.  May you embark on the journey with a dedicated open mind and grow from strength to strength!

About the Author
Rabbi Daniel Friedman is the senior rabbi of the 1200-family Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, the United Synagogue's flagship congregation.
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