Hannah Pollak

Teshuvah, rigidness and flexibility

Children, who are still maturing, show us that we can continuously evolve if we remain open to new experiences and perspectives (Art by Esther Pollak)

Some days ago, I had an interesting conversation with someone. Coming into this conversation, I intuitively believed that a person who is firm and unbending would naturally be more disciplined and regimented, attributes that are certainly conducive to personal growth. Conversely, this other person argued the opposite. She claimed that, often, being firm and rigid is exactly what does not allow a person to grow and overcome challenges and temptations. When a person is so fixed on being as they are, they cannot even picture themselves behaving or becoming different. After some back and forth, I realized that the other person was probably right. While consistency and commitment are key factors that allow for effective change, fundamentally, change and personal evolution are all about being flexible and open to new ideas and experiences. In other words, the “rigidity” and steadfastness an individual requires to rectify his ways, are the reflection of an essentially flexibile mindset, where the belief in mental plasticity and the possibility of change are central.

We find this principle illustrated in the Rambam’s definition of complete Teshuvah (Hilchos Teshuvah 2:1):

What is complete Teshuvah? It’s when a person confronts the same situation in which he had sinned before, has the possibility to commit the sin again, but, nevertheless, abstains and does not commit it because of his Teshuvah alone, and not because of fear or a lack of strength to sin. For example, a person engaged in illicit relations with a woman, and later repented. Afterward, he meets her again, under the same circumstances, while his love for her and physical power have not diminished, and, nevertheless, he abstains and does not transgress. This is a complete Baal-Teshuvah. 

Yes, the conditions are the same. The impulses are still burning inside the person. And yet, the individual has a broad mind, an “unstuck” attitude that allows him to consciously decide what he wants to do and how he wants to respond. Who dictated that since I made a mistake yesterday, I am predestined to make it again today? Who said that if in the past I have always reacted to stimulus “x” with response “y”, I am not able to react differently from now onwards? 

Reflecting on this idea, on the dynamics of sin and its rectification, and consequently on the tension that exists between the rigidness of the status quo and the flexibility of a brighter future, I realized that the same idea can be applied to the process of growth and Teshuvah itself. Namely, just as one should be open-minded and flexible enough to believe in and allow for effective change, one could be flexible and unconventional in the process of bringing about that change. I realized that we are often very traditional in our ways of doing Teshuvah, and that perhaps we can branch out (within a halachic framework, of course) and be a bit more creative about our own process of return to our individual selves and to Hashem. On the one hand, we  have invaluable resources to awaken us and guide us in the process of Teshuvah, and it goes without saying that we have to take advantage of them. Rav Soloveitchik used to say that perhaps the reason why the Rambam’s majestic Hilchos Teshuvah has ten chapters, is so that we would be able to learn one chapter each day of the Ten Days of Repentance. Rightfully so, the Jewish people have gravitated to some other classic Teshuvah texts that try to define and delineate the process of Teshuvah as well. Similarly, baalei mussar have also attempted to offer a structured version of Teshuvah providing us with templates for how to do an effective and honest cheshbon nefesh (introspection process) and how to implement conducive and realistic kabbalos (commitments to do specific actions) for the future. 

While Teshuvah’s “standardized” and regulated aspects are vital, I realized that having certain creativity and ingenuity in the process is also important and beneficial. Maybe the way to break away from the inertia of negative thoughts and actions is by active personal involvement and contemplation. Perhaps the way to destroy neural pathways that lead us mindlessly to a wrong place is via creating new ones that consciously lead us to a good place. Learning how Chazal, the Rishonim or more contemporary thinkers related to Teshuvah, gives us a foundation and a compass. However, if Teshuvah is all about “hischadshus” (renewal), each one has to reveal a “chiddush” (novel insight) in his or her process of returning to the roots, which means being able to chart one’s own path within the established halachic and philosophical path of Teshuvah that already exists. 

While this approach might sound rather innovative, it seems to me that it is rooted in traditional sources as well. In the opening of Mishlei, Shlomo HaMelech invites the serious learner to become greatly enriched by studying his proverbs. One of the author’s aims is that “the discerning person will acquire stratagems” (1:5). The Malbim explains that these stratagems are ideas and lessons that are not spelled out in the book. These are the intuitive and logical derivatives of the principles laid out by Shlomo that the individual is invited to find through a genuine and intellectually honest search. A striving individual will read between the lines, will customize what he learns to expand the impact of its messages. Along similar lines, we can say that this is what Hoshea tells us in the name of God: “Take with you words… Instead of bulls we will pay offerings with our lips” (14:3). The classic commentators explain that God does not want our sacrifices if they are not coupled with sincere and personal feelings of Teshuvah. Hashem is telling us that we could do everything technically right. We can bring a Korban in the most scrupulous way. However, if it lacks honesty and personal sacrifice and dedication, offering an animal on the altar has no value. Because even though imprecision in the slightest halachic miniatue can disqualify the Korban, ultimately, the purpose of the Korban is that a person offers his deepest self to God, that he “offers a Korban from yourselves”  (Vayikra 1:2), and, as many explain, that a person thinks and feels like he is the one being offered before God. Along these lines, we could say that following the regulated aspects of Teshuvah and learning the standardized Teshuvah literature, corresponds to the regulated laws of Korbanos. At the same time, the personalization of Teshuvah, the individual character of my unique journey, is what gives life to the process. 

The ideas I have presented are purposely abstract and vague because within the daled amos shel halacha and the broader Torah ideals and values, there is space for each one of us to find nuance and individual expression. In fact, the Baal Shem teaches that every day a divine voice comes out and says “My children, return to Me,” inviting us to do Teshuvah (based on Chagigah 15a and Avos 6:2). Many ask why is it that we don’t actually hear this voice. I once heard that this is purposely so: if the voice were loud enough for all to listen to a uniformed message, the individual experience would be missing. The invitation to do Teshuvah is quiet, it softly cries out from within each Jew (if we try to be attuned to it), because each Jew connects to Teshuvah in a unique way. Hashem whispers in each of our ears independently. Moreover, He allows each Jew to relate to Teshuvah via a song with its unique permutation of notes and sounds.

About the Author
Hannah Pollak is a college student pursuing a career in Jewish education. She was born and raised in Chile, South America. Today, she lives in New York, where she is learning Torah and getting a degree at Stern College for Women.
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