There's a story of two elderly men who were childhood friends, but had not seen each other in many years. One day, they run into each other on the street, and are delighted to recognize one another. One of them lives in the area, so he invites the other into his home. They happily begin catching up, getting lost in their stories and jokes as the day goes on. The guest finally notices that it has become dark outside, so he asks his friend what time it is.
“I don’t have a watch,” his friend replies.
“So look at the clock, and tell me what time it is.”
“I don’t have a clock either,” his friend replies.
Puzzled, the first man asks his friend: “If you don’t have a watch, and you don’t have a clock, how do you tell the time?”
“I use my trumpet!” the second man proudly replies.
“A trumpet? How can you tell time with a trumpet?”
“I’ll show you.” He picks up his trumpet, opens the window, and blows a long, deafening blast. A few seconds later, a window opens below and his neighbor shouts: “Three o’clock in the morning and you’re playing your trumpet?!”
The man turns to his friend and proclaims, “It’s three o’clock in the morning.”
The shofar is Hashem's trumpet, begging us to wake up from our slumber. When we hear it, we must remind ourselves what time it is. It's time to question, to think, to redirect. Often, though, life has a way of running on autopilot, controlled only by the flow of momentum. When things are going well, they flow forward, steadily picking up speed. When things fall apart, they continue downhill, refusing to ease up.
Making a healthy eating choice can serve as inspiration to wake up early the next morning and exercise. The feeling of making a great decision leads you to another great decision, and the cycle continues. The energy and confidence from this positive momentum leads to an increased surge of confidence, leading to another great decision, perhaps a push forward in your career, or a positive development in your relationships, or a focus on the next step of your spiritual growth. This is the beauty of momentum. This is also the psychological and practical root of the concept “mitzvah goreres mitzvah”, one mitzvah leads to another. However, this same momentum can be the cause our undoing as well. “Aveirah goreres aveirah”, one misstep leads to another.
Maybe it starts with a small slip up in our diet, when you promised yourself you would do better. Now, you feel weak and foolish, and begin muttering self-degrading jabs under your breath. Your confidence takes a major hit, and you begin to see yourself as a failure. The next morning, you hit snooze, making yourself feel even worse, even weaker, even more of a failure. Next, you sabotage your relationship, miss a meeting, or let your growth and spirituality slide. Of course, this makes you feel even worse, so you break your diet again, making you feel even worse, yet again. This is the deadly cycle of momentum. One thing leads to another, creating a cataclysmic landslide towards complete and utter breakdown.
While this picture is extreme, I'm sure we can all relate. Sometimes things seem to fall apart in our lives, and we struggle to pick up the pieces. When we start that downhill slide, how do we stop the momentum? How do we pick ourselves up? To understand this, let us develop an important theme connected to both Parshas Re'eh and the month of Elul as a whole.
Parshas Re'eh begins with the principle of choice: Hashem presents us with the choice between blessing and curse, between good and bad. In a few parshios from now, the Torah states: "u'bacharta b'chaim-" you shall choose life.This is cited by most commentators as the source for the principle of free will, the power of choice.
The month of Elul is deeply tied to the theme of teshuva- usually translated as repentance. The Rambamincludes the concept of free will within the laws of teshuva. This seems both strange and unnecessary. The necessity and nature of free will appears more philosophical than legal, so why does the Rambam include this in his work of halachic codes? And why specifically in the context of teshuva? To understand this, we must delve into the true nature of teshuva.
Teshuva: Act of Return
While teshuva is often translated as repentance, its literal meaning is "return", as in the word “shuv”. The goal of teshuva is not only to free ourselves of punishment and responsibility for our past. Teshuva is about self-transformation, returning to a higher, better version of ourselves. We don't only wish to escape, we wish to ascend. It is on this premise that the Rambam describes the three-step process of teshuva.
The first step of teshuva is recognizing that there is a problem to fix, that a mistake has occurred. It is impossible to solve a problem without first admitting that the problem exists. It is all too easy to simply push forward in life, ignoring our inner and outer struggles. But that results in the downward cascade described above. Only by acknowledging the problem can we stop the downward momentum and actually solve it.
The second step of teshuva is to regret one’s mistake. Often, we know a problem exists, but we don't feel ashamed, hurt, or even bothered by it. Without internal regret or hurt, we won’t be motivated enough to take the actionable steps required to make change. When we yearn for the truth, and allow ourselves to powerfully feel the inner contradiction between how we could be living and how we currently are living, we generate the emotional response necessary to genuinely regret our past mistakes.
Third, one must commit to an improved future, one in which this mistake will not be repeated. One must commit to strive towards a greater version of themselves, whereby if given the chance to repeat this mistake, one would not give in to temptation, but would overcome the challenge.
The Necessity of Free Will
In order for the process of teshuva to exist, there is one essential element: free will. The only way you can genuinely change, transform, and evolve is if you have the capacity to assert your inner will, to create a new reality within yourself. This requires a complete re-creation of self within your consciousness, a remolding of your inner world. While yesterday, you were the type of person who did one thing, today, a new decision is formed, a new reality is created within your inner world. This requires a complete assertion of willpower, an overcoming of self, a breakdown and reformation of inner drive and character. This means giving up who you are for who you want to be, sacrificing what you think you want for what you truly want. It means overcoming the emotional and overwhelming pull of current desire and generating a new “want” within your very core. This is why the Rambam places his seemingly philosophical discussion of the concept of free will amongst the halachos of teshuva; free will is the very root and foundation of hilchos teshuva. Without free will, one could never change, one could never become something else, someone new, someone better.
Strikingly, Rav Eliyahu Dessler explains that many people never experience a true expression of free will, due to its immense difficulty. This is why many people do not change. Change is hard, uncomfortable, and often requires sacrifice. One must fully and wholeheartedly believe in their new future in order to give up their current lifestyle. However, when we push with all our might, expressing a full force of inner will, we get a taste of truth, an experience of destiny, and a glimpse of our true self.
However, this understanding of teshuva, that of return, has an even deeper layer to it. After all, if teshuva is an act of return, what or whom are we returning to?
Teshuva: A Life's Journey
Genuine teshuva is not just about self-transformation, it's about self-expression, returning to your true and higher self. As we previously stated, while we were in the womb we were in a perfect and transcendent state of being, and a malach (angel) teaches us kol ha'Torah kulah (all of Torah).As the Vilna Gaon explains, thisrefers to the deepest realms of Torah, a transcendent Torah that lies far beyond this world, beyond the confines of space and time. This Torah is the very root of reality, and you were granted complete understanding of its every detail. Not only were you shown this level of Torah, but you alsolearned your specific share of Torah- you were shown your unique purpose in the world, and how your unique role fits into the larger scheme of the human story as a whole. You were given a taste of your own perfection, of what you could, should, and hopefully will become. And from this transcendent realm, you were birthed into the physical world with the mission to actualize everything you were shown in the womb, while in your perfect, primordial state.
In essence, your job in this world is not to create yourself, but rather to recreate yourself; to re-attain your original state of perfection, as you were shown by the malach. This time, however, it must be done through free will, by choosing to become great. Only by overcoming challenge and difficulty, only by asserting your willpower, can you fulfill your true potential.In essence, our entire life is a story of teshuva- returning to our original, higher, and true self.
This theme is the mystical root of creation itself. All of existence is meant to return to its original true, higher form. When Adam was created, his mission was to return to his root and source, Hashem Himself. When Adam sinned, all of existence fell; our goal is to return the world to its higher form, to repair a fractured world. Our goal is to return to our individual higher selves, our collective higher selves as a nation, and our absolute root self- Hashem Himself.
We can now return to our original question regarding how to stop the downwards momentum of failure and bad decisions. The answer is simple, it's a single word: decide! Choice is the most powerful tool Hashem has granted us. The power of choice allows us to accomplish anything. When life begins to fall apart, and bad decisions start piling up, we must cut off the downward momentum before it grows out of control, before it destroys us. The key is making the decision, asserting your inner will, and focusing its full force towards cutting off the momentum. If you can stop the momentum of bad decisions, of a lifestyle that is draining the life out of you, you can stop it from spreading, and the virus will wither and die. With nowhere to spread, negativity is like a flame without oxygen- it simmers out and disappears. It all starts with a single decision to turn the tide, to begin building positive momentum, to start climbing uphill, to start heading towards your ultimate destination. If you can take that first step and push towards your greatness, your life will suddenly begin riding that new wave. This is the power of choice, this is the power of momentum.
Failed or Failure?
The single most important psychological factor involved in this decision is the response to failure. When we fail, we often become convinced that we are a failure. We believe that by making a mistake, we become the mistake. We integrate past experience into our present identity, so we lose faith in ourselves, our hopes, and our values. As a result, we begin to cascade downwards, sliding with negative momentum.
The key to avoiding this slide is disconnecting our failures from identity. We all fail, we all have times where we give in to temptation and do all things we regret. But failing does not make you a failure, it makes you human, a work in progress, someone who is growing and learning. If we approach our failures as learning opportunities, as wake-up calls, we can use our failures as the impetus to grow and improve, instead of crippling obstacles. When we make a bad decision, we can't get depressed. Regret and remorse are essential, but we can’t get lost in them. They must be done in a healthy, balanced, and positive way. When we slip up, take a step backwards, and fall down a notch, we have to immediately stop the downwards movement, pick ourselves back up, learn from our mistakes, and continue our upwards climb. This is the character of one who has a growth-mentality, who does not get crushed by life, but learns from it instead.
The Power of Decision
It is therefore no surprise that the Torah is replete with lessons of the importance of will and the power of decision. An opinion is quoted in the Gemarathat man was created in Nisan. Why then do we celebrate Rosh Hashana in Tishrei? Tosafos suggests that although Hashem created the world in Nisan, His decision to do so took place six months earlier, on the first of Tishrei. The decision itself serves as a form of creation, which is why man is considered to have been created in Tishrei.
The Gemararules that if a man marries a woman on the condition that he is a tzaddik (righteous), we consider the marriage as halachically binding- even if he is wicked! How can this be? The Gemara explains that perhaps he had decided at that very moment to do teshuva (hirhurei teshuva), to become a tzaddik, and that intention itself would be enough to validate his statement. Based on this possibility, we must view his marriage as possibly binding. This example, once again, displays the spiritual significance of a decision.
There are applications of this idea regarding Shabbos observance as well. If one is outside a city on Shabbos, he cannot walk further than 2000 amos from where he is located at the moment Shabbos begins. However, the Mishna in Eiruvin notes that if one is in the midst of traveling right before Shabbos begins, he can point into the distance and say that he intends to be at that place in the distance, and his 2000 amos will be measured from that point. Essentially, halacha recognizes one to be in the place where one wants to be, where one decides to be.
The Root of Teshuva
Free will - choice - is the root of teshuva. Teshuva is about reengineering our will, recreating our desire, rewiring our wants. It’s about the decision to be better, to be great, to become our best and truest selves. As the Ramchal explains in Mesilas Yesharim, if you change what you want (akiras ha’ratzon), you change who you are.When you make a new decision, you create a new reality for yourself. When the shofar blows this year, let us truly awaken. In some sense, we all need a shofar for the shofar, we need a wakeup call to listen to this year’s wakeup call. Many are numb to the wordless blast, deaf to its existential calling. Some have given up on change, while others are too busy with life to stop and truly consider the possibility of more, of a higher life. This year, let us embrace the shofar’s call and tap into our higher purpose. May we all be inspired to fully utilize this Elul, to embark on a journey of genuine teshuva, and continue the process of becoming our ultimate selves.
Hilchos Teshuva, Chapter 5.
Niddah 30b. For a fuller discussion of this topic, see chapter on Parshas Bereishis, section: “Your Creation Story”. See also chapter on Parshas Mishpatim for a deeper explanation of why this process occurs.
See chapter on Parshas Tetzaveh for a deeper explanation of why we need free will and the importance of overcoming challenge.
Rosh Hashana 10b.
For more on this discussion, see chapter on Parshas Beshalach, section: “Nisan vs. Tishrei”.
See chapter on Parshas Vayishlach for more on the topic of ratzon (want/desire).
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