As the Yamim Nora'im approach, it is only logical to wonder about the phenomenon of teshuvah. Chazal tell us that teshuvah is a gift from Hashem Yisborach, that Divine Justice alone would not allow a man to be freed from accountability for one of his actions. What is Teshuvah? By what mechanism does it work?
Let's take a step back and look at s'char va'onesh -- reward and punishment. Perhaps if we understood what punishment is, we would understand why teshuvah can "pass through the evil of the decree" (Yamim nora'im mussaf).
Psychologists have developed many methods for changing an undesired character trait. Among them is a technique called "behavior modification." Theorists have found that by consciously deciding to behave a certain way, your character will change to fit that behavior. It is inevitable to compare this to the Halachic concept "Mitoch shelo lishma, ba lishma" - "From [doing a mitzvah] without proper intent, one will come to do it with proper intent." The goal of a mitzvah is not only to express ones love of G-d and his fellow man, but also a way to generate those feelings.
Behavior modification focuses on teaching a child that actions have consequences. These consequences are broken down into two classes: they can be imposed, a punishment meted out by the parent; or they can be natural, the normal consequences by cause and effect. For example, a child could learn not to touch a stove by either getting slapped on the hand each time she reaches for it, or by touching it once and getting hurt. The first is more safe, the other is more effective. Which does Hashem use?
To ask the question another way: Does Hashem punish us to correct evil behavior, or did He build the world so that sin causes punishment as a natural consequence?
In Eichah 3:38 Yirmiyahu Hanavi writes, "From the 'Mouth' of the One Above, come neither the evil nor the good." Rashi comments on this, using two pisukim from this week's parashah.
Yirmiyahu is not implying that what happens to us is by chance. "Chai gever al chata'av -- a man lives on his sins." The evil does not come from Hashem, because it is a natural consequence of the sin. Similarly, R. Yochanan comments on the more famous pasuk, "Behold I have placed before you, the life and that which is good, and death and that which is evil. Choose life!" Choosing between good and evil is not choosing between whether Hashem will reciprocate with life or death. By choosing between good and evil, you bring on yourself one or the other.
R. Chaim Vilozhiner (Derech Hachaim 1:21) shows the same idea from the Gemara in Eiruvin. "The wicked deepen gehennom for themselves." What you get in the World to Come is merely the consequence of the mitzvos you do.
R. Chaim takes this one step further. Each sin, he writes, causes a flaw in your soul. The punishment that is the consequence of this flaw heals it.
The Derekh Hashem states (1:4:5) "sin detracts from one's perfection". The Michtav Me'Eliyahu explains the expression "Aveira goreres aveira" by saying that after repeatedly doing a given sin, it becomes part of one's nature, so that no conscious decision is required next time the situation arises.
Notice that this implies a major statement. We are not judged for what we did, we pay the consequences for who we are. As the midrash states, one of the first three questions the A-lmighty will ask as part of the final judgment is, "Why did you not fulfill your potential?" Man is judged based upon the gap between reality and potential. Mitzvos were given as vehicles for closing this gap.
This also illuminates another complex point. We learn that a man gets a minor punishment for Aveiros Bishogeg (accidental sins). Why would a man deserve any punishment for a crime he did not intend to commit? Now we can understand that Hashem is not pinning blame, but rather the damage caused by the wrongful act is correcting itself. An action can be destructive whether we intended it to be or not.
When Hagar and Yishmael were kicked out of Avraham's home, and were on the verge of death from thirst in the desert, G-d gave them a well. Yishmael was not judged for the evil he did that made him unacceptable to Avraham's home, or the evil he will do, and his children still do. Yishmael was repaid in terms of "ba'asher hu sham -- as he was there". The way your soul stands at that moment is the direct cause of reward or punishment.
The key to teshuvah is to make a basic character change. To take the character flaw associated with a given sin and eradicate it by conscious decision. As we said above, man is judged by what he is. After teshuvah, he is no longer the person who is capable of such a sin. By removing the flaw, he is that much closer to his potential. He no longer needs punishment to correct his behavior. The gap is that much smaller, and so the punishment is so much less.
In this context, teshuvah is more understandable. The Rambam, in Hilchos Teshuvah (2:1) says: "What is complete teshuvah? When the opportunity to do an aveira he did earlier comes to him, and he is able to do it, but he refrains from it, and doesn't do it - because of the teshuvah. Rav Yoseph Ber Soleveitchik ("Al Hateshuvah") explains, "the Baal Teshuvah says that he is a new man; the man who performed the sin no longer exists."
Since, as R. Chaim Vilozhiner writes, punishment is the natural consequence of the flaw in your soul, by taking the effort to remove that flaw, the punishment disappears on its own.
Teshuvah meahavah, teshuvah caused by love of the Creator, causes the aveiros not just to be ignored, but even to be considered as mitzvos. Through teshuvah a person can improve himself to the extent of being beyond where he would have been had he not sinned. Each aveira should become something to regret, motivation for learning a lesson, so that each brings him closer to the ideal Hashem has for him.
Lishana tovah tiekateivu viteichateimu! May Hashem take our teshuvah and fulfill another pasuk of this week's parsahah, "And Hashem will return your captives, and have mercy upon you." (30:3)© 1995 The AishDas Society