Beit Midrash

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To dedicate this lesson

Return and Repentance


Rabbi Berel Wein

Elul 10 5780
We find ourselves towards the end of the month of Elul, standing before the great days of judgment, forgiveness, and renewed commitment. A few weeks ago, I happened to visit my physician on a relatively minor matter. As he handed me a prescription for a lotion that I should apply and a pill that I should take, he inquired as to whether I had ever been vaccinated for pneumonia. When I told him that I had not, he said he felt that it would be important for me to do so. He dutifully typed out a prescription and admonished me to be certain to fill it and take the vaccine. I hesitated a few days before following his instruction, because I usually do not like to have diseases injected into my body. However, since he was so strongly recommending it to me, I did go to the pharmacy where a nurse expertly stuck me in the arm and injected the vaccine. The whole purpose of all of this was to grant me some sort of immunity from pneumonia. Now, when a person is being injected with a very sharp needle, it is always wise to concentrate on a different matter entirely, so that he or she will hardly feel the prick of the needle being inserted and removed. Thus, as I was being hopefully granted immunity from pneumonia, I thought a bit about spiritual immunity as well

I think that an essential part of the idea of repentance over particular sins, acts of commission or omission, is that true regret and return to strict observance of Torah law and godly values provides us with a certain immunization against repeating such sins and errors. Maimonides writes that when a person truly repents and commits himself not to repeat bad behavior, then, so to speak, the Lord himself will testify that that person is cleansed from that sin, and will not revert to perform that violation again.

I never really thought about repentance and return from this viewpoint, but I now think that this is a valid perspective of the power of repentance and return. Teshuva is, so to speak. an immunization injection to our souls and spirits. Just as when we experience a physical injection, with its pain and discomfort so, too, true penitence and return comes with painful moments and emotional discomfort. It is difficult to admit our wrongs and our sins. We are full of excuses and rationalizations. But only when we face reality and the truth of our actions, can we really improve ourselves and be able, somehow, to right past wrongs and move on, feeling cleansed and more confident spiritually.

The Talmud, in recounting for us the joy of elderly people celebrating the holiday of Sukkot in the Temple in Jerusalem, states that many of these people would say: "How fortunate are we that our later years have brought us repentance and return to the God of our fathers." Having, so to speak, absorbed the injection of accepting the very disease of sin into our bodies, regretting it wholeheartedly, and pledging not to repeat that type of mistake again, we become immune from the ravages of the diseases of sin that so destroys our blessed nature and our godly soul.

Using the story from Oscar Wilde’s "The Picture of Dorian Gray" where Gray throughout his entire lifetime of indulgence and debauchery, only wanted to be seen as a healthy and vibrant individual, and was willing to ‘sell his soul,’ so to speak, to do so. But upon his demise, after the sinful life that he led, the ghastly and ghostly caricature of Gray is revealed. This is an excellent metaphor for the situation of sin and spiritual disease within us. On the outside, everything may look normal, even healthy, and attractive. But at the day of judgment and the moment of truth, a person is always revealed in all his ugliness. We can acquire immunization from this scenario through the gift of return and repentance which the Lord has granted us. We are in that season of the year now but we must be willing to fill the prescription, to acquire the vaccine and have it injected into us in order for the power of immunization to take hold and protect us in the future.

Shabbat shalom

Berel Wein
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