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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshios Netzovim/Vayelech 5773 "Repentance or Resignation"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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8/30/13

STAM TORAH

PARSHIOS NETZOVIM-VAYELECH

REPENTANCE OR RESIGNATION

Rabbi Binaymin of Radin related the following parable just after the conclusion of Yom Kippur: When Russia shared a border with Poland, there was a city just over the Russian border and another city two miles away across the Polish border. A miser who lived in the Polish city realized that if he could smuggle some of his wares across the border into the Russian city, he would be able to sell them for a hefty profit.

One night, under the cover of darkness, he filled up a bag, heaved it over his shoulder, and set out. As he neared the border he noticed a soldier patrolling in the distance. The miser threw the bag away and froze. He was sure the soldier would approach him and demand to know what he was carrying. But to his pleasant surprise, the soldier didn’t budge. After a few tense minutes, the miser approached the bag he had cast away. Slowly, he lifted the bag over his shoulder and again began to cautiously edge toward the border. Meanwhile, the soldier continued to stare listlessly. The miser assured himself that he was safe, and that the soldier was probably just a statue placed there to scare people off.

As the miser neared the border, he began to walk with added confidence. When he was but a few steps from the border and already thinking about what the tremendous profits he would garner, he was startled to hear a shout, “Hey! What have you got in that bag?” The miser looked up and saw the soldier walking briskly in his direction. The officer brandished his sword in the miser’s direction, motioning him to get home fast.

As the miser hurriedly changed direction, he muttered under his breath, “You wicked soldier! You saw me immediately as I approached the border and you understood good and well what I was up to. You should’ve stopped me right away. I know why you remained mute until the last moment, because you wanted me to break my back underneath this heavy load for as long as possible. You had every intention of turning me back but you wanted to and make me feel worse that it was all an exercise in futility.”

Rabbi Binyamin noted that the Gemara[1] states that the Evil Inclination is so wicked that even its Creator calls it evil. What does the Gemara mean? Didn’t G-d create it for the purpose? How could be held in contempt for doing his job?

He explained that the Evil Inclination allows us to serve G-d throughout Elul. He even allows us to perform the steps required for repentance. Throughout the Ten days of Penitence and even on Yom Kippur he allows us to indulge our spirit in G-dly Service. But as soon as Yom Kippur is over, he attacks with full force. With the cries of “Hashem hu haElokim” still fresh on our lips he sets out to destroy the spiritual bulwarks we have erected.

We sit down to eat, ravished from the long fast, and he convinces us to rush the food into our mouths without reciting a proper blessing. Within minutes, the wily Evil Inclination has dragged us back into the morass of banal G-dly Service, lacking feeling and emotion. Then the Evil Inclination makes us feel guilty for allowing ourselves to let go of the lofty levels we achieved on Yom Kippur, and we are right back where we started before Elul began.“

After hearing the litany of horrific curses that would befall them if they did not hearken to the word of G-d, Klal Yisroel was frightened. Rashi, quoting a Medrash, writes that their faces turned green from fright. Despondently they cried out, “Who can survive such terrifying punishments?” Moshe encouraged them not to despair with the declaration, “You are all standing here today.[2]

Moshe’s message was that after forty turbulent years wandering in a desert wasteland they had survived, and even flourished as a people. Despite the numerous times they had challenged G-d, including the sin of the golden calf, the spies, the rebellion of Korach, etc. they had endured. Thus, they need not fear the severe rebuke and its ninety-eight macabre curses.

Moshe’s message is perplexing. His reassurance is analogous to a teacher who gives strict warning to her students that they better behave or else they would face severe consequences. But then, when she sees the horrified look on her student’s faces, she softens, smiles reassuringly and tells them, “Don’t worry, the punishments are not such a big deal.”

If the point here is to give the nation dire warning foreboding severe consequences for not fulfilling the mitzvos properly, their fear was warranted. Why would Moshe calm the nation and reassure them that they need not fear the rebuke?

There is a fundamental difference between fear and hopelessness. The pasuk in Tehillim says, “Praiseworthy is the man who is constantly fearful.” It is a positive attribute to be concerned about the future and apprehensive of the struggles it will bring, for it is reckless to live in blissful ignorance. However, when one becomes so consumed by his fears of the future that he becomes despondent, it is extremely destructive. Hopelessness breeds demoralization, depression, and debilitation.

Moshe recognized that the nation had reached a level of despondency. When they heard the rebuke, they lost heart and were skeptical of their ability to survive. Therefore, Moshe had to reassure them that they would endure. Moshe had no intention of negating their fear, but he wanted to ensure that they were fearful, not despondent.

The gemara[3] states that after the Bais Hamikdash was destroyed, “all the gates of prayer were sealed, except for the Gates of Tears.”

The Kotzker Rebbe questioned why there is a need for a gate for tears at all. If tears are never turned away, why can’t the entranceway be wide open?

The Rebbe explained that certain tears are barred entry from the celestial spheres – those tears which are shed out of desperation and hopelessness. As long as one cries out with hopeful resignation to G-d, believing that He is the only avenue of salvation, those tears can pierce the Heavens and transcend all barriers. However, when one is ready to throw in the towel and cries out of bitter despondency, the gates of tears are sealed from those pessimistic tears.

Psychologists explain that there is a vital difference between shame and guilt. The guilty person says “I feel guilty for something I have done.” The shame-filled person says “I feel shame for what I am.”

“Why is this distinction so important? Because people can apologize, make restitution, make amends, and ask forgiveness for what they have done; they can do pathetically little about what they are. Alchemists during medieval times spent their lives futilely trying to convert lead into gold. A person feeling shame doesn’t even try, thinking, I cannot change my substance. If I’m made of inferior material, there is no reason for me to make any effort to change myself. It would be an act of futility.Guilt can lead to corrective action. Shame leads to resignation and despair.

“Shame is not only unproductive but also counterproductive. Suppose you had an automobile that as operating well, but a part became defective. You would replace the defective part, and the car would run well again. If, however, you found your car was a lemon and each time you corrected a problem something else went wrong, you might throw up your hands in disgust. You might justifiably conclude there is no purpose in getting the car repaired.”

“This is what happens in addictive thinking. The profound shame that addicts feel results in their thinking that it is futile to change their ways. Guilt might have been undone by making amends, but amends cannot change the defective material addicts feel they are made of.

“Remorse in the addict is as common as dandelions in the spring. The addict’s tears can be heartrending. Any listener unaware of the addictive thinking would swear that this person will never again touch another drop of liquor or take another drug.[4]

Rabbi Shalom Schwadron zt’l, in his treatise about Elul and the process of teshuva called Kol Dodi[5] devotes many pages to a lengthy discourse about how our Evil Inclination tricks us into thinking we have repented sufficiently in order to hinder us from truly repenting.

He explains that the Evil Inclination takes on many forms. At times, he appears to us as a seductive friend convincing us that a particular sin is not so terrible. At other times, he comes to us dressed like a righteous scholar and mocks us for wanting to serve G-d more devoutly. “You?! The lowly you, think you can be more stringent and observant!?” he tells us.

In Elul and Tishrei, he approaches us as a righteous penitent, urging us to read some of the classic writings about ethics, and perhaps to even shed a tear out of regret for our sins. Then, he pats us on the back for reaching such lofty levels of repentance making us feel like we have accomplished true repentance and are now spiritually complete. In doing so he successfully assures that we fail to realize that our repentance is lacking a vital component.

Rav Shalom explains that repentance is only complete when one actually changes his ways. The prophet says[6] “The wicked one will forsake his ways, and the iniquitous one his improper thoughts, and he will return to Hashem and He will be merciful toward him.” All other forms of repentance are analogous to one who immerses himself in a mikvah and emerges holding an object that renders him impure. True, he submerged himself in the purifying waters, but he accomplished little in doing so[7].

Why don’t we change? It is because we are set in our routines, and real change makes us uncomfortable.

One of the reasons change is so hard is because we feel shame for our actions, not guilt. Although we know that we have many areas that require improvement, deep down we may be convinced that we cannot change. We rationalize that, “this is who I am and if I changed at all I would be fooling myself.” Thus, the guilt we feel on Yom Kippur, the guilt that makes us feel like a true penitent, may not be guilt at all. It may really be shame, one of the most debilitating emotions.

A Jew must NEVER lose heart, especially with himself. While seeking to repent, a Jew must contemplate if his tears are out of repentance or resignation. True repentance requires a belief in one’s own capabilities and potential, the belief that ‘I can accomplish and fulfill my hopes and aspirations’.

“You are all standing here today”

“…Except the Gates of Tears”

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[1] Kiddushin 30b

[2] Devorim 29:9

[3] Bava Metzia 59a

[4] Addictive Thinking; Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twersky.

[5] Printed posthumously based on his lectures

[6] Yeshaya 55:6

[7] See Sha’arei T’shuva, Sha’ar 1 :2



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