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Teshuvah Fallacies

From Where I Stand

By Rabbi Yossy Goldman
Parashas Ha’azinu is usually read between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, on Shabbos Teshuvah, also called Shabbos Shuvah. The title of the Shabbos will depend on whether we focus on the calendar (the season of teshuvah) or the Haftarah, which begins with the words “Shuvah Yisrael,” “Return O Israel.” At any rate, it is a Shabbos dedicated to the theme of teshuvah, repentance.
There are two popular misconceptions about teshuvah, and they come from opposite ends of the spectrum. The first is “I’m too good,” that is, repentance is for sinners, and since I’m no sinner and am basically a good guy and a good Jew, this whole process is irrelevant to me. No need for it on my agenda.
In other words, if I’m okay, I’m exempt from teshuvah. Right? Wrong! That’s the first fallacy. No one is exempt. Even the wholly righteous klop Al Cheit (beat their chests in penitence)—either for their own failings on a more subtle level, or for the members of their community whose lives they have not yet succeeded in transforming to a Torah lifestyle. Only those who are 100 percent perfect are exempt from teshuvah. All others must get to work. So who is perfect? In fact, there is no one as imperfect as one who thinks he is perfect.
I remember going, many years ago, to the Berea Shul in Johannesburg to hear a famous chazzan daven on Shabbos Mevorchim Elul. Indeed, the melodies and nusach were evocative of the High Holy Days. Afterwards, I bumped into a well-known baalebus, a prominent shul-going businessman. I said to him, “Nu, you really felt Elul during the davening, didn’t you?” He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Elul is for sinners. I don’t need Elul.” How wrong he was. Oy, did he need it! People with overinflated egos can sometimes fool themselves into believing everything they think about themselves.
But there is another teshuvah fallacy, too. This fallacy belongs to the overly humble, the fellow who puts himself down so low that he really believes he is beyond salvation. “I’m too bad for teshuvah. Too far gone, there’s no hope, I’m a lost case. Give up on me, Rabbi, I’m too old, too tired, too lazy, too sinful, or just too set in my ways.”
There are numerous true stories of some of the worst sinners in history who found G‑d, Torah, and themselves in an instant and returned with a full heart. The renowned Talmudic sage Reish Lakish was previously a robber chieftain. Eliezer ben Durdaya was infamous for his immorality (he once boasted that there wasn’t a woman of ill repute he hadn’t patronized), and yet in a moment of inspiration he returned and was accepted, gaining eternal life then and there. And don’t we all know people today who have turned around their lives in a most beautiful way?
This is the Shabbos of teshuvah in the week of teshuvah. Please G‑d, we will all embrace this mitzvah that applies to every one of us, from the holiest to the humblest. It is a great equalizer. May our Return be sincere, genuine, and well received up where it counts. v
Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn and was sent in 1976 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as an emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Senior Rabbi of the Sydenham Shul and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. His sefer “From Where I Stand: Life Messages from the Weekly Torah Reading” was published by Ktav and is available at Jewish book shops or online at

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Posted by on September 24, 2014. Filed under In This Week's Edition. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.