Rabbi Israel Chait
The famous philosopher Spinoza states:"Repentance is not a virtue, or does not arise from reason; but he who repents of an action is doubly wretched or infirm." Spinoza explains his statement further, by saying, "For the man allows himself to be overcome, first, by evil desires, secondly, by pain." Spinoza, contrary to popular opinion, had a shallow understanding of Torah. Repentance, as seen by the Torah, is the most vital institution man has in attaining perfection. It is based on a profound understanding of human nature. Repentance was an act of conscience, for Spinoza, an outburst of guilt over some sin, or evil act. This is no doubt true for the man-made religions which admonish man to let his conscience be his guide. The man-made religions are based on man's need to restrict his desires. Although man is filled with instinctual desire he finds he is unhappy when he indulges himself in unrestricted fulfillment of these desires. He feels empty and worthless. He is thus caught between two needs, the need to satisfy his desires and the need to feel a sense of worthiness. Religion solves this dilemma by placing restrictions on his desires and even instilling pain at times. The Indian sun dance was a tortuous ceremony through which the dancer's flesh was torn away by skewers. The participant walked away with a feeling of being whole and cleansed. His conscience was satisfied. Modern man-made religions, although not as grotesque, are nevertheless based on this same struggle between man's desires and his conscience.
Torah, the religion given to us by God, is not based on these conflicting urges of the human soul. Indeed many of the sins of the Torah make one feel very comfortable and are even satisfying to conscience. Idolatry, the Torah's worst sin, in which man uses some physical object to instill in himself fear of the Creator, does not evoke any sense of guilt. On the contrary, it makes one feel pious and God fearing. Yet the Torah states: you shall not make with me, gods of silver or gods of gold ..."(Exodus 20:20). The words, "with me" clearly indicate that even if these images are used to evoke a sense of the reality of God's existence they are idolatrous. The sin of the golden calf is an illustration of this point. Here the Israelites, in seeking a sense of security due to the absence of their leader Moses, created a physical object to reassure them of God's presence (see Exodus 32:1). The idea that the idolater is not in conflict with his conscience, is stated in Deuteronomy 29:18, "and he will feel blessed in his heart saying peace will be with me..."
Similarly, having mercy on a loved one who has strayed from Torah and causes others to sin does not carry with it pangs of conscience and yet is considered a sin. "You shall not have compassion and you shall not cover for him, but you shall surely kill him... because he has sought to draw you away from the Lord your God..."(Deuteronomy 13:9,10,11). Complete abstention from sexual intercourse does not seem abhorrent to conscience yet for the ben Israel is considered a most serious violation, a defiance of God's will. Ignorance and a lack of interest in Torah knowledge does not strike us as such a terrible thing yet it is one of the most serious crimes, one that is punishable by God not listening to one's prayers, as it says, "He who turns away his ear from hearing Torah, even his prayer is abomination." (Proverbs 28:9).
God's system of Torah is not based on practices that are satisfying to the human conscience. They are based on God's infinite knowledge and a very precise system that leads man to perfection, Torah. Here, man cannot use his feelings to navigate toward his destiny. He must employ the full powers of his mind in the study of God's works before he can have any knowledge of what is good and what is evil. No emotional attitude, conscience or otherwise, can give man this knowledge.
In the religion of knowledge, Torah, repentance plays a major role. Although man may have gained sight of the good he has not yet attained perfection. Man must incorporate the good in his soul and express it through his actions. This is no simple matter. Man's instinctual life (and with instinctual we include conscience) is very powerful, "for the impulse of man's heart is evil from his youth "(Genesis 8:21). The Rabbis annotate that the instinctual life begins at birth and controls man fully until puberty when the good inclination, man's ability to live according to reason, starts to gain control. The instinctual life therefore has a head start, so to speak, and is forever lying in wait to distort man's judgements, as it says:"sin crouches at the door, and to you shall be its desire"(Genesis 4:7).
Given the dynamics of the human soul and the multifarious experiences of human life it is virtually impossible that man shall not at some time fall prey to some powerful emotion, distort his vision, and sin. The wise king, Solomon, expresses it in Ecclesiastes 7:20, "For there is not a just man upon earth that does good and sins not." When man sins he has not simply committed a violation. Man's nature demands that he have a good opinion of himself. He must thus distort the truth, change his value system and confuse evil for good in order to retain a sense of inner peace. Through sin man has become changed. He has abandoned a good and taken evil in its place. His ways are removed from God, the source of all truth. What is the remedy? Man has a remarkable ability: he can envision experiences in his mind without actually living through them. This ability can save him from his misfortune. Quietly, in the recesses of his mind, when the instinctual forces have abated, when experience, with its freshness and alluring qualities is gone, the individual can replay the scenes he has lived through. He can relive and re-examine situations, impulses, and decisions he has made in an impassioned state of mind. He can reconsider, alter change and improve on judgements and actions he has made at a previous time. Free from the distorting forces of emotion, he can study logically his deeds, and determine whether or not they are in error. If they are it is never too late to change them. While it is true that we cannot always undo the effects we caused in the external world, we may have to suffer their consequences, as the wise king states, "that which is crooked cannot be made straight..." (Ecclesiastes 1:15), this limitation does not apply to the internal life of man. He can undo the harm his soul has suffered by distortion of truth. He need only see things clearly, recognize his error and understand why his action can only cause himself harm. His realization must be so complete that were he in the same situation he would not act as he did before. His repentance is complete when he reaches this point. Repentance has converted the sinner from a man removed from truth and the ways of God to one who is even closer than he was before he had sinned. Realization of error is so powerful that he is even further removed from evil than before. Repentance is not an act of conscience; but a profound learning experience. It is accomplished through understanding and analysis of one's deeds, through logical introspection, and a careful examination of good and evil. The Torah does not construe repentance as a simple antidote for sin to be done on the occasion of transgression. It is a process that is constantly ongoing in the life of the righteous individual. It is an integral part of the growth process of man. The Talmud states that if you have seen a righteous person commit a sin in the daytime you can be certain he repented by night. Repentance is a daily preoccupation of the righteous. Man must learn through experience but man cannot learn anything unless he can analyze his experiences. Sometimes we can analyze our actions before we act but at other times when we get too caught up, experience strikes at us too quickly and too forcefully. We are stunned and lose control of our abilities to think and judge properly. We give in to emotions of the moment and we fail. We can only do our analysis ex-post facto. But this does not stop us from engaging in a profound learning experience. On the contrary, if we muster up the courage to be honest with ourselves, to search for truth, we may make use of our failures and convert them into great successes. Repentance offers man fresh insights, goads him on to search out truths of Torah, and gives him a sense of worthiness that is not based on hollow emotions of conscience but on living in line with God's reality. By not identifying the sense of guilt with sin, the Torah has removed the stigma from repentance and has raised it to the level of a proud and vital institution, the very cornerstone of human perfection.