Returning to God

Written by Chaim Clorfene and Yakov Rogalsky Posted in eBook - The Path of the Righteous Gentile

If any one concept epitomizes the knowledge of God, it is Judaism's belief that man can achieve complete repentance. Judaism does not even find the word repentance sufficient, for repentance presupposes a natural state of sinfulness from which, in reality, there is no return. The Jewish idea is called tshuvah, return.

Christianity, for example, views man as being a hopeless victim of original sin. In that light, complete repentance is impossible. How can one return to one's pure nature if the pure nature itself is blemished?

In truth, repentance is withheld from the sinner only by his own evil mind and deceitful heart. If he sincerely wishes to draw near to God, the gate of repentance is open to him and no hindrance exists which can prevent him from attaining his goal. On the contrary, God opens the gate of righteousness for all and, in His lovingkindness and goodness, instructs man in the good way, as it is written, "Good and upright is the Lord; therefore, He will teach sinners the way" (Ps. 25:8). And it is also written, "The Lord is nigh unto all who call upon Him in truth" (Ps. 145:18).

How can the Christian idea of original sin be acceptable when nine souls have ascended to their eternal reward without experiencing death?[1] The most notable of these, of course, is the Prophet Elijah who ascended to heaven in a flaming chariot (Kings 2 2:11). Another was Serach, the daughter of Asher, who informed her grandfather Jacob that his son Joseph was alive and well in Egypt.[2] The great rabbi, the Baal ShemTov, was offered the opportunity to be the tenth to leave this earth without dying, but he chose to experience death.[3] He saw everything as emanating solely from God, therefore ultimately good and worth experiencing, as it says, "The feet of the Shechina descend even unto death" (Prov. 5:5 and 7:27).

Judaism rejects the notion of man being trapped by original sin. We learn that Abraham and Sara fulfilled what Adam and Eve failed to fulfill.[4] And Jacob, through his exalted service of God, achieved a true rectification of the sin of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.[5]

This means that man can return to God, no matter how far he has fallen. The method of man's return to his true and sinless state of being is systematically delineated in Judaism and workable by anyone, whether Israelite or Noahide.

Why should man strive to return to God? The lowest reason is, of course, to avoid punishment. But there is a nobler reason. Suppose a person had in his possession a great painting by Rembrandt, for example. Not knowing it was a treasureable object, he had stored it away in the attic gathering dust and mold. Once he learns that the painting is real and that he has a masterpiece in his possession, the person will certainly go up to the attic, retrieve the painting, clean it off and restore it to its original state. Is a person's own soul not worthy of a similar honor? For it is said that of all the treasures entrusted to you by your Creator, the one most worthy of honor is your own soul.[6]

God's kindness to man

1. A person must realize that God, Blessed Be He, is more merciful to man than anyone or anything else can be. The Creator, Blessed Be He, does not conceal anything from a person which might improve his personal welfare. For man is God's creation, and no one can better understand how to care for a creation than the original maker. If this principle applies to a human craftsman, who does not create any new form but merely changes the form of an already existing creation, then certainly it is true of God, Who brought man into being from absolute nothingness and sustains him at every instance and every second. God is all‑knowing in the ways of what is best for man, what can damage him and what will work to his advantage.[7]

2. One should contemplate and know that God lavishes great and abundant kindness on man. From the beginning of human existence, God has bestowed these kindnesses even without man's being worthy of them. And it is not because God has a need for man, but only because of God's great goodness and generosity.[8]

3. One should also realize clearly that God observes him at all times and that there is nothing hidden from Him. All stand revealed before Him. God knows whether or not a person has complete trust in Him. Therefore, it is fitting that a person trust God and turn to Him, abandoning ways contrary to Him. By observing the Seven Noahide Commandments with care and deliberation, one demonstrates that he has put his complete trust in God. God will then reciprocate with trust in man, leading him to success and happiness in all matters.[9]

4. There is no miracle in the creation as great as returning to God through repentance. Repentance is greater than wisdom. By means of wisdom, man can discriminate between good and evil, choosing the good and rejecting the evil. Nevertheless, the evil remains evil. But through repentance, man has the power to transform evil miraculously into good, for the sins themselves and the remorse over having committed them are the very actions that draw a person to God with impassioned longing and great love.[10]

5. A Chasidic Rebbe once happened upon a person who was a notorious sinner. The Rebbe walked up to the man and confessed that he was envious of him.

"But Rebbe," the man said, amazed, "you are a saint and I am a sinner. Why should you be envious of me?"

"Because," the Rebbe answered, "you can bring a much greater light into the world than I can. I can only bring goodness to the world by resisting sin and doing what I am supposed to do. You can transform thousands, maybe millions, of evil deeds into wondrous merits by repenting and returning to God."[11]

Advantages of repentance and how to achieve complete repentance

1. If a person has transgressed one or all of the Seven Noahide Commandments, either willfully or unintentionally, when he repents, he is obligated to confess verbally, specifying his sins before the God of kindness, Blessed Be He. How should he confess? He should speak words to this effect: "I beseech you, God, I have sinned unintentionally (or "I have transgressed willingly"). I have acted out of spite before You and I have done such‑and‑such. I regret my actions and am ashamed of them and will not do such‑and‑such again." This is the essence of confession. Anyone who increases the content of his confession and elaborates upon it is praiseworthy.[12]

2. A punishment imposed on a person by a Noahide court of law serves as an atonement for the transgression if the person confesses his sins to God in the above manner. Similarly, if one injures a friend or causes him monetary loss, even if he has paid back what he owes, he has not atoned for his transgression until he confesses to God and resolves never to repeat such a deed again.

3. Repentance atones for all sins. Even if one is evil all the days of his life and returns to God on the last of his days, none of his wickedness is mentioned to him in the Divine Judgment.[13]

4. What is complete repentance? If, after having confessed, it occurs to the person to repeat the transgression done in the past, and if the opportunity to do it arises, and if he resists and refrains from doing it solely because of his repentance and not because of his fear of anyone (a policeman, for instance), and not because he is too weak physically and can no longer do it, then he has achieved complete repentance.

For example, if a man has had a forbidden relationship with a woman and he has repented and confessed, and after a time it happens that he finds himself alone with her again, and now he resists and does not transgress, this is a person who has done complete repentance.[14]

5. If a person returns to God (repenting of his transgressions) only in his old age, at a time of life when he is no longer able to repeat the transgressions of the past, although this is not the highest form of repentance, it does help the person and he is considered a true penitent who has returned to God.

6. Even if one transgresses all his life and repents the day of his death and dies a penitent, all his sins are forgiven. Thus, if one remembers his Creator and returns to Him before he dies, he is forgiven.

7. And what is repentance? It is when the sinner abandons his sin, removing it from his thoughts, and is completely resolved not to do it again. Consequently, he regrets what has happened in the past and accepts God, the Knower of secrets, as his Witness that he will never return to such a sin again. And he needs to confess verbally and state the resolutions that he made in his heart.[15]

8. One who confesses with words and does not resolve in his heart to leave his sin is like one who immerses in a ritual pool while grasping a dead rat in his hand. The immersion in the pool brings no purification until he discards the unclean object.[16]

9. On the path of repentance, the penitent should cry to God with tears and supplications and should give charity according to his capability, at least ten percent of his income and preferably twenty percent. He should also distance himself from the thing in which he sinned or the person with whom he sinned. He should change all his deeds and tread a straight path, and he should exile himself from his present residence since exile is an atonement because it brings a person to humility, and the essence of repentance comes through a broken heart and a humble spirit.[17]

10. It is praiseworthy for the penitent to confess publicly, even to the extent of informing others of his transgressions, saying to his peers, "I have sinned against so‑and‑so and I have done such‑and‑such. But I have changed my ways, and I deeply regret my past."[18]

11. One who is haughty and does not inform others of his transgressions, choosing rather to conceal them, does not do complete repentance.

12. Public declaration refers to the sins between oneself and his fellow man. The sins that are between oneself and his Creator need not be broadcast, and, in truth, it is considered the ultimate of brazenness to reveal them, as it shows that the person is not embarrassed about them. Let him simply return to God, Blessed Be He, specifying his sins before Him. Any public confession should be in a general way without specifying actions, and he should consider it a blessing that his iniquity has not become revealed.

13. Repentance helps only with sins that one commits between himself and God. For sins that are between oneself and his fellow man, he has to pacify his fellow and ask forgiveness from him.[19]

14. If a person receives an apology, he should never refuse to be pacified, but should forgive easily and be slow to feel anger toward another. At the time someone asks forgiveness of him, he should grant favor with a full heart and a sincere spirit.[20]

15. Every person should consider himself perfectly balanced between reward and punishment. Similarly, he should see the entire world as similarly balanced because of his deeds. If he commits one sin, he tilts the scales of judgment for himself and for the entire world toward guilt and condemnation, and consequently he can be the cause of the whole world's destruction. But if he does one good deed, he can tilt the scales of judgment for himself and the whole world toward merit and can bring salvation and deliverance for himself and the whole world.[21]

The concept of free will

1. The power of self‑determination is given to every person. If he wants to direct himself toward good and righteousness, the power is in his hand; if he wants to direct himself to the way of evil, the power is similarly his.[22]

2. Man is unique in this world, and there is not another creation that can compare to him in this regard. Man is intellectually aware of good and evil. He does what he wishes to do, and no one can prevent him from choosing to do good or evil.

3. One should banish the idea that fools speak about, that God has decreed man's destiny from birth whether he will be righteous or wicked. There is no such thing. Every person has the ability to become righteous or wicked, compassionate or cruel, generous or selfish. And so it is with all other character traits and abilities to live within the normative conduct set for man by the commandments of God.[23]

It is true, however, that the individual may be born with tendencies toward specific problematic behavior, but at all times it is within his power to overcome these natural tendencies. No one is born a thief or a sexual deviant.[24]

4. If God had predetermined the individual's destiny, whether for good or for evil, on what basis could the righteous be rewarded and the wicked be punished? Just as the Creator desired that fire and wind should naturally rise upward, and water and earth should naturally descend, and that a planet should move in a circular motion, and all other creatures of the world should act in accord with the nature that God chose for them, thus did God desire that man should have the free will to determine his actions.[25]

5. Therefore, man is judged according to his deeds. If he does good, good is done to him. If he does evil, evil is repaid him. And at a future time, he must surrender himself to Judgment for his thoughts, speech, and actions. If a person fulfills the Seven Noahide Commandments, thereby doing good in this world, he is repaid with boundless good from God.

6. The reward for doing good is hundreds of times greater than the punishment for doing evil, for it is written, "for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me; and showing mercy unto the thousandth generation of them that love Me" (Exod. 20:5‑6).

Divine Providence and the individual; the fortune of the individual being dependent on his deeds; the methods of achieving repentance

1. Whenever a person commits a transgression with his own knowledge and will, it is proper that he be punished for it so that he be paid for his deeds. God knows exactly how he should be paid. The judgment may be that the sinner should be punished in this world with afflictions of his body (various diseases or seeming accidents). Or the punishment might take the form of loss of property and wealth, or the sinner's children might be afflicted because of his wrongdoings. Also, there are sins that are judged to be repaid in the World to Come, and so no harm befalls the transgressor in this world. And there are sins that must be paid for both in this world and in the World to Come.[26]

2. One should consider it a great kindness to be punished in this world, because the World to Come is eternal and everything of it is eternal. This reveals a glimmer of understanding of why the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper. It is as if God says of the wicked, "The little good he did in this world I will repay him in this world so that there remains no reward for him in the Eternal World, and the payment for his sins awaits him in fullest measure." And of the righteous, it is as if God says, "For his few sins I will punish him in this world, where afflictions are transitory, and for his great number of merits I will withhold reward in this world so that I can bestow upon him the greatest possible measure of eternal good in the World to Come."

3. When we speak of a man paying for his wicked deeds, this presumes that he does not repent and abandon them. But if he repents, it is considered a shield between him and the punish­ment. And just as a man sins because of his own understanding and free will, he can also repent through his own understanding and free will.[27]

4. There is a circumstance in which God does not offer a person the opportunity to repent. When with his own understanding and free will, a person commits an extremely grave sin or an overwhelming number of sins (such as causing many others to sin by leading them to idolatry or causing them to follow a false religious doctrine), the opportunity to abandon his evil is not granted to him in order that he should be lost in the sins that he committed. However, this merely means that repentance is not made easy for the person. Nevertheless, it is written that nothing can stand between a man and repentance, for a person can always overcome the obstacles and through strength of will return to God in full repentance.[28]

5. A person should constantly regard himself as being close to death, and finding himself standing in sin, he should imme­diately repent from all his sins. He should not say, "When I grow older, I will repent." Perhaps he will die before he reaches old age.[29]

6. One should not say that repentance applies only to sins involving actual deeds, such as forbidden sexual relations and theft. For just as a man must repent of those, he must become introspective concerning his evil characteristics and repent of them, from his anger and his hatred and from jealousy and folly and from pursuit of wealth and honor and excessive gluttony and other base character traits. From all of them, he must return to God. For a person who is sunk into these base pursuits and evil traits, it is harder to abandon graver sins involving actual evil deeds.[30]

7. A true penitent should not worry that, as a result of his sins, he is a long way from the exalted status of the righteous. The truth is that he is loved and treasured by the Creator as if he had never committed a sin. Moreover, when he repents, his reward is enormous: he has tasted sin and departed from it, and has conquered his evil inclination. This makes him far greater than one who has never tasted sin, for he has achieved a greater spiritual conquest.[31]

8. The ways of the penitent should be humble and extremely modest. If fools and boors taunt him about his previous deeds and say to him, "Yesterday you were doing such‑and‑such, and now look at you trying to be so high and mighty," he should pay no attention to them, but listen silently and rejoice and know that their insults are bringing him great merit. When a penitent is embarrassed about his past deeds and is humiliated because of them, his merits are increased and his spiritual level is exalted.[32]

9. It is a grave sin to say to a penitent, "Remember your previous deeds," or to mention anything of his past ways in order to embarrass him, or to mention ideas or incidents that will remind him of what he has done.

10. Great is repentance, for it draws a person close to God, and the further one's distance, the closer and more beloved one can become through repentance. "Yesterday he was despicable in front of God; he was disgusting, distanced, and an abomi­nation. And today, he is precious, close, and beloved."[33]

Payment in the World to Come

1. The treasure reserved for the righteous is eternal life in the World to Come. This is a life that does not incorporate death. It is a good that does not coexist with evil. And the punishment for the wicked is that they do not merit this life, but they will be cut off and will die out. And all who do not merit this life are truly considered dead. The wicked are cut off in their wickedness and perish like animals. That is to say that the wicked one whose soul is severed from the body by spiritual extinction does not merit the eternal life of the World to Come.[34]

2. Loss of the life of the World to Come is the most terrible retribution, for this is a total loss and a complete destruction. It is a loss than can never be regained because repentance and return to God can be achieved only while the soul is in the body in this material world. Once the soul has separated from the body, it is no longer the time for good deeds or wicked deeds or repentance. Then it is the time for reward or punishment.[35]

3. There are certain misguided people who imagine that the reward for obeying God's commandments and for following the way of truth is to inherit a paradise where they are able to eat and drink sumptuous foods and beverages, to enjoy relation­ships with "beautiful forms," to wear linen and brocaded garments, to dwell in ivory palaces and use vessels of gold and silver, and other similar fantasies. The intelligent among mankind will easily see that these images are foolish and vain, and that there is neither inner purpose nor spiritual meaning to them. These ideas betray a lack of understanding and a compulsion for materialism, for it is only because we have physical bodies that these things have any meaning. All of these dreams of sensory delights are attractive only to the body; the soul has no longing for them. The soul desires to fulfill bodily needs only so as to establish and maintain health, and takes no pleasure in physical delights at all.[36]

4. In the time of the eternal life where there is no body nor any physical existence at all, these material things will be entirely nullified. And there, in the World to Come, the great goodness is for the soul alone. And there is no way in this world to grasp or comprehend any understanding of this pleasure whatsoever. But the delights of the World to Come are glorious beyond human concept, and there is nothing of this world to compare to their supernal goodness.

5. The sages of Israel call it the World to Come not because it will exist in a future time and cannot be found here and now, but because it is the life that comes to man after the physical life of this world, in which the soul is encased in a physical body. The World to Come exists now and can be found now. It is found as it has been found from the very beginning.[37]

6. We are commanded to walk the middle path for it is the good and proper way, as it says, "You should walk in His ways" (Deut. 30:16). Just as God is called gracious, man must be gracious. Just as God is called merciful, man must be merciful. Man is obligated to follow the ways of God to the fullest extent of his ability.[38]

7. A person can accustom himself to this manner of conduct by performing deeds that reflect moderation, repeating them constantly until they become ingrained and established traits. And because these traits are called names such as gracious, merciful, kind, righteous, which the Creator is called, this way of the Middle Path is called the way of God. Whoever walks this path brings goodness and blessing to himself.[39]

8. This middle path is a striving for moderation in all things, in physical pleasures, emotional expression, even in intellectual and spiritual pursuits. A parable is given of a religious man who discovers that by withdrawing from a certain physical pleasure, he automatically feels closer to God. So what does he do? He acts in the extreme, becoming a hermit, denying himself everything of this world, denying himself anything of human existence. It does not take long before he degenerates to a level of inhumanity like a wild animal, further from God than when he began his spiritual journey. We can understand the cause of his failure by considering two men, one with a gold coin and the other with a million gold coins. Obviously, the man with a million gold coins has 999,999 more than the man with one. Now consider the case of three men, one with one gold coin, a second with a million gold coins, and a third with infinite gold coins. Who is closer to the one with infinite gold coins, the man with one or the man with a million? They are both exactly the same distance away. So it is with any field of human endeavor. Man is a finite being with limited intellect, limited emotions, limited physical strength. God is infinite. There is no way that man, by using his own reason and power, can approach the Creator. This is why the hermit's conclusion, logical as it may have seemed, failed him. Man can approach the Infinite only by following the method prescribed for him by the Infinite, and the method prescribed is the way of moderation, the middle path.

9. There are exceptions. When it comes to anger or false pride, one should strive to avoid these destructive traits to the ultimate. Anger is controlled and ultimately eliminated by speaking softly to all people at all times and in all situations.[40] And pride is circumvented by realizing that one is nothing and achieves nothing except for what God bestows as a gift. Another exception to clinging to the middle path is what is called shtus d'kedusha, the foolishness of holiness. This means that man, finding himself in a situation of being sunk in the pursuit of physical pleasures, even permissible physical pleasures, must sometimes act in the extreme to counter the situation and eventually achieve moderation.[41]

10. In order to assure success in one's strivings, it is important to select a respected friend as both a consultant and a confidant. When matters of doubt or concern arise pertaining to per­formance of the Seven Laws of Noah, another's assessment of the situation will provide objectivity in determining the appropriate course of action. This is called, Aseh lecha rav (attain a teacher for yourself).[42] This spiritual "buddy system" will expand one's perspective and clarity, objectives that can be met even if the advisor is less than a towering genius or spiritual giant. What is desired here is the ability to open up in a sincere dialogue. This can be achieved even with an advisor who is on a lower level than the one seeking advice.

11. Every person on the earth whose spirit is humble and who differentiates between good and evil in order to be able to stand before God, to serve Him and know Him and walk upright in His path, removing the yoke of the scheming and calculating with which most people conduct their lives, sanctifies the Holy of Holies. God will be this person's portion and inheritance in this world and the World to Come forever and ever. And he will merit success in all his material efforts in this world. As it is written, "Seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near" (Isa. 55:6).

[1] Yalkut S'himoni, Ezekial, chapter 367, section 28. The nine who entered the Garden of Eden without tasting death are Hanoch, Elijah, Messiah, Eliezer the servant of Abraham, Oved the King of Cush, Hiram the King of Tzor, Yaabetz the grandson of Rav Yehuda the Prince, Serach the daughter of Asher, and Batya the daughter of Pharaoh, who adopted Moses. There is one opinion that Rav Yehoshua ben Levi is one of the nine instead of Hiram the King of Tzor.

[2] Yalkut Me'am Loez, Rav Yakov Culi, Genesis, volume 2, page 779

[3] Babylonian Talmud, Baba Batra, chapter 5

[4] Sefer HaArchin Chabad, Y. Kahn, volume 1, pages 83, 84

[5] Duties of the Heart, Gate of Repentance, chapter 10

[6] Ibid., Gate of Trust in God, chapter 3

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Shaare Tshuvah, The Mittler Rebbe, chapter 1

[10] Tales of the Chassidim, Zevin, Stories of the Jewish Holidays, story 45, page 45

[11] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance, chapter 1, law 1

[12] Ibid., chapter 1, law 3

[13] Ibid., chapter 2, law 1

[14] Ibid., chapter 2, law 2

[15] Ibid., chapter 2, law 3

[16] Ibid., chapter 2, law 4

[17] Ibid., chapter 2, law 5

[18] Ibid., chapter 2, law 9

[19] Ibid., chapter 2, law 10

[20] Ibid., chapter 3, law 4

[21] Ibid., chapter 5, law 1

[22] Ibid., chapter 5, law 2

[23] Sicha of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Purim 5746 (1986)

[24] Mishneh Torah, Laws ofRepentance, chapter 5, law 4

[25] Ibid., chapter 6, law 1

[26] Ibid., chapter 6, law 2

[27] Ibid., chapter 6, law 3

[28] Ibid., chapter 7, law 2

[29] Ibid., chapter 7, law 3

[30] Ibid., chapter 7, law 4

[31] Ibid., chapter 7, law 8

[32] Ibid., chapter 7, law 6

[33] Ibid., chapter 8, law I

[34] Ibid., chapter 8, law 5

[35] Ibid., chapter 8, law 6

[36] Ibid., chapter 8, law 8

[37] Ibid., The Book of Knowledge, chapter 1, law 6

[38] Ibid., chapter 1, law 7

[39] Iggeret HaRamban, Nachmanides' letter to his son

[40] Bati l’Gani, page 4

[41] Chapters of the Fathers 1:6, Aseh lecha rav, (attain a teacher for yourself).

[42] Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee Years, chapter 13, law 13


Leave a comment

You are commenting as guest.