Traditionally, we are taught that there are two kinds of commandments/mitzvot — those between us and God (mitzvot bein adam la-makom), and those between us and our fellow human beings (mitzvot bein adam la-havero). Another way of understanding this is that there are ritual commandments and ethical commandments. We are also taught that Yom Kippur/the Day of Atonement can help us achieve forgiveness for misdeeds between us and God, but we must ask directly for forgiveness of the people we have hurt or disappointed (Mishneh Yoma 8:9). We begin that process by feeling guilty for the ways we have let down or been hurtful to others, and we express regret for our misdeeds. Making ourselves vulnerable in such a process is not easy, but it is more likely that the person we have hurt will be able to forgive us if we are vulnerable and sincere.
“Words that come from the heart enter the heart. If they come from the tongue, they will not pass beyond the ears.” — Rumi
Most of us who engage in the process of teshuvah/change focus on these interpersonal challenges. How do we understand the process of seeking God’s forgiveness? Do we consider ritual sins as important as hurting other people? Do we think God really cares if we eat a cheeseburger or violate Shabbat? Do we believe in a God that personally responds to our prayers for forgiveness?
Let’s look at this category from the vantage point of a global crisis. Can we use the word sin when we pollute this world? When we destroy the ozone layer, we haven’t actually hurt another person, but science now is clear that we have “hurt the world.” It is not an accident that mitzvot bein adam la-makom—commandments between people and God — use the name of God that means place (makom). As the midrash says, God is the place of the world. Being careless about how we treat this planet is being disrespectful to God. In fact, today it is a primary way that humans are desecrating the name of God. Instead of being co-creators of the world, we are destroying makom-God, as manifest in the diverse world of creation. Each time a species disappears from this world, haven’t we in effect diminished God’s name? Is there any greater desecration of God’s name (hillul Hashem) than the environmental damage to this planet created by God?
In my new book, Judaism Disrupted: A Spiritual Manifesto for the 21st Century, I discuss a third category of mitzvot/commandments, one that was unfamiliar to me despite my yeshivah education. This category is mitzvot bein adam l’atzmo/commandments between you and yourself. Here we focus on our inner spiritual qualities, cultivating generosity, gratitude, patience and satisfaction. We try to diminish such feelings as envy, anger, judgment and greed.
How do we affect teshuvah when the person we are addressing is not a friend but ourselves? Is the issue of sincerity, which is essential in interpersonal forgiveness, relevant when I am talking to myself? Concerns about vulnerability, rejection or embarrassment don’t seem to apply. Can I really ask myself for forgiveness?
Teshuvah is all about change. Change has two aspects—changing bad or unwise past patterns and imagining a different future. When it comes to changing our inner lives, we need to see as clearly as possible how we have failed to live up to our vision of ourselves or how we got stuck in fear or anxiety, how too often we responded with a clenched heart when we could have responded open heartedly? Even as we honestly acknowledge our flaws, we need to acknowledge our strengths, which are as much a part of our being as our mistakes. Rebbe Nahman of Breslov taught: If you believe that you can ruin things, then you must also believe that you can make things right. (Im attah ma’amin she-yekholin le-kalkeil, ta’amin she-yekholin le-takkein). Nahman suggests that as easy it is to believe in our failure, we must equally believe in our possibility to improve despite our pessimism.
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Buddhism talks about good qualities and their opposites (far enemies). It also suggests another category: near enemies. Near enemies are qualities that are easily confused with good qualities but are actually bad. For example, compassion is a good quality. Indifference is the far enemy of compassion. The near enemy of compassion is pity. At first glance, it seems the same as compassion; you care about those in need. However, pity connotes that you are different from the people in need. It comes with an attitude of patronizing superiority. Near enemies are particularly dangerous traps.
In fact, the near enemy of teshuvah/change is a sense of perfection. While pity may lead to a sense of grandeur, perfection as a near enemy leads to a sense of the futility of trying to change. Teshuvah is about the possible, not the impossible. The High Holiday period is an opportunity to focus on your relationship to the people in your life, to connect to God or to the universe, and finally, to focus on your inner life. The New Year is filled with the possibility of change. “If you will it, it is no dream.”
Rabbi Michael Strassfeld is the rabbi emeritus of the SAJ – Judaism That Stands for All. His latest book is “Judaism Disrupted: A Spiritual Manifesto for the 21st Century.”