Many of us are familiar with this feeling. A person who feels this way, each time he falls, he feels frustrated and disappointed with himself. Although he may live according to the Torah, he still feels pressured to a large degree by his weaknesses. It casts a black shadow over his life. In addition, many times he sees himself as a walking failure, a total 'loser', and sometimes even a bad person. Where will all this lead to? Is there another way, pleasant, happy, uplifting? Let's dive deep into our feelings and what the Torah wants from us, and draw up pearls.
Maimonides writes in his commentary on the famous aphorism “Do not view yourself as evil” (Avot 2:16), a few words that are loaded with wisdom: “If a person thinks he is wicked, there is no crime he will not be capable of doing.”
Why is there is no crime he will not be capable of doing? After all, if he really is evil, what else can he expect of himself?
A person who views himself as evil, his identity and self-perception is “I'm evil, and an evildoer has no recourse but to act like an evildoer.” His view of himself dictates his behavior on the ground.
Let us briefly explain the depth of Maimonides’ words from the world of psychotherapy: 'The concept of identity, as used in psychotherapy, is a powerful tool that can change one’s disposition. A person behaves according to the way that he perceives himself. For example, a person who is not assertive, if he gradually accustoms himself to behave assertively in his walk, talk, dress, and so on, with the time will see himself as such, it will become his new persona, and he will behave like a person who is naturally assertive. The same is in our case, a man who sees himself as an evildoer will become just like that! This explains the importance of how a man sees himself. Thus our sages warned: “Do not view yourself as evil.”
The same person who looks at himself as a serial failure, as a loser, causes this image of himself to become a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” This perception is harmful to a person. It distances a person from G-d!
It also reduces his self-esteem, and he sees himself as a 'puny' person. Without a doubt it harms him and affects other areas of his life.
Even if he doesn’t feel that way, why should he suffer from this feeling of frustration? It only makes him feel bad. Of course, this is not the Torah’s intention.
Come and see what the Torah’s true intention is from Maimonides’ words regarding the desecration of the Shabbat when there is a danger to life (Laws of Shabbat 2:3), “It is forbidden to hesitate before transgressing the Shabbat on behalf of a person who is dangerously ill, [as it says in Leviticus 18:5] ‘which a person shall perform to live through them,’ instead of to die through them.”
This teaches that the judgments of the Torah do not [bring] vengeance to the world, but rather bring mercy, kindness, and peace to the world. Concerning those non-believers who say that administering such treatment constitutes a violation of the Sabbath and is forbidden, the verse [Ezekiel 20:25] applies to them: ‘I also gave them harmful laws and judgments through which they cannot live.’”
If so, there is a clear yardstick. A person who feels bad when he follows the Torah, without a doubt is viewing the commandments, or himself, or his life or his way in the world incorrectly.
If so, then what is the right way to repentance?
King Solomon said in the book of Ecclesiastes: “For there is no righteous person in the land who will do only good and not sin” (Ecclesiastes 7:20). This means that it is almost impossible for a person in this world with all the trials that confront him throughout his life to not sin even once.
The Torah testifies about the greatest man that ever lived to whom no one can compare, that even he sinned. It says about Moses and Aaron, “Because you rebelled against My command” (Numbers 20:24) If this accusation can be leveled against the greatest people in the world — Moses and Aaron — then we certainly will inevitably sin. It is natural for a human to fall sometimes.
Why really do we sin?
Well, let us present two reasons and then discuss possible ways of dealing with them.
In the book Hamaspik L’Ovdei Hashem, Maimonides’ son R’ Avraham writes that a person's spiritual and physical sides struggle with each other. If a person invests in his spiritual side, he will be less materialistic, and if he invests in his materialistic side, he will be less spiritual. Why is that?
Man is composed of a physical body and soul, which are in conflict with each other. The spirit wants spiritual pleasures and the physical wants material pleasures. Since a person's mental powers are finite, there is a limit to how much he can take in. We can compare it to a tank which has a limited capacity. So when we fill the soul with physical sensations, there is only a small remaining place for spiritual sensations. Conversely, if we will fill our lives with spiritual sensations, there will be less place for the material sensations.
And because our mind is built so that it will always choose the direction it is used to — kind of like the “Law of Inertia” — the more we continuously go in one direction, the weaker the other side will be, because the mind will always seek what is familiar. The tendency to materialism is everpresent, because a person lives in a material world, we enjoy eating and drinking, beautiful sights, and so on. It is not something that can be nullified, and therefore it’s a shame to even try.
It is a great advantage that the mind is gradually influenced by repeat actions and doesn’t change in a moment. This important feature was planted by the Creator in human beings. If our minds were too flexible, we would have no stability in our lives. Today we would be spiritual and tomorrow we would materialistic. The same thing is true of our beliefs and perceptions. If we could change in one moment, we would not be consistent, and we and society would function poorly — if at all. The person who is known as a rightwinger, might tomorrow be on the extreme left. Today he may be deeply conservative, but tomorrow ultra-permissive. How would he educate his children? How would he choose his friends? How would his wife live with him? It is essential that humans have an ordered nature.
For these two reasons, we have to be vigilant and try to gradually and intelligently increase the place that spirituality takes up inside of us at the expense of materialism.
Now we understand why anyone who sins and falls should not see himself as evil or a walking failure. You can always understand the fall — even if you do not agree with it. And a person should grow from this understanding and remind himself of his desire to fulfill G-d’s commandments, because these commandments complete and rectify ourselves, our character and our life.
Punishment for one who does not keep commandments is not a form of revenge, but to arouse us. So let's look at the commandments as the most important opportunity for us, to bring us close to our Creator, to build and fix ourselves and our lives. (One who wants to see the wisdom of the commandments and their influence on us, can learn it from books, and hopefully I will also post an article I wrote on this subject).
This positive attitude will make us feel happy in observing the commandments, as is the will of our Creator. As the Rambam writes: “The happiness that a person feels when doing the commandments, is a great service. And all who restrain himself from feeling this joy deserves retribution (!), as is said, “because you did not serve the L-rd your G-d with joy and happiness.”
This approach also establishes that a person who fell is still a good person, and he can still rectify his life. We always remember the prophet Hosea’s appeal in G-d’s name: “Israel, return to the L-rd your G-d, for you have stumbled in your sin!” G-d wants me even if I stumbled in sin!
If I look at myself as one who is capable, it will be a “self-fulfilling prophecy” in a positive direction, and help me progress!
Now you ask: “So far so good. But I sinned, I stained my soul! What should I do now?”
There is a solution: our Creator knows the reality of human vulnerability vis-a-vis sin, and He gave us the commandment of repentance “and you shall return until the L-rd your G-d and listen to His voice” (Deut. 4:30). If a person repents from the evil deed he did, and undertakes not to commit the sin again, his sin will be forgiven.
Repentance is a wondrous thing, because if a person sinned and distanced himself from his Creator — the moment he decides to repent, he is close to and desired by the L-rd. Look at the Torah’s language, “return until the L-rd your G-d” — which shows that repentance brings you right to God, close to Him!
It is not as complicated as it looks: “it is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart to do it” (Deuteronomy 30:14)! The commandment of repentance does not require self-flagellation and going into exile, it is very close to us, it depends on our mouths and our hearts — a firm decision, moving away from sin, and adopting the behavior of a person who keeps far from sin.
Let us clarify this:
Maimonides wrote: “What is repentance? The sinner should forsake his sin and remove it from his mind.” This is the first condition.
Second condition: “He should feel regret for the past” because, without it, he has not really forsaken his sin.
Third condition: He should confess his sin and say his resolution out loud.
And Maimonides adds that one of the ways of repentance is “that the one repenting should always cry and beg G-d, and give charity commensurate with his ability, and distance himself as much as possible from the matter he sinned in, and should change his name — which means that he says I am different, and I'm not the same person who did those acts and I have changed my actions all for the good and am going on a straight path.”
Note that the “name change” proposed here is really changing one’s identity. The sages say: Do you want your repentance to be firmly fixed in your heart? Change your view of yourself, don’t see yourself as one who does sins, but as a person who does only good and righteous deeds!
So what we need to do is to see ourselves in a positive light, as good people. The rest will come more easily and more happily.
We have to clarify for ourselves how it’s worth our while to be close to our Creator by keeping his commandments, how excellent they are and how much they improve our character and confer on us happiness. Let us examine and sense our inner, genuine desire for this closeness. Let us feel regret for our past offenses, be ashamed about them, and immediately accept upon ourselves that in the future we will be better and closer to G-d by keeping His commandments.
Please L-rd, we want to come close to You, we want to genuinely repent and know the living Torah that You gave us!