Dvar Torah for Elul


Based on Likutey MoHaran I, #6

You’ve already begun the teshuvah (repentance) process. You’re “suffering in silence” (as we discussed two weeks ago); that is, you are being patient and working hard to make the improvements within yourself, constantly refining yourself, and doing teshuvah al teshuvah (repentance for a previous, insufficient attempt at repentance, as we discussed last week). A fundamental fact to bear in mind in your efforts is that there are two major deterrents to teshuvah: one is success; the other is failure.

This fact may strike you as somewhat surprising, perhaps even upsetting—after all, what is there besides success and failure? What other options could our teshuvah bring us to? Even a “tie”—some combination of success and failure—is in fact either a success or a failure, depending upon what we had been expecting from the start. If all we ever end up with is one or the other, how could we not be deterred from teshuvah? And if this is the case, are our efforts doomed from the outset?

Rebbe Nachman writes that someone who wants to repent must be an expert in halakhah. Generally speaking halakhah encompasses all areas of Jewish law, ritual, family life, economic considerations and every other conceivable facet of life. It can happen that someone gains certain limited insights and perceptions in Torah and feels that, in light of what he knows, this or that law or ritual can be dispensed with. (This is not an uncommon occurrence among people who study Kabbalah without a well-grounded, all-encompassing background in Talmud and halakhah.) This is one example of how “success” may stand in the way of effective teshuvah.

It can also happen that a person becomes so discouraged in his attempts to improve his actions too quickly, that he feels that his personal observance is meaningless, and so he neglects it. Being an expert in halakhah helps a person maintain his sense of balance, so that he stays within the parameters of Torah-Judaism.

But when Rebbe Nachman refers to halakhah in Lesson #6, his intention is something different altogether. The root of the Hebrew word halakhah means “to walk.” Thus the Rebbe speaks of halakhah as “walking the walk”—our spiritual journey through life, whether we are going up or down.

“If I ascend to Heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in Hell—You’re there!”
(Psalms 139:8)

As we wrote last week, patience is necessary for the process of doing teshuvah, simply because teshuvah can take a long time. Patience is also necessary when we manage a successful teshuvah experience—for it does happen that people set out to repent and actually succeed. Someone may see his observance improve, his understanding improve, and his character traits become more refined. One who is not careful faces the danger of becoming complacent with the success of his spiritual journey, of feeling “I’ve made it.” Yet we must not forget that Hashem (God) is infinite. Whatever we know and sense at this stage of our journey through life is mere child’s play, relative to what the next level has to offer. Reb Noson writes:

“Often we heard the Rebbe say with longing and yearning, ‘How is one worthy of being a Jew?’...He truly felt as if he not taken even the first step.”
(Rabbi Nachman’s Wisdom/His Praises #33)

“We heard from the Rebbe’s own holy lips that some people toil with devotion in order to reach a given level. They set themselves a goal and when they achieve it they are satisfied. They may be compared to a king’s servants who aspire to a particular rank....Of his own personal quest the Rebbe said, ‘If I knew that I was still on the same level that I was on yesterday I wouldn’t be able to bear it.’”
(Rabbi Nachman’s Wisdom/His Praises #34)

Rebbe Nachman had a good grasp of Judaism, to say the least. Yet he never stopped trying to improve himself. As the saying goes, “with eating comes appetite”—with a taste of success one is motivated to keep trying. Let us pray for success.

Perhaps, though, many of us have more of a problem with failure than with success. “If I make my bed in hell....” We all live through many types of hell that can block our way to teshuvah.

We may find hell in our everyday lives: family problems; financial difficulties; health concerns, whether physical or emotional; and the myriad problems that plague our communities and our nation. Rebbe Nachman once said:

“Everyone says that there is an Olam HaZeh (This World) and an Olam HaBa (World to Come). We believe Olam HaBa exists. Now, possibly, Olam HaZeh exists—somewhere else. But what we see here is Hell, for everyone experiences constant, terrible suffering...Olam HaZeh doesn’t exist at all!”
(Likutey MoHaran II, #119)

Not for nothing did the Rebbe encourage us, “Mitzvah gedolah lihiyot besimcha tamid” (It’s a great mitzvah to be happy—always)!

Frustration in the teshuvah process is its own hell. An idea rises in the back of our minds, “Now that I’ve shown up and decided to become a better Jew the doors to success should immediately open wide for me!” This festering thought can sabotage our teshuvah attempt, for, as we have pointed out, nothing in life comes easy—especially not good things. We must know that falling, failing and frustration, of various degrees and duration, is almost inevitable.

Perhaps the worst hell of teshuvah is the one of backsliding. One has had a taste of success, perhaps even a lifetime of true success, on every level. Then, suddenly, in a moment of weakness, in a moment of temporary insanity (see Sotah 3a), he gives in to the yetzer hara (Evil Urge) and finds himself wrapped up in depravity or disbelief. Companions and surroundings may change. Friday night at shul becomes Friday night at the disco. Very discouraging indeed.

“If I make my bed in Hell—You’re there!” God created not only Heaven, but Hell as well. One must never give up, no matter what. Whatever one sees, whatever one hears, from without and from within, is God-created. He is there in Hell. Just look for Him, keep looking. Even if you can’t find Him right away, look for any trace or clue of His presence. And never let go.

A Breslover was at the village mikveh (pool of water for ritual immersion) one erev Shabbat. As he was walking, he slipped and fell. As he was picking himself off the floor, some less-than-friendly locals were laughing at his pratfall. “You fell because you’re a Breslover!” they jeered. “No,” he answered. “Because I’m a Breslover I got up.”

agutn Shabbos!
Shabbat Shalom!