“For the sin we committed before You by eating and drinking.”
In the “Al Ĥet” sin list we read multiple times over Yom Kippur, the appearance of a confession about eating and drinking seems odd; it feels prosaic and trivial next to unwarranted hatred or speaking ill of others. It takes physical strength to fast; it takes mental determination to quell physical desire. To have that determination, you need to know what you’re fasting for and why.
Tzom Gedalia, the fast of Gedalia, always follows Rosh HaShana. Most people are relieved for the break from food but do not necessarily understand why we observe this fast or what its significance is. In the annual words of my grandmother: “Who’s Gedalia, anyway?” So who is Gedalia, anyway, and why is this day significant?
Gedalia was a procurator of Judah, assigned by King Nebuchadnezzar to govern the remaining Jews in Israel after the exile. Nebuchadnezzar decimated our nation and then banished the remaining residents from their land after destroying the Temple; those few who stayed became a straggling remnant of a lost nation. This is recounted in the book of II Kings: “Thus, Judah was exiled from its land. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon put Gedalia, son of Ahikam son of Shaphan, in charge of the people whom he left in the land of Judah” (25:21–22). There was a great deal of anxiety about the treatment of this remnant, but Gedalia reassured a group of questioning officers that if the residents stayed in the land and followed the Babylonian authorities, “It will go well with you” (25:24). Seven months later, a day which some believe was actually Rosh HaShana, Ishmael ben Nethania – one of the officers who had initially approached Gedalia and who was himself of royal descent – came with ten men and murdered Gedalia and those with him. The rest of the people left Judah for Egypt, fearing the worst.
The story is recounted in greater detail in Jeremiah 41. The day after Gedalia was killed, when no one yet knew, a group of eighty men from the area came to see him, their garments torn and their bodies gashed. They were vulnerable and beaten, but they still came bearing offerings for the Temple, gifts that would never be given. The murderer Ishmael invited them into the town to see Gedalia and then slaughtered them and threw their bodies into a cistern. Ishmael then carried any remaining stragglers off in the direction of Ammon. A warrior, Johanan ben Karea, who set out to kill Ishmael, intervened and took the rest of the people to Egypt for protection. Ishmael got away. The rabbis declared a fast day to mourn not only the death of Gedalia but the death, in many ways, of the few remaining Jews in the land of Israel, killed essentially by their own, the worst possible way to end the enduring presence of the Jews in their homeland. The destruction of even one righteous person, they believed, was the equivalent of the destruction of the House of God.1Rosh HaShana 18b. We fast for one – the destruction of the Temple; we must fast for the other – the destruction of a human life that represented the end of Jewish life in the land of Israel at the time. The fast is mentioned in the book of Zechariah, with the climax at the end of the verse: “You must love honesty and integrity” (8:19).
We mourn a righteous leader by fasting, but the fast is also intended to mourn the absence of Jews in the land of Israel long ago. Even when the Temple was destroyed, there was still a population of Jews inhabiting the land. After the exile, that population dwindled. But no Jews remained in their land after the murder of Gedalia. The fast offers us the opportunity, at a time of personal reflection, to think about collective losses of identity and how often we hurt ourselves more than outsiders ever could. Ishmael’s weakness made us all ultimately vulnerable.
We know the saying well. Ethics of the Fathers asks, “Who is strong?” and replies, “One who conquers his desires” (4:1). When we discipline ourselves to achieve our deepest goals, we have mastery over desire instead of desire having mastery over us. Acting on impulse and the momentary need for gratification can unravel our best long-term personal objectives into a moral mess that is hard to clean up. It is not easy to face the consequences of our actions, particularly of our transgressions. It takes emotional strength and resilience to face the worst of ourselves and improve our attitude and behavior without being overwhelmed by sadness or paralyzed by depression: “I just can’t do it.” And when we articulate those words, we really believe them. We have convinced ourselves that we have no willpower. We are weak, not strong.
Personal weaknesses so often appear on a plate. Some commentaries on the Al Ĥet list point to specific religious breaches connected to food. We eat without saying the appropriate blessings before and afterwards. We eat food that we shouldn’t, sneaking a taste of something prohibited for a kosher-only crowd. “I’m a bad Jew,” we might hear from someone who keeps kosher at home but loves a BLT on the road.
We can even get more talmudic and turn to a passage that suggests we are judged by the company we keep. A scholar, the Talmud recommends, should eat only with the wise, lest meals devolve into ribaldry and inappropriate trivialities, and lest others witness the scholar potentially compromising himself. On a similar note, Ethics of the Fathers advises that every meal involving three people be accompanied by a teaching moment to sanctify the food, a dvar Torah. We may confess on Yom Kippur for failing to make an ordinary meal into a time of shared study; we rushed a Shabbat meal to get a nap and did not sanctify that meal by sharing Torah. For that we confess.
And yet, despite all of the potential spiritual infractions possibly hinted at in this confession, there is another larger and looming question: am I eating and drinking the way that I should, the way that optimizes my health and minimizes any addictions or bad habits born of years of socialized behavior? We adopt food-related behaviors very early and may spend a lifetime fighting them or resigning ourselves to them but never quite relinquishing the residual emotional impact that this tension presents. Food is rarely an emotionally neutral subject, and when we speak about it in a prayer for self-improvement we understand that it is part of a larger conversation about self-discipline and achieving objectives incrementally, objectives that must be secured and maintained day after day after day.
We are what we eat. We are how we eat. We are the way we manage everyday behavior that can easily spiral out of control, breaking the biblical prohibition: “But take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously” (Deuteronomy 4:9). We are commanded by God to take the utmost care of the body that houses the soul. Maimonides writes that when the body suffers, the soul cannot achieve its great heights. Sickness is consumptive; it eats time and distracts us from focusing on other matters. Our faith demands that health must be of supreme personal concern, and one of the markers of good health is food consumption or restraint.
It is easy enough to imagine cases of transgression that seem deserving of a confession. It’s the obese young man with the growing waistline who tells his doctor he is dieting but is secretly hiding stashes of junk food all around the house. It’s the thin high school senior battling anorexia who looks in the mirror and sees someone ugly and heavy before her. It’s the middle-aged woman in a failing marriage who has a drinking problem, but denies it to her friends and children who desperately want her to get help. It’s the grandfather with diabetes who keeps plying his grandchildren with candy and always orders cake in restaurants.
But why only look at the extreme cases when ordinary living poses so many daily food challenges? Betraying the simple goals we set for ourselves that keep us in good health is also worthy of a few lines of reflection once a year, so we say the confession along with everyone else. I keep Philo of Alexandria’s quote in my wallet: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” Great is in the eye of the beholder.
New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni wrote a memoir of his lifelong struggle with food, Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater. The picture on the book’s back cover shows a svelte journalist who seems, on the surface, to be winning the battle. In this memoir he talks about his own food lies, the lies he told himself about his metabolism and habits and the lies he told others about what he was eating and drinking. This surfaced for him in a particularly ironic way when he was asked to transition from political correspondent to restaurant critic, which meant getting paid to eat. He describes the insanity of the decision to plunge into a world of constant eating when he had struggled with his weight constantly. Bruni finally concludes that what had changed most about him when his weight was under control “wasn’t determination. It was honesty.” He stopped lying to himself about the damage food could and did do and knew that his body was speaking to him with all the warning signs. He just chose to ignore them. “The care and the candor are the challenge,” he says, and “one botched day or even one botched week wasn’t apocalyptic. It was life as most people lived it – certainly as I did.”2Frank Bruni, Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater (New York: Penguin Press, 2009), 248.
The tug-of-war of food and self-discipline begins early in Jewish texts. We find an odd swath of talmudic discourse in chapter eight of Yoma, which focuses on repentance, specifically on Yom Kippur and its prohibitions. Because we are fasting, we often think about food and our relationship to it even more than usual. Into these debates enters a disquisition on repentance and the biblical transitional food of our wilderness trek to the Promised Land: manna. Manna was a strange food, introduced in Exodus 16 when the Israelites were starving and protested that Moses and Aaron had not made sufficient accommodation for their hunger in the desert. God gave them food, but it was not at all what they had in mind:
In the morning there was a fall of dew about the camp. When the fall of dew lifted, there, over the surface of the wilderness, lay a fine and flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” – for they did not know what it was. And Moses said to them, “This is the bread which the Lord has given you to eat.” (Exodus 16:13–15)
Manna is actually named for the experience of confusion, shifting the language slightly from “Man hu?” – what is it? – to manna. They named the food after a question. This was faith food, soul food, and they had no prior acquaintance with it. But for the next forty years, until the early chapters of Joshua, this was virtually the only food they would know. When they entered the land, the day after they offered the Passover sacrifice, the manna stopped its heavenly descent: “On that same day, when they ate of the produce of the land, the manna ceased. The Israelites got no more manna; that year they ate of the yield of the land of Canaan” (Joshua 5:12).
The manna was designed as a spiritual food to test the Israelites’ faith. This was stated from the outset: “I will rain down bread for you from the sky, and the people shall go out and gather each day that day’s portion – that I may test them, to see whether they will follow My instructions or not” (Exodus 16:4). Food can become a test in a Pavlovian sense. If you observe certain conditions, then you will receive your due. But it seems that God had something different in mind because the food itself was special; it was divinely produced and distributed. The fact that God created an essentially different food for the journey puzzled the rabbis of the Talmud, who waxed eloquently on the manna’s properties specifically as a food of repentance. It not only fueled the Israelites physically, it strengthened them internally, to help them transition out of their slavish dependence on masters for sustenance and accustom themselves to One Master who provided for them but also forced them to partner in food gathering and preparation. Helping the Israelites adjust to an autonomous lifestyle in a homeland would require an inherent shift of behavior and attitude. The manna was there as a faith tool.
The manna was round and white and was delivered on dew throughout the camp: “The people would go about and gather it, grind it between millstones or pound it in a mortar, boil it in a pot, and make it into cakes” (Numbers 11:8). The sages analyzed manna’s penitential properties through verses like this and used playful word dissections to discover what about it promoted faith. They concluded that manna was white because “it makes white [cleanses] the sins of Israel.”3Berakhot 75a. It had the capacity to make people vulnerable and open, revealing truths that might otherwise have been hidden. One sage wondered why the manna was delivered daily and not annually, answering that the daily distribution stimulated the Israelites to consider every day whether they were worthy of divine food. An annual gift would not have secured this kind of instant and constant attentiveness to their relationship with God or to their own behavior: “Thus they were found to turn their attention to their Father in heaven.”4Ibid., 76a. The various verbs suggesting different ways the manna was distributed and cooked were understood by the sages as a public statement of goodness. If you were righteous, the manna was delivered to your tent door already in the form of bread. If you were wicked, you had to travel to get it and then pound it with a mortar to make it into flour. If you were neither righteous nor wicked, the manna had to be gathered but was not far away and appeared as cakes. Manna was the food of faith because the food was a visible, public witness to your behavior. It stood in judgment of your deeds through its daily delivery.
The Israelites were mid-trek when they struggled mightily with temptation and suffered food fatigue. They were tired of the manna and its blandness: “Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look at!” (Numbers 11:6). One medieval exegete described their gullets as dry and parched as a result of this heaven-sent bread.5See the comments of Rashbam, Rabbi Samuel ben Meir, on this verse. In other words, they lost sight of its heavenly properties and only experienced its limitations. They were desperate for meat and wanted to know if this God of theirs could provide them with the near impossible in the wilderness: a glut of meat. The text proceeds to tell us with visual insight what the Israelites suddenly experienced in response to their food cravings, rich in sensual detail:
A wind from the Lord started up, swept quail from the sea and strewed them over the camp, about a day’s journey on this side and about a day’s journey on that side, and some two cubits deep on the ground. The people set to gathering quail all day and night and all the next day…and they spread them out all around the camp. The meat was still between their teeth, nor yet chewed, when the anger of the Lord blazed forth against the people and the Lord struck the people with a very severe plague. That place was named Kibroth-hattaava because the people who had the craving were buried there. (Numbers 11:31–34)
Unlike the manna that was delivered on divine dew at a set time, the text emphasizes the collapse of time. The people in their greed ate day and night, without restraint. They saw meat everywhere they looked, piled high and dense. They traveled a day’s journey to get it, and when they saw it, they ravaged the quail flesh. The image of a plague striking them while the meat was still between their teeth, not yet chewed into food but stuffed into their formerly parched gullets, is graphic and revolting. We have little sympathy for these whining, excessive Israelites whose taste buds were more important than God’s larger vision, which required patience and discipline. The place name given for this incident literally means “graves of desire.” Desire can become a tombstone, a marker of everything that we fail to do to preserve our best instincts and desires.
Today, we know more about willpower and its limitations than we ever have. Psychologist Roy Baumeister and journalist John Tierney, in their book Willpower, state the belief that willpower alone is our greatest human strength.6Roy Baumeister and John Tierney, Willpower (New York: Penguin, 2011); see also Kelly McGonigal, The Willpower Instinct (New York: Avery, 2011). In an earlier book by Baumeister, he and his co-authors concluded that “self-regulation failure is the major social pathology of our time,” relating it to increases in crime, divorce, and domestic violence.7See Roy Baumeister, Dianne Tice, and Todd Heatherton, Losing Control (San Diego: Academic Press, 1994).
At the same time, Baumeister believes, willpower needs resistance training. You can develop more willpower if you use your willpower. The downside is that, like a muscle, willpower also gets depleted with fatigue and overuse. Kelly McGonigal, in The Willpower Instinct, believes that willpower is not a mind-over-body response but an actual biological function that is adaptive with proper nurturing. Too much self-control can have negative effects, just as temptation and stress can place an unnecessary burden on the willpower muscle. Practice helps us make progress. In fact, Tierney praises observant religious people, believing that they are a good example of how self-discipline shapes character and builds self-control.
In a radio interview, Tierney said, “Just putting food where you can see it next to you depletes your willpower. Whereas putting it away in a drawer or putting it across the room makes it easier for you because you’re not actively resisting the temptation.”8See National Public Radio, “Resistance Training for Your ‘Willpower’ Muscles,” http://www.npr.org/2011/09/18/140516974/resistance-training-for-your-willpower-muscles. Tierney also warned about being careful with willpower since one has only a finite amount of it: “conserve it and try to save it for the emergencies.”
Psychological tests done on students have borne this out. Those who resisted the temptation to eat cookies, for example, did more poorly on tests later in the day since they required more self-discipline overall. Holding back desire for a significant period of time can result in a binge release. The message: pick what you need to be disciplined about because it is impossible to have the mental strength to overcome all desire. Researchers refer to usage of finite willpower as “ego depletion.” In fact, McGonigal believes that when our discipline fails and we beat ourselves up over it with guilt and shame, we may be lessening the chances for willpower to kick in in the future. Those with self-compassion and self-forgiveness generally also have the best self-control.
McGonigal argues that often when it comes to thinking about and changing ourselves, there is a disconnect between our current behavior and attitudes and the way that we imagine ourselves to be in some unknown future. In that future, we imagine that we will behave differently than we do now. We will be nicer, slimmer, more generous, and more carefree. Perhaps our future Jewish selves will learn more, give more tzedaka, and pray with more consistency and intention. But McGonigal believes that it is much more likely that the future looks a lot like our present when it comes to the self. Psychological tests reveal that when people saw digitally age-enhanced versions of themselves and then were given a thousand dollars, they allocated double the money to their retirement fund. Students who were given a choice of volunteering this semester or next were willing to give twenty-seven minutes to doing good this semester; those signing up the for the following semester volunteered eighty-five minutes. When asked to volunteer others, students signed up peers for 120 minutes.9See the work of psychology professor Emily Pronin of Princeton University as cited in Alina Tugend, “Bad Habits? My Future Self Will Deal with That,” New York Times, February 25, 2012, B5. We demand more of our future selves and others than we demand of ourselves now. Why? Because we envision that we will be better tomorrow than we are today.
But a wish is not the same thing as the kind of behavior management that would brush away our doubts and actually set us on a real course for improvement in the days ahead. Every Yom Kippur we imagine a tomorrow filled with piety, until we actually get there and discover that too often, without a plan in place, the week after Yom Kippur looks a lot like the week before it.
And even though they say that bad habits are hard to break, Charles Duhigg, in his recent book, The Power of Habit, argues that the more we know about how we form our habits, the easier they are to change. He amasses scientific evidence to show that difficult tasks repeated multiple times become rote. We may barely think about what we do when we shoot a basket, drive a car, or take a shower because we go into automatic pilot. We’ve done things so many times that our bodies engage even if our minds are coasting. David Brooks, writing on Duhigg, claims that “your willpower is not like a dam that can block the torrent of self-indulgence. It’s more like a muscle, which tires easily.”10David Brooks, “The Machiavellian Impulse,” New York Times, March 1, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/02/opinion/brooks-the-machiavellian-temptation.html?_r=1. It needs to be fortified.
If repetition is the key to habit, then recalibrating behaviors and performing them differently, again and again, becomes one critical way that we break bad habits and willfully choose new ones. When we learn new routines and practice them repeatedly, we “teach” ourselves to adopt the best practices. It is awkward at first but still doable. Research conducted at Duke University shows that 40 percent of our behaviors are formed through habit rather than intentional decisions. With a little concerted mental effort, we can reshape old habits.11See Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit (New York: Random House, 2012) and a review of it, “Can’t Help Myself,” by Timothy D. Wilson, New York Times Book Review, March 11, 2012, 15. We can train ourselves to follow new habits to the extent that they become a permanent fixture of the way we operate in any given realm, repeating new behaviors until they have the ease of old habits. Habits are like friends; it takes a long time to make a new friend an old friend. It is common to underestimate how long the integration of these new habits will take.
The research on willpower corresponds with much of what we read in Musar literature, ethical works largely developed in nineteenth-century Eastern and Western Europe to aid in spiritual growth and self-improvement. The world of Musar presents the forces of good and evil – yetzer hatov and yetzer hara – in constant battle with each other. We are the battlefield where the fighting takes place. Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler (1892–1953), in one of the most important works of Musar, Strive for Truth, makes the battlefield a place of small victories and large obstacles.
Rabbi Dessler was the scion of a rabbinic family and the founder of the Gateshead Yeshiva in the north of England. In 1947, he moved to Bnei Brak to learn and teach in Israel. Notes taken by his students during his lectures formed the basis of Strive for Truth, a book prepared by one of his disciples, Aryeh Carmell. One of Rabbi Dessler’s most noted contributions to the world of Jewish self-improvement lies in his observations on the beĥira point.12Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, Strive for Truth, trans. Aryeh Carmell (Jerusalem: Feldheim Publishers, 2004); see parts 1–4 in the three-volume set. The beĥira point appears throughout Rabbi Dessler’s book and in collected sermons. Beĥira is the Hebrew term for “choice,” but specifically refers to choices made of one’s free will. Rabbi Dessler compared our moral choices to life on the battlefield. He writes, “When two armies are locked in battle, fighting takes place only at the battlefront.”13Ibid., 52. Any territory behind the lines of either army is assumed to be in the possession of that army. If one army pushes the other back, then that territory, too, becomes the assumed possession of that particular army. He compares this notion of the point where the troops meet to choices that individuals make:
The situation is very similar with regard to beĥira. Everyone has free choice – at the point where truth meets falsehood. In other words, beĥira takes place at the point where the truth as the person sees it confronts the illusion produced in him by the power of falsehood. But the majority of a person’s actions are undertaken without any clash between truth and falsehood taking place.14Ibid., 53.
Most decisions we make, Rabbi Dessler argues, are not a struggle for us. We may have been raised with certain values that operate within us naturally. For example, a person raised within a framework of kashrut observance will not think twice about whether or not to eat something non-kosher, thus the popular salami diet. A person who keeps kosher may fight the urge for chocolate but may never fight the temptation for ham. If he pops a piece of salami in his mouth in the presence of milk chocolate, cheese cake, or a milkshake, chances are good that he will have no desire to eat dairy products (because of the lengthy separation between milk and meat for kosher-only eaters). There is no struggle for that individual; therefore, the beĥira point is not activated. In addition, Rabbi Dessler believes that “any behavior a person adopts as a result of training or by copying others is not counted as his own,”15Ibid., 60. since this is not his own battlefield. He cannot praise himself for not eating ham. He can only praise himself for exercising discipline to overcome a challenge that he actually has. In Rabbi Dessler’s words, “Beĥira comes into play only when one is tempted to go against the truth as one sees it and the forces on either side are more or less equally balanced.”16Ibid., 54. We want to move from desire to clarity. “The ultimate aim of all of our service is to graduate from freedom to compulsion. We do not want to remain in that confused state in which ‘truth’ and ‘falsehood’ seem equally valid alternatives.”17Ibid., 62.
The moral battlefield is one that we create and one that we largely control. While we cannot control what we are up against, we do control how we respond to it. When we battle the forces against us and make good choices, we can get to the point that Rabbi Dessler calls compulsion. We feel utterly compelled to make good decisions; we have so profoundly integrated good choices that it would not occur to us to make poor ones. Thus, we have changed the battlefield. In order to change it, we have to spend time discovering our beĥira point.
Imagine a person who battles every day with a weight problem. Every time he or she takes food, the battle rages within. After extensive dieting and overcoming recurring health problems, this individual no longer faces the same battlefield because he or she has integrated more healthful eating habits. Rabbi Dessler calls this “higher unfreedom.”
There is an even higher level on the battleground. Compulsion is still an active force, a decision, even if it is a decision for good. At a certain point of commitment, individuals do good for the sake of goodness; there is no compulsion at all. Doing right is simply natural. “Compulsion applies only where there is resistance. One cannot speak of compulsion to do something one loves.”18Ibid., 62–63.
Rabbi Dessler helps us consider the humanity of the moral struggle and our place within it. The point of choice on a battleground is the place where equally compelling forces are pulling us in different directions and where an active choice is required. The more our capacity to do good becomes instinctive, the more able we are to move the lines on the battlefield so that we possess more moral territory. For those who are able with constancy and regularity to conquer the forces working against them through active choice, freedom turns into compulsion. That compulsion turns into love. At that point, the individual has achieved Rabbi Dessler’s goal: “The man of the spirit is the truly liberated man.”
A liberated person is one who engages his or her self-control at will. Self-control is the ultimate strength. We can fight the battle within and win. The past is not something we can control. But with our own willpower in place, we can redeem it in the future.
Sadly, we cannot change past failures. Looking back on a stained history, we wonder what would have happened had Ishmael not murdered Gedalia and others on that fateful day. What would have happened had Ishmael had more self-control? We may have rebuilt our community in Israel out of the ashes of destruction, as we have done successfully so many times since. But we will never know. Weakness prevailed. We can only defeat it looking forward and redeem gratuitous hatred with overpowering love.
Task 1: Name one of your beĥira points. Take a moment to write down three areas where self-control is easy for you and then three where it is not. Try to draw a map of your personal battlefield. Place your soldiers – your willpower muscle – where they need to be to fight from your place of strength. When you can visualize that place, it will be easier to move forward with your goals, identifying the obstacles without letting them derail you. Beware of ego depletion, so use willpower where you need it most because it does run out. And while you are working from your strengths, try to leverage this fast day caused by baseless hatred with one small act of inexplicable love.
The Hasidic Rebbe, Mordechai of Lekhovitz, once attended the brit, the circumcision, of a friend’s son. The rebbe was presented with the baby for a blessing. The blessing was simple: “May you not fool God, may you not fool yourself, and may you not fool people.”19Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: Later Masters (New York: Schocken Books, 1977), 155. In other words, don’t be a hypocrite. Be true and transparent so that you can own up to weakness. Be honest with yourself and you will be honest with others.
Task 2: Name a food challenge. Do not judge it initially. Simply name it. Write the challenge down on a piece of paper. Beneath it, add other aspects that this problem brings to light.
• How is this really a character challenge?
• What are the consequences of this challenge?
• How honest are you about this challenge?
• What will be the lasting outcome of overcoming this challenge?
• Naming this problem and its attendant consequences makes this challenge more real. What will you do about it now that you have confessed it? How will you use your confession on Yom Kippur about eating and drinking as the start of better habits?
PASSAGES FOR ADDITIONAL STUDY
Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, The Laws of Repentance 2:1
[Who has reached] complete teshuva? A person who confronts the same situation in which he sinned when he has the potential to commit [the sin again], and, nevertheless, abstains and does not commit it because of his teshuva alone and not because of fear or a lack of strength. For example, a person engaged in illicit sexual relations with a woman. Afterwards, they met in privacy, in the same country, while his love for her and physical power still persisted, and nevertheless, he abstained and did not transgress. This is a complete Baal-teshuva [penitent]…. If he does not repent until his old age, at a time when he is incapable of doing what he did before, even though this is not a high level of repentance, he is a Baal-teshuva. Even if he transgressed throughout his entire life and repented on the day of his death and died in repentance, all his sins are forgiven…
Rabbi Moshe Haim Luzzatto, The Path of the Just, Chapter 1: “Concerning Man’s Duty in the World”
The Holy One Blessed Be He has put man in a place where the factors which draw him further from the Blessed One are many. There are the earthly desires, which, if he is pulled after them, cause him to be drawn further from and to depart from the true good. It is seen, then, that man is veritably placed in the midst of a raging battle.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, The Lights of Repentance 7:4
The thought of repentance is that which reveals the depth of will, and the strength of the soul is revealed by means of these thoughts in the fullness of its splendor; in accordance with the extent of repentance, so is the degree of the soul’s freedom.
Text questions to think about while studying:
• How does heightened discipline help us achieve repentance?
• What factors pull us away from the true good?
• How is discipline related to the “soul’s freedom”?