On Regret, Annulment, and the Essence of Teshuvah

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imageVa-Yechal Moshe: On Regret, Annulment, and the Essence of Teshuvah

Part of a Shiur by Ha-Rav Joseph Dov Soloveitchik
Congregation Moriah, New York, NY, Dec 1st 1956

Edited by Rabbi Basil Herring, Ph.d

Editor’s Note: What follows here is not a verbatim transcription, but a summary of the main ideas of the Rav in this lecture. The material constitutes the concluding section of a larger shiur on the Gemara (Berachos 32a), dealing with related subject matter. The endnotes are supplied by the editor. The full audio presentation, in its original Yiddish, can be accessed here: link

Va-Yechal Moshe (And Moshe pleaded) before Hashem (Ex. 32:11). Said Rava: Moshe pleaded with God until he was able to annul God’s vow (Rashi: “His declaration ‘I will destroy them’ (vs. 10)”). For it is written here Va-Yechal and it is written elsewhere (Numbers 30:3) “lo yacheil devaro (he shall not annul his vow). The master has explained that this teaches that while a person who takes a vow cannot himself annul it (as it says “he shall not annul” it), others can do so. (Berachos 32a)

This Gemara is difficult to understand. How can one compare a rabbinical court annulling a personal vow to Moshe annulling God’s vow to destroy Israel for worshipping the Golden Calf?

The Nature of Kol Nidrei and Hataras Nedarim

We can begin with the Tikkunei Zohar1 that explains the reason we begin Yom Kippur with Kol Nidrei: on Yom Kippur we seek to annul God’s vow to punish the Jewish people for its many sins during the preceding year. Therefore at Kol Nidrei we establish a beis din of three dayyanim (i.e., the Shaliach Tzibbur with two men at his side) and in so doing facilitate God’s forgiveness on that holiest of days. The source of this passage in the Zohar is Rava’s statement in this Gemara.

The Torah teaches us that when a person takes a vow and then regrets it (i.e., has charatah) a beis din can void it completely. How can a beis din nullify an actual event, declaring that it never took place? This can be explained as follows. Generally, regret for an act one has performed can take one of two forms. The first occurs when someone changes his or her mind, in light of new realities that make it clear that the earlier action is no longer appropriate. For example we see today how in light of new geopolitical realities the US State Department regrets having cooperated so closely with the European powers, and is seeking to align itself with the Asian and African nations.2 According to the Ran in Nedarim such a change of mind cannot allow hatarah (annulment). Hatarah requires charatah me-ikara, i.e. the person who took the oath must feel that the vow was mistaken to begin with, as even under the original circumstances it was unjustified. Only thus can one feel the bushah (shame) that can undo that earlier action, leading to its annulment by the beis din. Therefore in hataras nedarim we declare (as the hataras nedarim text puts it) boshti ve’nichlamti (I am ashamed and mortified). So too regarding repentance in general – it is not enough to change one’s behavior because new circumstances lead to the conclusion that it no longer pays to do that aveirah (as would be the case when a businessman becomes a Shomer Shabbas upon his retirement). Real teshuvah requires one to realize that the preceding behavior was completely wrong and inexcusable from the very beginning.3

The Real Self and the Pseudo Self

Moreover, teshuvah requires one to disassociate from the “self” that performed those earlier acts.4 One must feel that the person committing those actions was not the real “me,” because “I gave in to an ‘out of character’ impulse.” Take for instance someone who suffers from uncontrollable anger. I myself used to be subject to angry outbursts, which after much hard work over many years I have learned to keep under control for the most part (although even now I can get angry when someone kricht arein in mein kop, i.e. gets inside my head).5 But in the days when I would be overwhelmed with such outbursts, I would after a while experience deep remorse, with a feeling that I had been overtaken by an alien spirit, or possessed by a demon – what Chasidim call a dybbuk. It is similar to when a person acts “under the influence” of an intoxicant and does things that he would normally never do.

So too sometimes we think we know someone, but in due course come to realize that the real person was hidden from us, and we were misled by external appearances. I myself can recall people whom I at first held in high regard, only to subsequently understand that my first impression had been completely mistaken. There were two completely different persona’s: an outer person and an inner one. So too the Gemara (Berachos 58a) says that Rav Sheshes turned a certain Sadducee into a gal shel atzamos “a pile of bones.” Could it be that Rav Sheshes was guilty of taking someone’s life? Of course not! It simply means that whereas initially he had thought highly of the Sadducee, he subsequently came to realize that he was a worthless person, i.e., like a pile of dried bones. From this we learn that in evaluating people it is important to distinguish between a misleading outer image and the real person.

So too when it comes to teshuvah: one should feel that even though a transgression occurred, it was not the real “me” that was acting, but rather a “pseudo-me” – such that my deepest self was not implicated in those acts, and thus has remained in its pristine state. For this reason we declare every morning neshamah she-nasata bi tehorah hi, “the soul You have implanted in me remains pure and guiltless” no matter how much we may sin. We must strive to be true to our pure neshamah, which is our real self.6

Avoiding Hypocritical Behavior

Don’t we all know people who live multiple lives with contradictory personalities or selves? At home they act one way, but in public they act very differently. In the synagogue they act righteously, but in business they are dishonest or exploitative. The Gemara (Pesachim 68b) relates that on Shavuos R. Yosef would have three calves prepared, and declare “were it not for Shavuos (when the Torah was given) I would be like these three calves and there would be three Yosefs in the marketplace, not just one.” What did he mean by this? He was declaring that without the Torah his life would have been filled with contradictions and multiple persona’s, like animals that may be placid in the barn, ravenous in the pasture, and aggressive when provoked. For R. Yosef it is the Torah that keeps us true to ourselves at all times, the Torah that maintains the consistency of our inner and outer personae, and the Torah that strengthens us to resist the temptation to live fragmented and inconsistent lives. This is the very opposite of people I have known who in public were respected, upright, and charitable, but who in their private lives were menuvalim (despicable). Such people are like three Yosefs, no like fifty Yosefs!

The Torah essentially demands that we overcome the natural temptation to put on appearances tailored to specific settings. For such is human nature. I know rabbonim who when praying at home finish the Shmoneh Esrei quickly – but in public recite it at great length. For this reason my grandfather R. Chaim always opposed the widespread notion that a Rav should cultivate a distinctive public image. For this reason he would wear the same simple clothing both at home and in public. This is the real meaning of shivisi Hashem lenegdi samid (I have placed God always before me; Psalms 16:8) – i.e., I have been shaveh, consistent, in my actions before God, tamid, in every circumstance). This lesson was taught by R. Yisrael Salanter who was once traveling with a wagon-driver when they came upon a large pile of unguarded hay in a field. When the driver started to steal some of the hay, R. Salanter called out, “What you are doing, you are being watched!” Thereupon the driver desisted and anxiously climbed back on the wagon. After a while, he said “There was no one there, why did you say I was being watched?” To which R. Yisrael answered, “You were indeed being watched – by God!” That is, in all our ways, and in all circumstances, public and private, our behavior must be consistent, for we are always in the presence of an all-seeing God.

Thus at the very outset of the Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim the Rema comments:

This is a great Torah principle characteristic of the righteous, insofar as normally a person does not act at home as he does in the presence of a great king, nor is his speech when with his family as it is were he to be in the ruler’s palace. How much more so that when one realizes that the King Whose glory fills the cosmos is watching him … one should feel fear and shame, and not be embarrassed in front of people who might mock him for serving God…

The Foundation of Teshuvah

And so, when a Jew sins, we consider it as if he has two “selves,” two Yosefs. While the external one may have sinned, the other which is the real self, has remained pure, no matter what. And when that Jew comes to beg for forgiveness, we say that the inner, core Yosef never sinned, only the superficial one did. This is the yesod of teshuvah (the foundation of repentance). Were it not so, how would it be possible for anyone to experience remorse? Surely it is the pure self which experiences charatah, regret. Otherwise how could that person be motivated to repent out of nowhere? Nothing comes from nothing.

Let me further illustrate the point. I have known people who in spite of their Torah upbringing stopped keeping Shabbos, kashrus, and the like, only to return to a life of Torah many years later. When I would ask them what had happened during those interim years they would say “Rebbe, it wasn’t me who acted that way. Something else possessed me, and made me do those things.”

The Rambam expresses this idea exactly when he writes in Hilchos Teshuvah (2:4) that a baal teshuvah must declare that “I am a different person, not the one who did those things.” In other words in order to do real teshuvah one must feel that one was under the influence of a foreign spirit, dybbuk, or ruach ra’ah (evil spirit), and thus resolve to expel or control every such force in the future. In Samuel (1 18:10) we find a similar phenomenon: King Saul sought to kill David on account of what the verse calls a ruach ra’ah, an “evil spirit” that overtook him. After all Saul was a great person, a bechir Hashem (chosen by God). Only an overpowering spirit inimical to his true self, could have caused him to act that way.

So it is with us when we sin. In hindsight we sometimes think to ourselves, “Where was I, what was I thinking, how could I have done such a thing?” What do we mean by this? After all we know very well where we were and what we did. What we really mean is that I am better than that, and “the real ‘me’ could not have done those things. It must be that I was ‘possessed’ or overcome by something else.”7

Thus according to Rava in our Gemara the phrase Va-Yechal Moshe (Moshe annulled) teaches us how Moshe argued with God on behalf of Israel. He said “Just as You gave a beis din the mechanism to release a Jew from his vows on the grounds that his real self was not fully in control at the time, I hereby declare that the Israelites did not act in accordance with their real selves, but merely under some external or foreign influence.8 Deep down their real selves have remained pure and sinless. Therefore, they are not deserving of punishment or destruction, and I am able to void Your punitive decree that held them responsible for something they did not do.” Thus did Moshe annul God’s vow, and avert the decree.

Interestingly, this very idea constitutes the basis of all modern psychotherapy, i.e., a person’s actions do not necessarily reflect or emanate from his real self, but from a pseudo-self.9 Thus it is that a person can change behavior, and experience positive change and personal growth.

Practical Consequences of this Principle

This is not simply a philosophical principle, but something that has practical consequences for every rabbi, teacher, and parent. Especially in our time, we should each strive always to appeal to people’s better, deeper, and more authentic selves that are not always apparent to others. I have often said that there are two kinds of mussar, rebuke. The first tells the sinner that he has done bad things and must renounce his erroneous ways. The problem with this approach is that it does not always work – and can even be counter-productive. This is especially true in our time whether in Israel or here, for if we tell the modern Jew that he is a sinner, a heretic, a bad person on account of his being (for instance) a Shabbos violator, we will not bring even one person back into the fold. Today we must favor the second approach, which is the way of Moshe in Va-Yechal, when approaching sinners. We should speak to them with words that convey that they are not as bad as they think, that their errant actions are not consistent with their core selves which remain unsullied and pure at all times. We must be very cognizant of the fact that today if someone believes that he is a bad person or an inveterate sinner, there is a good chance that he will find it impossible to change for the good. The prophet Yechezkel described such people as declaring u-nemakosem ba-avonoseichem (you shall pine away in your iniquities; Yechezkel 24:23), i.e., being overwhelmed by your many transgressions you will feel that it is hopeless to even try to change, and thus you will conclude that the gates of repentance are closed to you. I know people who would like to become ba’alei teshuvah but who feel that it is simply impossible for them to change. For this reason we declare that God is Ha-pose’ach yad la-poshim (He reaches out to sinners with an open hand). How does He do that? By allowing the sinner to sense that he can improve his ways, insofar as his real self has remained untouched by sin, and is ready to reconnect with God. Granting an “open hand” bestows the ability to open oneself to discovering the self that was heretofore hidden, and closed off. Conveying this lesson to transgressors is not an easy task, but it is the hallmark of a real leader. So too in our time, I believe that this approach can bring many Jews back to Yahadus.

Interestingly, this was the original approach, and the real strength, of Chasidus, especially that of Chabad. Their way was to teach that kedushah (holiness) can be found in every place and in every person, even in the klipas noga (the tainted outer shell). They taught that because a spark of holiness resides in all such places, our task is to liberate and raise those hidden sparks to their original place. The great contribution of Chasidus was to proclaim that no matter his or her past, a Jew can be saved; that we must never despair of any Jew,10 for otherwise he or she might well be lost to us forever.11

This approach to teshuvah was adopted by the Gedolei Yisrael throughout the generations – indeed it was the foundation of their entire approach to Yahadus. And it is the approach we must take in our own day, especially with regard to raising our children.

 


  1. Zohar, Raya Mehemna, Parshas Pinchas 255:1 

  2. The Rav here refers to the Suez Canal War that had occurred in the months preceding this lecture, in October and November 1956. When Israel attacked the Egyptian forces in the Sinai in response to Egypt’s threats to Israel’s existence, France and Britain bombed the Egyptian forces that also threatening their interests in the Suez Canal. This led to the complete defeat of the Egyptian army, to the chagrin of its Soviet patrons. The United States, in partnership with the Soviet Union, and in opposition to its erstwhile allies France and Britain, co-sponsored a UN resolution forcing the withdrawal of Israeli, French and British forces from the Sinai. 

  3. A feeling of bushah (shame) is integral to the process of complete repentance. See the Rambam, Hil. Teshuvah 2:2. 

  4. At this point, the Rav’s analysis takes a dialectical turn that seems to turn the preceding point on its head. Until this point he had emphasized the essential need for the sinner to take personal responsibility, and feel profound shame and guilt for his actions, without any attempt at self-justification or shifting the blame. Now the Rav posits that, having taken responsibility and expressed deep anguish and guilt for his actions, in order to avoid feelings of despair or a spiral of spiritual paralysis, the sinner must recognize that his “real” self was guilty only of allowing himself to fall under an extraneous influence. It is this realization that will allow the sinner to summon the inner resources to find his way back from the path of sin. 

  5. As a teacher, The Rav was known to be extremely tough on his students, especially in his younger days, when he would inspire genuine fear and trepidation among them. It would appear that in referring to his powerful anger, and his sustained efforts to control it, the Rav here was acknowledging his effect on his students (and possibly others), and felt sufficient remorse that he sought to temper his emotional response to their shortcomings. Indeed as he grew older his teaching style in this respect softened significantly. In any case it is remarkable that in this shiur the Rav was prepared to bare his soul in a way that acknowledged what he considered a personal flaw. Such intimate reflections and self-critical honesty only added to the emotional power and impact of his public lectures. They allowed him to speak critically of others, including rabbinic leaders, as we find him doing in this shiur, albeit never identifying them by name. 

  6. On another occasion (at a lecture in Boston Sept. 6 1972, and referenced in the Rosh Hashanah Machzor Mesoras Harav, p. 247), the Rav expressed this idea in the context of Psalm 130 that is recited throughout the Ten Days from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur. Mi-Ma’amakim kerasicha Hashem, is usually understood as calling unto God from the depths of despair or distress. But it can also be taken as referring to one’s deepest, most hidden, mysterious, and truest self, one that is unaffected by sin. In this sense, the psalmist is declaring “even though I have sinned, there is deep within me my real self that remains pure and unaffected by my transgressions, and it is that which can serve as the springboard for me to return to You. Therefore Hashem shim’ah be’koli – God please hear my real voice, and annul the sins of my pseudo-personality.” This alternate understanding of the Psalm is entirely appropriate to the required mindset of the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah

  7. Of course there is a danger in this disassociative approach to sin. One can come to shift the blame for one’s actions onto others, be they other people or specific circumstances that “made me do it.” The archetypical instance of such thinking is the very first human sin, in which Adam blamed Chavah (“she gave it to me so I ate it”), and even shifted responsibility to God Himself (“You placed her at my side”), while Chavah in turn blamed the serpent (“the serpent induced me to eat it”). It is all too easy and facile to deny personal responsibility for one’s actions, for such is human nature. That is how it has always been since the creation of man.

     

    The Rav’s analysis here, however, avoids this problem by focusing on the ability of the individual to immediately recognize his responsibility to overcome those superficial or exterior factors that led to the problematic behaviors. It is not simply that the real me is blameless. It is rather that the real me must prevent that from happening again. Because my innermost being remains pure and uncompromised, I have the ability to rise up to the challenge, and am not hopelessly compromised or sunken in sin. As always, the real me must strive to do the right thing in spite of everything, and I am not free to abdicate responsibility for my future actions. 

  8. Although the Rav does not at this point makes reference to the so-called erev rav (the 3,000 members of the mixed multitude who went forth from Egypt with the Israelites) that many commentators consider the instigators of the event, one might consider them to be a prime example of such an external influence, as the Rav here describes it. 

  9. See for instance Freud‘s late theory of the ego as the product of identifications, which render it a false self. So too Erich Fromm, who in his The Fear of Freedom distinguished between original self and pseudo self — the inauthentic nature of the latter being a way to escape what Fromm called the loneliness of freedom. Much earlier Kierkegaard had claimed that “to will to be that self which one truly is, is indeed the opposite of despair” — the despair of choosing “to be another than himself”. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/True_self_and_false_self.  

  10. The point is amply analyzed by the Rav elsewhere. See for instance our presentation in Torah Musings (Tishri 5774) of the Rav’s shiur on Elisha b. Abuya, who failed to understand that even an inveterate sinner such as he could repent, insofar as he misunderstood the heavenly voice that proclaimed the power of repentance by even one such as he. 

  11. The Rav’s profound affinity for, and indebtedness to, Chabad Chasidus is a repeated theme in his lectures. Throughout this shiur, there is a remarkable blending of such widely-disparate intellectual sources. Thus he quotes halachic and aggadic sources; anecdotes relating to his grandfather R. Chaim as well as R. Yisrael Salanter of the Mussar Movement; teachings of the Misnagdim and the Chasidim; little-noticed passages in Tanach and the Zohar, as well as erudite references to the teachings of secular psychology. 

About Basil Herring

Rabbi Basil Herring PhD has headed a number of congregations, taught at various colleges, published a number of volumes and studies in contemporary Halachah, medieval Jewish philosophy and Bible, and best Rabbinic practices. A past Executive Vice President of the Orthodox Caucus and Rabbinical Council of America (the RCA), he is currently the editor of the soon to be published Revised RCA Siddur.

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