September 16, 2015 admin

Being honest with ourselves

This period, from the beginning of Rosh Hashanah until the close of Yom Kippur is known as the Asseret Yemei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Penitence. I therefore plan to base each of my reflections on Judaism’s most famous text on this theme, Maimonides Hilchot Teshuvah, his Laws of Repentance. 
(I much prefer the Hebrew ‘Teshuvah’ to the English ‘Penitence’. The latter primarily suggests regret and remorse, a critical ‘if only I hadn’t’ self-scrutiny. While this is an inevitable part of the process of inner change, Teshuvah with its clear indication of ‘return’ carries an immediate sense of hope: ‘I can become the person I want to be; I can fulfil my true humanity.’)
Maimonides writes: it belongs to the ways of Teshuvah that one ‘changes one’s name, as if to say, “I’m someone different; I’m not the same person who did those [bad] deeds”’.
Three short observations:
To reach the point of being able to say with honesty ‘I’m not the same person who…’ one first must pass through the place of acknowledging and saying to oneself ‘I am indeed that person who’ did or said whatever it was which gave hurt. It’s a frequent phenomenon to find ourselves retelling our version of events, trying as we go over them in our mind yet again to excuse ourselves from responsibility, while an awkward feeling in our conscience persists in contradicting our attempts at exculpation, until we finally stop and say to ourselves: ‘I did’. The starting place for Teshuvah is always honesty (which also means that we shouldn’t blame ourselves for what we truly did not do.)
To acknowledge our mistakes and weaknesses demands courage. To remain mindful and learn from them for the future so that we actually change our responses to life is a deep achievement. This is true even if, as is almost inevitable, we are only partially successful and only for much, but not all, of the time. It tends to go unrecognised in the annals of human attainment, but those who face themselves honestly and whose subsequent conduct truly says ‘I’m no longer that kind of person who used to…’ have done something many of us don’t even attempt, or at which we often fail. Real Teshuvah deserves deep respect.
Sometimes people change but we don’t want to concede that they have done so. Even if we don’t directly remind them of what they once said, or how they used to behave, we hold them to their previous reputation. Perhaps this is only an internal reality; we go on thinking ‘that’s the person who hurt me’ and don’t allow them to be who they are now. Often, though, it’s also a social reality in which a person is not permitted to escape a former role, or deed, or image. There is an element of self-protection in not rushing to trust those who’ve hurt us. But, unless they were extremely serious, it is cruel to hold a repentant person to the faults of their past.
Just as apologising and trying to learn from our mistakes is a great virtue, so is allowing others to change and grow, by being ready to let go and forgive.

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