We want to; we can; we must: these three ideals, hopes – and requirements – underlie the very notion of return or repentance.
Yesterday, inexplicably (!) someone sent me a You-Tube of ‘I want to be the kind of man my dog thinks I am’. Much as I love my dog, and would never want to let him down, that is not my most important life-aim. I want to be the kind of person to whom Rebbe Zusya of Anipoli was referring when he famously said: ‘When I leave this world, God won’t ask me “Why weren’t you like Moses?” God will ask me, “Why weren’t you Zusya?” I believe our deepest aspiration is always to be the truest and most faithful person each of us is capable of being.
In this sense Teshuvah, return, is not simply or chiefly about regret over our sins. Rather, it encompasses the whole human journey, our process of growth and transition through all the phases of our life. The mystics express this as the longing to return to God, to the sacred within us, to the goodness and purity with which we were created and with which, however lost or distant from our better selves we may feel, our heart and soul long to be ever more deeply connected.
Thus we want to return, and we can. In Chapter Five of his Laws of Repentance Maimonides asserts the unconditional nature of human freedom. We can choose to be as righteous as the best of people, or as wicked as the worst. No one can stop us; no external cause can impede us. I have often thought of his words as somewhat cruel. After all, is it really true that we all possess equal and absolute freedom? Don’t some people have considerably more difficult circumstances and more severe limitations with which to contend than others? We fight hard for whatever inner freedoms we attain. Yet in a recent discussion I was justly over-ruled: ‘Set limitations over our capacity for choice, over our moral and spiritual freedoms, and you clip the wings of hope. That has to be wrong!’ We may have to struggle hard for it, but nothing should be allowed to dull our aspirations to be the best people we can or the belief that throughout our lives we can continue to grow and develop.
But what’s the point? It isn’t to become a saint, a hermit or a scholar. I believe the purpose is to be faithful to the task and vision God gave to Adam and Eve when they were placed in the Garden of Eden to ‘work it and protect it’. It may be ‘only a story’, but a higher ideal of service and dedication would be hard to imagine. There are so many things of which we are custodians: each other’s lives and safety; one another’s feelings and hearts; the gifts and insights which each person uniquely brings to the world; creation itself, with all the animals, birds, fishes and plants. I read today that half the world’s animals have been lost since 1970. What a terrible, painful and frightening betrayal! In whatever ways lie within our capacities, each of us individually and all of us collectively, must return to our responsibilities ‘to work and protect’ this earth, this garden before God.