Rosh Hashanah: Teshuvah, Repentance, the Flip Side

The Talmud Yoma [86b] says, “Great is teshuvah [repentance] for because of it zdonote [intentional sins] can be counted as zechuyote [merits counted in our favor when God judges us].” How can this be? You can do teshuvah, be forgiven, start fresh and do better in the future. Yes, teshuvah is a wonderful concept, but how can a sin be transformed into a merit? It is in the past. How do you change the past? To answer this question let’s analyze the life and death of Moshe (Moses). One of the most perplexing questions about Moshe is why he dies before he enters the land of Israel. A number of reasons have been given in the attempts to explain why Moshe was not permitted to enter the Land of Israel. One compelling reason is based on Numbers 20:7-13, in which Moshe is commanded by God to speak to a rock to get water. Instead of speaking as God commanded, Moshe hits the rock. For disobeying, Moshe is forbidden to enter Israel.

A possible analysis: It is not at all unreasonable to assume that when Moshe hit the rock, he opened up an underground spring. Conclusion: No miracle. It would, however, been truly miraculous to the Israelites if water were to have emerged merely from Moshe’s words. At important points in Moshe’s life water appears to play a major role. Moshe could have been killed as an infant by water when Pharaoh decreed that all baby boys should be thrown into the Nile. Instead, Moshe is saved when his mother places him in a basket and the daughter of Pharaoh takes him out of the Nile and names him Moshe, “taken from water.” His greatest moment involves water, the parting of the Red Sea. His worst moment is at water, as previously mentioned, his demise when he hits rather than speaks to a rock.

Water plays a dual role in Moshe’s life, present at his greatest moments of salvation and at his greatest moments of danger and disappointment. Water plays a dual role for all of us. We need water to survive, yet we can drown in it. There are places in the world that are badly in need of water, and there are places where water has caused massive destruction. Perhaps water’s dual role in our physical lives makes a metaphorical statement about our spiritual existence. Most moral qualities in life are neither completely positive nor completely negative; rather, most moral qualities have a positive side and a negative side. The qualities of passion, conviction and intensity can sometimes have the flip side of arrogance, haughtiness and intolerance. Openness can have the flip side of moral relativism. Extreme spirituality can have the flip side of unhealthy removal from the world and difficulties in day-to-day interactions with other human beings.

During the High Holidays let’s try to maximize all of our positive moral and spiritual qualities in life and be mindful of the negative flip side of those positive qualities. During many moments of the High Holidays we think about what we did over the past year that we are not so proud of and we try to do teshuvah. We should also focus on the flip side of each sin. Just like every positive quality has a negative side, each sin has a positive side. Perhaps this is a way of understanding the Talmud. Not only should we repent from the sin we committed, but we should turn the sin into something positive. Let’s transform our arrogance into passion; a passion that will help us to change ourselves, and that in turn will help us to repair the world. Ultimately what teshuvah and the High Holidays are about is self-transformation. I want to bless you all during this time of teshuvah that we transform all of our sins into merits. Shanah Tovah.