By Moshe Schonbrun
Throughout Elul and the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, many people accept new self-improvement resolutions to strengthen their relationship with Hashem. For example, the Shulchan Aruch cites a custom to refrain from eating Pas Palter. Meaningful Minute has a powerful Tefillah Before Tech challenge. These kabbalos can seem very temporary and fleeting. Do a mere few days of behavioral change really impact who I am? If something is likely unsustainable in the long run, is it worth the investment?
On a fundamental level, Rav Eliyahu Dessler explains that the very acceptance of a new path, no matter how small of a commitment, is the essence of change. The first step for any growth to happen is the admittance that you are lacking, that you need to change. A person is endowed with the ability to rationalize all their behaviors and justify all the things they have done. Taking on a new change symbolizes an openness to growth and a protest against stagnation.
Rabbi Immanuel Bernstein suggests a second answer. The prevailing moral climate in our society is one of relativism and wokeism, which refuses to recognize absolute definitions of right and wrong. This attitude does not combat or correct sin; it ignores the concept of sin entirely and deletes it from the lexicon. When someone takes on a new kabbalah, they assert that there is a Divine mandate for behavior and thought. Instead of willing immoral matters into imaginary non-existence, we confront our faults in an attempt to improve on them.
Perhaps another approach lies in a reframing of the concept of Teshuvah. We often delude ourselves with stories and narratives based on our past experiences. “I tried this last year and the previous years before.” “This will never last through the month.” We project a narrative arc on the story of our lives, weaving together failures, self-imposed labels, and disappointments. While we experience life through time and measure time accordingly, what happened in the past bears little relevance to who you can be today. Teshuvah is the art of living in the present moment and making the most of it.
Teshuvah is not a goal to achieve or a destination to reach. It isn’t something that can be checked off or attained. Teshuvah is a mindset that every moment lives for itself and eternity. That what I did this morning does not define my afternoon. Everything that has led me to this precise moment, including the woeful and terrible aveiros I have done, is engineering the current opportunity of the moment. The decision and the moment right in front of me is exactly how it is supposed to be. The next moment will be an entirely new vista of Teshuvah, but that is not relevant in the now.
The Rambam describes the experience of Teshuvah as becoming a new person “I am someone else, not the person who did those actions.” Rav Elchanan Wasserman demonstrates through the Gemara (Kiddushin 40b) that someone righteous all his life, who rebels in the end, loses everything. So too, regretting aveiros causes you to lose the effects of those actions. This is the justified outcome, as you are who you are at this very moment. When the Mishna in Avos states that someone should do Teshuvah one day before they die, it is not merely a life hack to ensure that since you don’t know when you’ll die, you will end up doing Teshuvah every day. It describes a reality that you are the person who you are in the moment, so don’t die without being in a state of Teshuvah.
Teshuvah is not an annual time for a self-reflection endeavor that arrives around the Yomim Noraim, but an entire lifestyle of truly zoning into the moment. “Temporary Teshuva” is a full-fledged Teshuva, for in that very moment- the Pas Palter for one day, the refraining from Lashon Hara for an hour, the wrapping Tefillin, or keeping a Shabbos- you are a person of Teshuvah, regardless of what you have done in the past or what might happen in the future.
A cynic looks into the past and the future and causes all hope to be lost. Someone struggling with avoiding pornography once came to Rav Moshe Weinberger and said, “I have been clean for twenty-three days!” A cynic would have said, “Please. You’re a 47-year-old man! You were looking at these things twenty-four days ago, and twenty-four days from now, you will have been looking at them for twenty-three days already!” But this is totally wrong. Rav Weinberger told him, “Your accomplishment is a massive simchah! Hashem’s focus when He looks at us is how we are doing at the present time.” Perhaps this is why we lein the Parsha of Yishmael on Rosh Hashanah. Like Yishmael in the desert, Hashem looks at us in our moments of Teshuvah and cherishes who we are as we are today.
Each moment of our lives stands alone. Future moments of aveiros do not retroactively void moments of Teshuvah. Conversely, Teshuvah cannot be “achieved”, put in the past and moved on from. The lifestyle of Teshuvah actualizes our deepest selves and connects us with our Creator through an incessant and unabating endeavor to live each moment for each moment.
A deeply valued content contributor for Meaningful Minute, Moshe is a husband, father, and espresso enthusiast. He is Executive Director at Avenues Recovery of Maryland, a residential addiction treatment center, and co-founder of The 13th Gate, an innovative platform for contemporary spiritual engagement in Silver Spring, MD. A talmid of Rabbi Meir Stern and Rabbi Asher Arielli, Moshe previously served as Rabbi at the University of Arizona in Tucson and the University of Maryland in College Park. He is the artist behind @farbreng_ink and the Chavrusa Podcast.