Thought for Rosh Hashanah – September 20, 2017
Here we are, hours away from the beginning of a new Jewish year, a potential fresh start. Who among us does not fantasize about a fresh start? Who among us does not regret the choices we have made and wishes we could erase them? And if there was anyone who knew about fresh starts it was the Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, known popularly as Resh Lakish. In the Talmud he is quoted as saying “Great is repentance, for because of it premeditated sins are accounted as errors.” In yet another statement about repentance Rabbi Shimon goes so far as to say that with true repentance, one’s sins are actually viewed as completed mitzvot. Resh Lakish knew about fresh starts because he himself had been both a thief and a gladiator before he became a respected rabbi.
Not all rabbis agreed with Rabbi Shimon, especially with his second statement. How is it, they wondered, that a sin can be turned into a positive act? It is one thing to wipe away the sin by an act of true repentance, but how do we take that repentance further and make it into a mitzvah? You can’t change the hard facts of something that happened, so how can a bad deed suddenly become a good one? It makes no sense.
The famous Rav did not feel that one’s acts could magically be transformed from bad to good. If it does, then the choices we make, the actions we take are meaningless. Free will is worthless. But Rav gives us a way to understand Resh Lakish a little better. It is not God who changes the bad to good, but man himself. It is by man repenting and then using the bad deeds as inspiration that man creates mitzvot.
So why is this discussion important at all? By now, several of those receiving this email who opened it have already stopped reading. But I will tell you that it is important. I will tell you that the work of repentance begins on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but our awareness of our past actions cans serve as an inspiration for good deeds and mitzvot in the months and years that follow. That is how we take the bad and turn it into good.
In short, my question to anyone who is still reading this, what will you be doing the day after Yom Kippur? Will you go back to your lives as they were or will you use this experience to inspire better deeds in the coming year? Will you be more understanding of those around you? Will you be more tolerant of others’ opinions, even if you disagree? Will you become a more involved member of your community? Will you be generous with your love for family? Will you work towards a better world for everyone? With each of these things we take our bad deeds of the past and turn them into mitzvot. With these acts, we take our less than perfect past and turn it into the remarkable future I hope for each of you in the coming year.
L’Shana Tova Tikatyvu v’Techataymu
May you all be written and sealed for a Good Year.
Rabbi Yaier Lehrer