Most wrongful conduct consists of both a trespass against a fellow person and a sin against G-d.
On these days of penitence and specifically on Shabbat Shuva we are required to correct our wrongs, amend our ways, seek forgiveness, and to make whole those whom we have hurt. On this special Shabbat Shuva we have an opportunity to interact with our fellow congregants, neighbors and friends. If we are not forgiven or do not make reparations to the people we have hurt, G-d then lacks the authority to grant atonement for any of our misdeeds. The Almighty cannot forgive an individual for a wrong if the relevant issues between the individuals have not been resolved. If reconciliation is made between the parties, atonement can be granted.
At this season of repentance, over the years, I have encountered many individuals who have hastily decided to return to Hashem, return to the fold, and become baale teshuva and thereby become more pious in their relationship with both G-d and man. They want to revolutionize their actions and ways and change themselves spiritually overnight. They want to automatically become a born again Jew. Many of these rapid returnees to Judaism eventually leave Judaism behind in the same manner they originally embraced the faith.
On what path should returning Jews embark? They should follow the teachings of the saintly Chafetz Chaim.
The Chafetz Chaim taught, “When a Jew prays they must face Israel. When inside Israel, they must face the city of Jerusalem. When in Jerusalem one must face the Temple Mount. While inside the Temple area they must face the Holy of the Holies.”
The Chafetz Chaim then asked, “Why is the law formulated in such a manner? If the purpose is to face the Holy of Holies then just say so. Then just say when a Jewish person prays they must face of the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem.”
The Chafetz Chaim answered: “When a person pursues a goal, they must do so one step at a time. When an individual reaches for an ideal, they can only ascend to it step by step.” This lesson is deduced from the manner this law is formulated, “Outside Israel, pray toward Israel. In Israel, face Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, face the site of the Holy Temple. In the Temple area, face the Holy of the Holies” — one step at a time. If by mistake you faced the wrong direction, I believe, G-d would still answer your prayers since the earth is round and every place eventually connects with one another.
No person is perfect. But, if Judaism required perfection, then Moses and David would have not met the proper criteria either.
The Torah was given to humans — mortals and sinners. It is for the imperfect, provided there is effort. It demands that we move somewhat in the right or proper direction. If you commit some sins it does not give you a license to commit all sins. There is no concept in Judaism of everything or nothing. The key is to strive upward to Hashem, according to your own religious potential and capacity, but only one step at a time. Be a better Jew, but not a perfect Jew, or you will become nothing at all.
Dr. Aaron Beck, the father of cognitive behavioral therapy, recommends that we should abstain from all-or-nothing thinking in the course of our daily lives. In reality, such extreme positions don’t exist. We must all choose a place somewhere in the middle, hopefully closer to the side of being more spiritual and proceed in a gradual manner.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)