Recreating Ourselves by Ari Michael


Why does the Torah, primarily a Book of Laws and Values, begin with the act of the creation of the world, “In the beginning the Lord created the heavens and the earth?”  So ask the major commentaries on the Bible (most notably Rashi and the Ramban), each providing his particular response.

Rav Soloveitchik takes the approach of  the Midrash, which, assuming that we understand the importance of imitating Hashem, phrases it this way: “Just as Hashem created worlds, so you must create worlds.”

Rav Soloveitchik then explained the manner in which we are to copy Hashem.  During Maaseh Bereishit, Hashem created the first human being by taking a clod of dirt, representing the fragile and physical in the world, and infusing it with His own divine breath of eternity and creativity.  In a similar manner, each of us must take the raw material within each of us, the animalistic drives and genetic pool which make up our individual personalities and infuse ourselves with spirituality.  This is the basic process of Teshuva, in which the individual demonstrates his most divine quality of creativity by re-creating himself.

To deepen our understanding of this concept, Rav Soloveitchik takes us into the intricacies of the Rambam’s interpretation of repentance.  In Hilchot Teshuva (1:1), he states that the first, and seemingly main, part of Teshuva is Vidui, a verbal confession.  However, verbal confession is different from inner repentance!?

If this were the consistent view of Rambam, it would be strange, but acceptable, that he highlights Vidui.  Yet, when the Talmud (Kiddushin 49b) forms a case in which a wicked individual proposes marriage to a woman, presenting her with a ring in front of two witnesses, stating that she is engaged to him on condition that he is a Tzaddik, she is considered engaged;  As Rambam rules in his Laws of Marriage: “If he says on the condition that I am a righteous man, even though he may be thoroughly wicked, since it is possible that he has thoughts of repentance, she is considered married (Ch.8 Hal.5).”  But a thought in one’s mind is hardly a confession on one’s lips!  If indeed Rambam requires Vidui, the aforementioned case clearly lacks the necessary verbal formulation.

Rav Soloveitchik explained that according to Rambam there are two aspects to repentance.  External, verbal confession (Vidui) which is in the realm of Kappara, and internal repentance (Teshuva), which belongs to realm of Tahara.  A sin has a double effect.  First of all, it sullies the world, and the society.  That damage has to be removed; that black spot has to be covered over.  Kappara literally means to cover, as in the Kaporet covering the Aron.  Things such as monetary restitution in sins between people, sacrifices in sins towards Hashem, combined with a verbal and external confession restores the upset balance which the sin brought into the world - serving as a Kappara.  This a necessary first step, and so Rambam discusses repentance in his first chapter.

But, continued Rav Soloveitchik, there must follow a second stage.  After all, sin not only sullies the world, it also sullies the soul of the sinner!  The human being must re-order his priorities, cleanse his soul from impurity, and recast his personality.  For this, external confession and external covering over (Kappara) are not sufficient.  This requires an internal change, a transformation, and a personality re-formation.  This is Teshuvah or inner repentance, and leads to Tahara, or purification.

Hence, in the second chapter of the Laws of Repentance (Ch.2 Hal.2), Rambam speaks of a sinner leaving sin and turning away from his old thoughts, accepting upon himself new conduct.  He gives himself a changed identity, a new name, declaring that he is not the same one who committed the transgression.  In this way, as a result of this re-creation of self, yesterday the individual may have been alienated and despised by Hashem while today he is a beloved and intimate friend of the Divine as the Ramabam describes in the seventh chapter of Hilchot Teshuva.  The greatest and most majestic expression of our creativity is when we re-create ourselves.

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