Teshuva is the Jewish way to pay our ‘sin taxes.’ Aveira is one of the Hebrew words for transgression. In my mind, it resonates with the English word, ‘over.’
‘Just get OVER it,‘ people often tell us. One of my favorite pastimes is to discover the hidden treasures in links between words that sound alike in Hebrew and English. ‘Over’ in Hebrew means to transgress. Actually the English word transgress does mean to ‘cross over.’ However there is also a very positive meaning to this Hebrew root. The first reference is Abraham who is called Ivri in the Torah. Another well-known context is the story of Jonah, the prophet who tried to flee G-d’s presence, but found himself again when the captain of the ship asked him who are you, and Jonah replied, IVRI ANOCHI-‘I am a Hebrew and I fear the G-d of heaven and earth.’
Now, it may seem shocking at first to hear Jews described by a word that also means ‘transgressors,’ but let’s mine this word more to understand the depth of this connection. Rabbi Meir Solovechik, writing about the Jonah story points out the significance of the word Ivri. On one hand, meaning transgression, Ivri signifies crossing over the line into a forbidden realm. The way it happens, he posits, is through thinking that G-d does not care about us, or He doesn’t enter into that forbidden ‘no-fly zone.’ On the other hand, Ivri is used in a positive way like Abraham. When one sees that the majority of people around are not behaving properly, one must take action and ‘cross over’ onto higher ground where the air is more morally rarified. Or like Jonah, who attested to the sailors that G-d’s Presence was not limited to any territorial or land-sea boundaries.
The process of correcting an Aveira is of course through Teshuva. Teshuva too has a root which is a fitting image of correction. If Aveira implies crossing the line, then Teshuva literally means returning to the correct position. In other words, there is a reversal of the wrong direction. It’s kind of like GPS- G-d’s Personal System- for not only getting back on track but also turning our negative experiences into positive accomplishments. Let me suggest a couple of true films that illustrate this reversal in a dramatic way.
One film, “Catch Me If You Can,” is the amazing saga of Frank Abergnale who, feeling abandoned by his divorcing parents, cheated his way to wealth and respect from the age of sixteen, till he was finally caught and sentenced to prison. But he didn’t just feel regret or admit his wrongdoing, he became (with some pressure from the Federal agent who had been pursuing him for years) an expert in detecting and ferreting out fraudulent practices. Tom Hanks who plays the agent, Carl Hanratty may seem like dogged policeman Jafar from Les Miserables, but he is far from that image. Carl is not just persistent and determined, he cares. And toward the end, somewhat like a Hassidic rebbe, he knows there’s a potential positive turnabout in Frank. And Carl becomes a kind of surrogate father figure, in contrast to Frank’s real father who is charming and loving, but as an inveterate conman, had been the early role model for Frank. Once caught, Frank becomes an operative to identify and apprehend money frauds and white collar crimes. This is Teshuva, in its highest form, albeit in Frank’s case, under coercion.
“Mully” is another astonishing and true docu-drama ‘crossover’ from self-focus to altruism. Charles Mulli was one of the few African success stories who made it rich. At one point in his life, with so much poverty around him, he asked himself what he was doing with all his wealth and began pouring it into orphanages and other needy people and places. He had been abandoned by his impoverished and desperate family when he was young, and was forced to become a street beggar and even to steal for ten years. He had many doors closed on him, but kept persevering. Finally one day a kind woman took him in, and gave him some odd jobs. When she saw his talent and industriousness, kind of like Yosef in the Torah, she recommended to her husband to make him manager of her property, and it was uphill from there. He managed to save some money and eventually ran a bus company, sold and managed real estate, and in time actually owned the oil and gas companies that served all of Kenya!
Mully’s turnabout came when one day he wandered into the poor section of Kenya and found some teenagers as he used to be, hustling for whatever they could get. They offered to protect his car in exchange for some money. Of course he refused and when he came out of the office he was visiting, his car was gone. A flood of emotions came over him, but the strongest was, it seems, first guilt about the gap between him and those teens, and then a burning desire to help. From there, an entire empire for the poor and needy, children in particular. And by the way, he said that he also felt a call from G-d. He then vowed not to continue any of his businesses, and instead, went into the streets collecting orphans and caring for them as his own. Remarkably, his wife who had to do all this new mothering, stood by her transformed husband through it all. His eight children were a different story.
One of the most interesting parts of his transformation is in the reaction of his children. First they were mostly resentful of what they felt was depriving them. But then, after gradually accepting their ‘fate’ at losing their material possessions and comforts, they began to realize the importance and beauty of their father’s altruistic ambitions, and eventually pitched in and assisted Mully in significant ways.
Of course by worldly standards of capitalistic gain, he wasn’t doing anything wrong by his financial achievements; he earned his money through smart business moves and of course could be a good person, as in Jewish law, by donating a percentage of his earnings to charitable causes. Moreover, the Torah is not against acquiring wealth. In fact we learn in Pirkei Avot that wealth is one of the qualities that beautifies the person and the world. The Talmud also states that the greatest rabbi of his time, Rabbi Yehudah the Prince, used to show honor to wealthy people. The difference isn not the wealth itself but how it was earned and for what purpose it is used. For that matter, nothing purely material is intrinsically good or evil. It all depends on the intention and purpose of its use.
In later years, both Abergnale and Mully expressed regret over their youthful follies, and indeed translated their remorse into actions that saved people’s property and even lives. Their adolescent choices emerged from the desperation of feeling neglected by their parents. When I was a pre-teen, without any warning to me, my parents divorced; it was a shock to me and I began stealing comics for a while, as I suppose, some kind of strange survival mechanism. Human beings are not born as angels.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe once spoke to a boy who was wondering why people were beset with temptations and mistakes. The Rebbe pointed out to him the difference between paintings and portraits or photos. Portraits sometimes can sell for some money, but nothing like famous paintings that can and have sold for even millions. You might think the reverse should be true. An objective photograph is more true to life than a painting. The latter usually contains some subjective aspects and idiosyncrasies. However, the underlying observations and perspectives of the painter can bring out a deeper truth than the photograph. In a similar way, angels are like photographs, the exact replica of how they were created. But human beings contain the choice and ability to paint their own portraits. The foibles themselves can produce a greater masterpiece than anyone could program or predict in advance.
Consequently, if and more accurately, when, we may have ‘crossed over’ the line of correct choices in our lives, not only can our mature selves regret those choices, but we can dig deep down to find treasures in the mud, and to manifest a much more radiant and righteous life than if we would have made all the right choices to begin with. This understanding of Teshuva is helpful all year round, but before Yom Kippur, it is fundamental to our well-being and ultimate destiny. Like Abergnale and Mully, we did not choose our early life circumstances, but we can choose how to use what we’ve learned in the most ideal manner.
This year, many Americans got tax rebates. Yom Kippur could be considered our annual tax rebate. It is up to us to decide how to use the time we have in the coming year optimally. In that way, we can as Abraham and Jonah, become a true ‘Ivri’- one who crosses over all obstacles and challenges till, as the Talmud puts it, ‘In the place where a master of Teshuva stands, even the most righteous person is unable to stand.’ May this year, 5783, be the year where, in the words of the mystics, ‘Mashiach will come when the righteous themselves become masters of Teshuva- holy ‘cross overs.’’