Seeing the Good Within Part of First Step Toward Teshuvah

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By Rabbi Malkah Binah Klein

Parshat Ki Teitzei

For a little while I forsook you,


but with vast love I will bring you back.

In slight anger, for a moment, I hid My face from you;

but with kindness everlasting I will take you back in love

(Isaiah 54:7-8, Haftarah for Ki Tetzei, 5th haftarah of consolation).

These verses from this week’s haftorah invite us to widen our perspective: When life is hard and we feel abandoned and alone, remember that on the scale of divine time, this devastation is but “for a moment” — and to trust that our sense of loving connection will be restored.

The Days of Awe, or High Holidays, are just a few weeks away, and we are now in the season of teshuvah, or return — the process of taking an honest look at how we have been living and how we can bring ourselves more into proper alignment. Our tradition is ever-hopeful in the possibilities for restoring love; teshuvah was sewn into the very fabric of creation.

How do we enter into the process of teshuvah? I share here an important teaching on transforming sin from Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983), the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism.

Kaplan asks us, “What are we to do about our sins? In the first place, we must not permit [our sins] to lead to self-hate or self-contempt. We must be able to see good in ourselves. We must believe that we have within us something that reflects the goodness that exists in the world. Most of our moral failures are due to a distrust of our capacity for virtue … Nothing that we can say or think can really undo what has been done. The past can never be relived and it always conditions the present and future. Therein lies the inexorable reality of sin. Having failed, however, does not mean that we are failures, for the future lies before us with its infinite possibilities.”

“In our discouragement, many of us brood over our incapacity for good behavior … If, instead of thinking of our sin as though it were a taint on our ego, we regard it as a form of bad behavior in our relations to the world about us, a disposition to wrong-doing rather than wrong-being, we will not brood about what has already been done, but try to learn from our experience how to do better. We use our experience of sin to attain virtue. The power of teshuvah, that is turning in the direction of the will to moral achievement, converts what were willful sins into virtues” (from Kol Haneshamah, Prayerbook for the Days of Awe).

As Kaplan teaches, seeing the good in ourselves is the first step to teshuvah. We humans are, by our very nature, imperfect, and what is helpful is to focus on what we have done wrong as a path to learning and growth. May we all be blessed with the self-acceptance that allows us to try, to fail, to learn, to take responsibility and to try again. This is the path to knowing divine love. In the words received by Isaiah, “with kindness everlasting I will take you back in love.” 

Malkah Binah Klein is the rabbi of Congregation Am Haskalah in Allentown and leads a weekly Jewish meditation group at the Germantown Jewish Centre. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.

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