I wanted to write down something I learned from my Rabbi this Shabbos that moved me. He was teaching me and a friend something about Rosh Hashanna originally taught by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (the Alter Rebbe), the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneersohn; the shiur was given by Rabbi Yoel Kahn, a very respected Rabbi. The topic was about what exactly is Teshuva (repentance), and how one would go about doing it. (I've written this down and added pieces from my own understanding about sinning.)
For starters, a man in Jewish law can marry a woman with conditions, for example, under the condition that he is a tzaddik gamor (a completely righteous man). However, even though he might be a complete sinner, his condition is fulfilled and he is married with a safek (a doubt).
How is this possible if we know that his whole life he was a complete sinner? Even moreso, he could be holding a pork sandwich (not allowed), which he was in the middle of eating right before he proclaimed "you are now betrothed to me under the condition that I am a complete tzaddik." How can this be a valid marriage if we know he’s not a complete righteous person? [Hold this thought and let’s move on to the next topic. We’ll come back to this soon.]
If one wants to join the army, the first thing one must do is sign up. There are many levels to signing up... You need to fill out the forms, you need to take a medical exam, you need to pack your bags and show up to boot camp for training, and most of all, regardless of what position you will hold in the army, (i.e. a soldier, a cook, a chaplain, etc.) you still need to stand in line for roll call.
Through these actions when one signs up to the army (which as we see, there are many levels), the essence of what one does during these steps is he acknowledges that he is part of the bigger organization – in our example, the U.S. Army. When we stand at roll call in the morning, we stand not in our own capacity as an individual unit, but as part of a bigger entity. We acknowledge, "you are our superior; we are on your team."
So too as Jews, the first thing we say in the morning is "Modeh ani lefanecha, melech chai v’kayom, shehechezarta bi nishmasi b’chemla rabah emunasecha" which on its surface is saying "Thank you G-d for returning my soul to me." However, on a deeper level, it says "Modeh ani lefanecha," which means, "I admit before you..." BEFORE YOU! Every morning what a Jew does is he or she LINES UP before his Creator and stands for roll call. He says, "I’m on your team, G-d -- Present and accounted for."
Throughout the day and throughout the year, people sin. We sin. We do things that are against the will of G-d as described in his Torah. What we often don’t realize is that each sin creates a blemish, or a stain on our souls, our spiritual garments.
Of course the worst part of a sin regardless of how one sinned is the fact that the sin occurred. This is akin to a soldier going AWOL (away without leave), where he does things that are not becoming of a soldier. In it’s essence, regardless of what he does while he’s away (whether he goes to a bar or visits a friend), he has disobeyed the army’s rules and he is in trouble. Similarly when a common person disobeys a decree of a king. In both cases, it does not matter what he did specifically, but the fact that he disobeyed the decree or the military rule separates him from the larger entity of which he is part of, whether it is the U.S. Army or the king’s dominion.
In itself, this is a problem. However, the type of blemish on your spiritual garment that occurs from a sin also matters. For example, you can do something small that creates a small stain. This can easily be washed away. Or, you can do something that leaves a giant stain, which requires a special chemical to make it go away. These require more work to clean. However, both of these can be washed away. There are also sins that rip the garment. These sins can’t be washed away, but they can be repaired with a little bit more work.
Going a little bit deeper, just as we have a body and soul, so does our sin. When we sin, we literally create an entity of un-holiness which itself has a body and a soul. Its body is of course not physical as we know physicality to be, but nevertheless, it is a body. It is said that these entities that are created from our sins follow us and torment us throughout the year, living as parasites on our life force until we repent.
How does it have a body and a soul? Well, when we sin, our sin happens by us doing a physical action. This action creates the body of the unholy entity. Its soul comes from the desire we experience when we are taking part in that sin. When we repent, we must literally kill both this body and this soul of the sin we created by our transgression.
In Tanya, it was taught by the Alter Rebbe that in order to repent one needs first to resolve to stop sinning in general (in addition to resolving to stop the particular sin one has taken part of). The reason we resolve to stop ALL sinning is akin to saying that you are joining the army in its entirety. You are not joining on Tuesdays or to take part in one war, but not the other – rather, you are signing up to be a soldier in the army as a whole. This is the same when it comes to G-d. You are telling G-d, "I am YOUR servant completely and I will follow your decrees in their entirety." How you intend to do this an in what time frame and how is between you and him.
Once you have stepped on board and have acknowledged that you are on G-d’s team (i.e. standing for roll call by saying "Modeh ani lefanecha" every morning, or standing before G-d during Rosh Hashanna, the next step is to say viduy during the appropriate time of the service (Viduy are specific words one says while lightly beating one’s heart and thinking about the specific transgressions that one has committed throughout the year.)
By doing these two steps, one slays the body and the soul of the entity he has created through his sin. He kills the soul of the entity by resolving never to sin again; this cuts off the life force that is sucked from the person and given to the unholy entity. He kills to body of the entity created by his sin through the viduy (the action of lightly beating the chest while saying the particular words of repentance). Through this action, one purifies one’s self of one’s sins and cleans his garment and removes all of his blemishes in preparation to be judged by G-d himself during Yom Kippur, the upcoming holiday.
This is a two step process, but can occur at many levels. However, it's essence (and first step) is that a person resolves never to sin again and decides to accept the responsibility of being a Jew by saying, "G-d, I am on your team. I belong to you." This repentance can free a person of his sins. At this point, he is considered a tzaddik gamor (a completely righteous man), and for that moment, he is completely free of his sins. However, his spiritual garment is still dirty and it needs to be cleaned through viduy. This is how one can have a "dirty tzaddik," where he is a completely righteous person, even though his garment is still dirty.
When a man says, "I am betrothed to you under the condition that I am a complete tzaddik" as we saw above, it is now understood how it is possible that this man who is a sinner and is holding a pork sandwich in his hands may have done this kind of repentance by accepting the yolk of heaven upon himself and saying "G-d, I am on your team," so we accept his condition and presume the marriage valid with a suffok (a doubt), even though his garments might still be dirty. This is also what happens on the month of Elul and on Rosh Hashanna, where one greets G-d in the field and then his palace. The relationship between G-d and the Jewish people is akin to a marriage, where G-d is one party, and the Jewish people are the other party.
Rabbi's Note: I wanted to comment that after my rabbi read this, he wanted to clarify that the first step is to do repentance by first accepting the yolk of heaven by saying, "G-d, I am on your team," and by doing viduy on Rosh Hashanna. One continues this process throughout the days of repentance between Rosh Hashanna and Yom Kippur, where on Yom Kippur, one becomes absolved of all his or her sins. He wanted to make it clear that THIS was the foundation of Teshuva (repentance). [Waking every morning and saying "Modeh ani" and doing teshuva during tachanun (by doing viduy during the prayer service) is a benefit we get every day, as if every day is a mini-Rosh Hashanna.]
My comment: I also wanted to comment on my reaction to him reviewing my notes on the shiur. I was very impressed with how carefully he reviewed each point, with a serious face I have never seen on him before. I feel that in his heart he was reviewing the words of the Rebbe, and just as the Rebbe used to carefully review everything that he taught for accurateness, so too did he review the words I wrote to make sure I understood it how he wanted it to be taught. This made the whole experience very serious for me and put fear into my heart because I realized that we are not just talking about abstract concepts -- this is real and is a serious thing. I was actually scared by the intensity in which he reviewed my words above.