Keeping Your Sins: A Counter-intuitive Approach to Teshuva

For some 30+ years, I have taken the road well travelled as a rabbi on High Holidays: exhort my peeps to fess up to wrongdoings, pick at least some to work on in the year ahead, and get your act together. On some level it’s a good approach. Admit what you’ve done wrong and try to get it right in the future. But it always left me with a question: Seems like no matter how hard I (or anyone else I know) try, some sins just seem to cling. For instance, I just haven’t been able to kick lashon hara (gossip). And while I like the idea of spiritual check in three times a day, mincha and ma’ariv – the afternoon and evening services – just seem outside my reach, at least as a daily practice. And I could probably tighten up my level of kashrut observance. Etc.

So as I think about teshuva, how to “return” to a better life, I’m trying out a different approach and putting it out there for comments, praise, ridicule, whatever. Instead of looking at the sins that I plan to give up, I’m looking at the ones that I have chosen and will likely continue to choose to keep. Ready? Here’s how it works:

Our lives are full of choices. We make choices every day. Some are innocuous: what to eat for breakfast, which highway to take to work. Others are more significant: How much to donate and to which tzedaka cause, whether to work on Shabbat, how to treat a neighbor or colleague. In each case, we are making a cheshbon, an equation or an accounting. What do I gain by doing this? What do I lose? Am I, my family, or my community becoming better because I make a certain choice?

What I am trying this year is something different: I am taking stock, as I do each year. And I will certainly try to jettison some of the things that I do wrong, tossing them at tashlich time into the water at Pine Lake.

What is different this year is that I am being brutally honest about the things that I cannot seem to unload year after year. I’m trying to do a full cheshbon of sins, but looking at the positives that keep me coming back. My thinking is as follows: In classical Judaism, a sin is a sin, more or less regardless of the reason one commits it. So, let’s say that auto travel on Shabbat violates Shabbat. In classical Judaism, the purpose of the travel doesn’t matter; it’s just wrong. The Conservative movement took a different approach, when it allowed such travel in order to go to services (or at least to the closest available synagogue). I’m suggesting a bit more: Perhaps there is, and should be, a qualitative difference between travelling to the mall vs. travelling to a hospital to visit a sick friend or to a blood donation drive.

And that’s how I am looking at the shortcomings that I plan to hold on to. When I compromise on kashrut in the year ahead, there will be a cheshbon: If I’m meeting someone to plan mitzvah work, and the meeting place is 50 miles from the nearest kosher eatery, well, that’s how it is sometimes. If I’ve been up working until all hours, and have to be at an early morning meeting in the service of the Jewish people, I know that my morning prayers will suffer. But it’s a cheshbon, in this case a trade-off.

The list goes on. Am I letting myself off the hook? Perhaps to a degree. But I’m also learning from experience that I will not be perfect this year, as I haven’t been in any other year. But I will try harder to make sure that the wrongs that I do are those that carry some positive benefit for myself, my family, my community and my world.

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