עמנואל אלשטיין

Emanuel Elstein
Former Shaliach in Washington (2003-4) and Memphis (2010-12)

 

When I was in a summer camp in Memphis, I heard a great line from the local fixit man, who also happened to be a preacher: “If you aim low you have nowhere to go. If you reach for the stars you just might land on the moon!”
This time of year is the time to shoot for the stars. To aim as high as we can go. Or better yet, even higher than we can go.
Teshuva is something that we talk about often; it is a fundamental idea in Judaism. But sometimes we only think we know what we’re talking about, and in fact we are using the term incorrectly. We turn it into something much smaller than it really is.
There are 2 underlying axioms that form the basis for real Teshuva. We all know them, but Sometimes we miss their depth and magnitude.
The first is: I need to change
Not just a minor cosmetic operation. I need to fundamentally change who I am. I need a complete makeover. Fundamentally, teshuva begins with the feeling that something is missing, that something I’m doing is wrong. Without feeling that, there is no chance to make a change. While I often give lip service to my shortcomings, deep down, do I really believe it? Or do I feel that really, I’m ok?
There are two psychological defense mechanisms that stop us from feeling that we are deficient:
  1. Selective observance: there are certain areas that (I tell myself) aren’t really relevant to me. For whatever reason I put those spheres of mitzvot out of my life. It could be Driving on Shabbat, Lashon Hara, or davening mincha. Failure to observe these mitzvot doesn’t even make me feel guilty anymore, since in my mind it’s not relevant to me anyway.
  2. Relativism: It’s very easy to look to the right and left and compare. Relative to that guy, I’m not bad at all. I can always find someone who does less than me, which can justify where I am.
    It has been said that G-d made us in different levels, both materialistically and spiritually. That way I can see how my neighbor has less wealth than me, and be happy with what I have, and see how someone else is more advanced spiritually and be envious and try to do better.
    We tend to do the opposite. We see our neighbor’s wealth and strive to be like him, and use his spiritual poverty to feel good about ourselves.
Putting these two together, I can easily feel pretty complacent about myself. For the most part – I’m OK. All I need is a little refinement here and there, right?
The answer is “NO!”
All of us can reach the stars, or at least land on the moon. I don’t need to be a ‘rabbi’ or spend years in a Yeshiva in order to be close to Hashem. Each one of us has enormous potential. We each have a divine soul, a sliver of infinity, inside us.Reb Zusha of Anipoli, a Chassidic rabbi who lived in the beginning of the 18thcentury, used to say – When I reach heaven, they won’t ask me why I wasn’t Moshe Rabeinu. They will ask me why I wasn’t Zusha.
We all have the potential for greatness inside us, each in or own way. We just tend to underestimate ourselves; we don’t believe we can get so high.
Teshuva begins with recognizing my potential, and truly aiming to fulfill it.

The 2nd axiom of teshuva is: I can change!
We are not stuck where we are. We are capable of fundamentally changing who we are. We tell ourselves to take baby steps. Don’t run before you can walk. That is true, but that should not be our goal. Rather – we must believe that we can totally change who we are. It doesn’t matter if I’m 15 or 50 years old, I can still change, I can still take a new, higher and better path.

Teshuva contradicts quite a few psychological theories, from psychoanalysis to behaviourism. Many people will tell us that we are bound by some external force beyond our control, which limit my ability to choose or to change. Some blame early childhood experiences, others social class, or man’s desire for power. They all see man as less than totally free.

The Torah teaches us something else. Judaism teaches us that man is created in G-d’s image, capable of letting all that go. There may be objective obstacles and difficulties, but we all have the ability to be totally free. But just like political freedom, achieving spiritual freedom demands a lot of hard work and constant vigilance.

So do we need to take baby steps? Yes. Do we need to make sure not to get ahead ourselves? Yes. But we also need to think big. We need to aim for the stars, because we can reach them!