For Yitzy Hammer’s Jewish reflections on Yom Kippur, click here.
The concept of repentance terrifies me. I’ve heard it defined as a 180 degree turn away from sin. Well, if I’m honest, my turning away from sin is maybe 20 degrees at best. Take, for example, complaining. I know God hates it when we grumble in the wildernesses of our lives instead of trusting in Him. So when I catch myself grumbling, I confess it, and I do want to do better – kind of – so long as it won’t cramp my style, you know. Two minutes later, I miss the bus and burst into another peal of whining and bemoaning my life. If repentance really requires a 180 degree turn away from sin, I’m in trouble.
But then, what if repentance is actually something so much more bizarre? What if God is asking us to repent not of our sin but of our righteousness?
One of the most staggering verses in the Tanakh is Isaiah 64:6 –
But we are all like an unclean thing,
And all our righteousnesses (צדקה) are like filthy rags…
We all have sins, skeletons in the closet, that we might admit are pretty nasty. But our righteous deeds? Our good works? Those things we thought were impressing God? Those actions we did to push ourselves from the naughty to the nice list – God counts those things as filthy rags? Why?
This summer, I attended a seminar by Micah Goodman of Israel’s Ein Prat midrasha. Goodwin observed that the Israelites’ religion was set apart from the surrounding pagan belief systems by the fact that the God of Israel cannot be controlled. We must not look to rituals or even prayers as a means of forcing God into compliance with our wishes. He is a God beyond us and beyond our control. Only when we surrender to our lack of control do we truly come into line with His will for us.
And what is one of the primary ways we try to force God to comply with our wishes? Isn’t it our righteousness? “I’ve lived a good life, I’ve never done anything too bad, so God, You owe me this or that.” This was the complaint of the embittered Job, whose sense of justice was offended when God allowed him to suffer. Hadn’t his righteous life merited better than this?
And there’s something else. If we view our relationship with God as a contract, and if we tick off all the righteous deeds required on our end (if that was even possible!), then God can’t ask any more of us. Doing all the right things can, ironically, be a way to get God off our back. God sticks to His space and I stick to mine. Please, keep Your hands off my life. And so it turns out – to paraphrase Flannery O’Connor – that one of the best ways to avoid God is by being very good.
Besides, if I can do all the right things on my own, it saves me from that unpleasant task of admitting my own weakness and failure and the fact that I really, genuinely need Him. Otherwise, my righteous deeds become the arrogant claim that I can somehow make myself worthy of God. I’m back to trusting in my righteousnesses – those things God counts as filthy rags.
If my righteousness is worth no more in God’s eyes than my sin, then what is left to me? Nothing – nothing except God Himself. What if God isn’t impressed by me but yet loves me? What if He shows favor not because I’m righteous but because He is? Perhaps this understanding lies behind Psalm 25:1, a simple verse that recently knocked me cold: “To You, O Lord, I lift up my soul.” What would it truly be like to lift up, hand over, abandon my soul, my past and present and future with all its filthy rags, to God? To stop trying to control Him or to justify myself by my righteous deeds? Perhaps true repentance is not a vow that I’ll save myself from my sin but rather a turning away from all the things I’d hoped would save me to cling in faith to God alone.
What if what God wants is not for me to be perfectly good but for me to stop trying to be perfectly good? What if true repentance is not a self-fueled turn away from sin to perfection but rather the turn away from self-fueling to acknowledge my inadequacy and lift up my soul to God? What if, as one of my favorite books puts it, “the antidote to being bad is not just being good” – but rather, to repent “of the reasons we ever did anything right”?