The Tanya relates how Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev was unable to lead the prayer service one Yom Kippur.
His Hasidim pleaded with him but to no avail.
“Last year,” he told them, “I promised God I would do complete teshuvah. And look, the year passed by and I still haven’t repented. How can I possibly lead the prayers again?”
Finally his son said to him, “Father, last year it wasn’t true, but this time it will be!” Upon hearing those words, the Rabbi took heart and began the prayers.
Cultivating the self-awareness necessary for teshuvah is an incremental process.
Part of this process is acknowledging that we may not have lived up to our goals or promises from last year – or if we have indeed made progress, that last year’s teshuvah does not suffice from our new vantage point.
Who we are now is different from who we were when we repented last year. If I did not fulfill last year’s promise, that does not contradict my ability now to promise sincerely.
What is important is not what has happened – or did not happen – in the past, but whether or not a person is prepared to accept it, learn from it, and to go forward.
If we are not prepared to accept our past, including our sins and our suffering, it will come back repeatedly.
The Baal Shem Tov said that the penitent has the possibility of repentance when he is on a higher level of consciousness than he was at the time of the sin.
The sign of real development, then, is that one’s previous level no longer holds true for him.
When one genuinely grows, his personal truth now must surpass all his previous truths so that, by comparison, they are not true at all.
Teshuvah demands that one pursue his individual truth at all times.
Yesterday’s heavens should be today’s earth, and we must know: there is a Truth still higher than this.
Our goal is to always aim for greater heights, to be constantly struggling and striving to do better and to be closer to God.
It is not enough to just be.
Syndicated column by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, September 14, 2005