Unholy habits. Addictions. Sins that enslave. Sins permitted and overlooked because of familiarity.
I once spent several weeks getting to know an addiction support group at one of Atlanta’s mega-churches. I was impressed. The leader of the work was a humble man with a passion for helping others and with no ego to support. Would that there were many more like him.
I learned from him and the work he does there that gross oversimplification of sin, grace, forgiveness, recovery, and life-change are a real problem in churches, and religion in general. I’ve met people who had the experience of suddenly coming to faith or repentance and immediately dropping addictive habits like smoking, drinking, drugs, or pornography. They are the exception, not the rule. In fact, the folks at this one addiction recovery group used to poke fun at the idea of being “zapped” by God so that you never manifested an addiction again. When people left the group and claimed to have been “zapped,” the group leaders generally expected that such people were actually on a binge, wanted to get rid of accountability, and hopefully would come back when they were disgusted with themselves again.
As Rosh HaShanah arrives with the sundown on Wednesday, my mind is turned to the reality of sin in all of our lives. Especially troubling are the habitual sins, major and minor addictions that weigh us down and reduce the quality of our lives. I’m reading The Practical Guide to Teshuvah, a High Holiday devotional, by Rabbi Shaul Wahschal. It is a little gem I’m glad I picked up from Judaica Corner when I saw it.
The rabbis have a way of discussing the good and the evil in us that some people object to theologically. I want to say that regardless of areas of potential theological disagreement, the rabbinical image is practically useful. That is, the idea that we all have in us two inclinations, the Good Inclination and the Evil Inclination, yetzer ha-tov and yetzer ha-ra.
There is wisdom in studying the evil inside us closely. I find that where people prefer easy answers, which is almost everywhere, this is not a task that will be popular with anyone. I find there are few Christian books that put common and habitual sins under a microscope. Thank God for the Jewish tradition of mussar, studies in sin and righteousness. It is a Jewish thing to take a subject and dissect it into minute parts, to be detailed and exhaustive.
So, I have found profound wisdom in this little book on Teshuvah. I chew on it. I apply it to my habitual sins. I want to pass on to you a few nuggets from this mine, but know that there is so much more.
First, we must be realistic about sins and habits:
The mussar sefarim [books on righteousness] describe man’s spiritual avodah [service of worship] in this world as a long battle that does not allow swift defeat of the enemy. The battle against the yetzer ha-ra [evil inclination] is eternal.
Second, I found particularly helpful a little quote about habitual sins and our apathy regarding them:
Rabbi Itzaleh Peterburger, of blessed memory, explains that difficulty in overcoming habitual sin stems from confusing prohibited actions with permitted actions. We make this mistake because of our constant and habitual repetition of the prohibited actions. Similarly, the Gemara says that a person repeatedly transgresses a mitzvah [commandment] will eventually come to think that his sin is permitted.
Recently, I was faced with a problem I have encountered many times in my career as a rabbi. Someone raised a common objection to the need for atonement, to the need for Messiah’s cleansing death and life-giving resurrection. What objection? They said, “I don’t understand all this talk about sin and forgiveness and all the repentance and guilt. I’m not a sinner.”
Now, it happens that the person who said this is one of those delightful people who is nearly always kind to others. You know the type. They seem so good compared to people around them, it is possible for them to actually imagine they do not transgress the will of HaShem in any manner. Their spiritual blindness is made easier not only by their kind disposition, but also by major ignorance of the scriptures. They have not thought deeply about transgression, common evil, and persistent rebellion.
I found some advice in my little Teshuvah guide very helpful:
Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, of blessed memory, was of the opinion that study of halachah [practical rulings for living God’s commands] causes a person to re-evaluate the importance of the subject being discussed, which, in turn, stimulates the person to fulfill the mitvot [commandments] with greater devotion . . . The correction of character traits demands prolonged study of works that discuss negative traits.
That is, like this person who said they were not a sinner, we all can too easily overlook our unholy habits. One very practical way to grow in holiness is to study the commandments, to study the practical rulings for how to live them, and to study the lists of sins and prohibited actions.
This is great advice and good meditation for the High Holidays. So let me give you some suggested readings. Maybe this exercise is exactly what you need to experience a little growth in character this year.
Start with some biblical passages that describe various sins and righteous acts. Here are just a few:
1. Get a good sampling of Torah commands: Exodus 20:1-17, 23:1-9; Leviticus 19:1-37.
2. See how deep thought about Torah commands leads to a deeper view of their range and meaning, right from the mouth of our Messiah: Matthew 5:21-48.
3. Consider some apostolic lists of practical rulings: Ephesians 4:17-32; Colossians 3:1-17.
Meditate on this question: how am I doing at performing the positives and avoiding the negatives?
If you want to dig deeper into guides for living, here is an excellent one formed by leading rabbis in the Messianic Jewish movement:
Read, for example, rulings about Shabbat and kashrut [dietary law].
Pick up a good book on Jewish ethics, like Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s A Code of Jewish Ethics. Or pick up this little Teshuvah guide by Rabbi Shaul Wagschal.
This is an eternal battle. We will not defeat the yetzer ha-ra completely until we stand before Messiah. Until then, shouldn’t we be busy preparing ourselves for the Master’s coming?