The essence of life is growth and progress, as we strive to fulfill our true purpose. And as we explained in our previous article, the only way we can genuinely change, transform, and evolve is if we have the capacity to assert our inner will and to create a new reality within ourselves. This requires a complete recreation of self within our consciousness – a remolding of our inner world. While yesterday we were the type of person who did one thing, today a new decision is formed and a new reality is created within our inner world. This requires a complete assertion of willpower, an overcoming of self, and a breakdown and reformation of inner drive and character. This means giving up who we are for who we want to be; sacrificing what we think we want for what we truly want. (See Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Gerushin 2:20, where he discusses the relationship between our true ratzon [“rotzeh ani”] and our lower self.) It means overcoming the emotional and overwhelming pull of current desire and generating a new “want” within our very core. This is why the Rambam places his seemingly philosophical discussion of the concept of free will amongst the halachos of teshuva; free will is the very root and foundation of Hilchos Teshuva. Without free will, one could never change and one could never become something else, someone new, and someone better.
Strikingly, Rav Eliyahu Dessler explains that many people never experience a true assertion of their free will due to its immense difficulty. This is why many people do not change. Change is hard, uncomfortable, and often requires sacrifice. One must fully and wholeheartedly believe in their new future in order to give up their current lifestyle. However, when we push with all our might, expressing a full force of our inner will, we get a taste of truth, an experience of destiny, and a glimpse of our true self.
However, this understanding of teshuva, namely, that of return, has an even deeper layer to it. After all, if teshuvah is an act of return, what or whom are we returning to?
Teshuva: A Life’s Journey
Genuine teshuva is not just about fixing our mistakes in Elul and Tishrei; it’s about self-expression, returning to our true and higher selves. As we previously discussed, while we were in the womb, we were in a perfect and transcendent state of being, and a malach taught us kol haTorah kulah (Niddah 30b). As the Vilna Gaon explains, this refers to the deepest realms of Torah, a transcendent Torah that lies far beyond this world, beyond the confines of space and time. (Quoted in Maalos HaTorah by Rabbeinu Avraham, brother of the Vilna Gaon. See also Even Sheleimah 8:24.) This Torah is the very root of reality, and you were granted complete understanding of its every detail. Not only were you shown this level of Torah, but you also learned your specific share of Torah; you were shown your unique purpose in the world and how your unique role fits into the larger scheme of the human story as a whole. You were given a taste of your own perfection, of what you could, should, and hopefully will become. And from this transcendent realm, you were birthed into the physical world with the mission to actualize everything you were shown in the womb while in your primordial, perfect state.
In essence, your job in this world is not to create yourself but rather to recreate yourself; to re-attain your original state of perfection, as you were shown by the malach. This time, however, it must be done through free will, i.e., by choosing to become great. Only by overcoming challenge and difficulty, and only by asserting your willpower, can you fulfill your true potential. In essence, our entire life is a story of teshuva – returning to our original, higher, true self.
This theme is the mystical root of creation itself. All of existence is meant to return to its original true, higher form. When Adam was created, his mission was to return to his root and source, i.e., Hashem. When Adam sinned, all of existence fell; our goal became to return the world to its higher form and repair a fractured world. In essence, our goal is threefold: to return to our individual higher selves, our collective higher selves as a nation, and our absolute root self – Hashem.
We can now return to our original question regarding how to stop the downwards momentum of failure and bad decisions. The answer is a simple, single-word answer: decide! Choice is the most powerful tool Hashem has granted us. The power of choice allows us to accomplish anything. When life begins to fall apart, and bad decisions start piling up, we must cut off the downward momentum before it grows out of control and before it destroys us. The key is making the decision, asserting your inner will, and focusing its full force toward cutting off the momentum. If you can stop the momentum of bad decisions, of a lifestyle that is draining the life out of you, you can stop it from spreading. With nowhere to spread, negativity is like a flame without oxygen; it simmers out and disappears. It all starts with a single decision to turn the tide – to begin building positive momentum, to start climbing uphill, and to start heading toward your ultimate destination. If you can take that first step and push toward your greatness, you will suddenly begin riding that new wave. This is the power of choice; this is the power of positive momentum.
Failed or Failure?
The single most important psychological factor involved in this decision is our response to failure. When we fail, we often become convinced that we are a failure. We believe that by making a mistake, we become the mistake. We integrate past experience into our present identity, and we therefore lose faith in ourselves, our hopes, and our values. As a result, we begin to cascade downwards, sliding with negative momentum.
The key to avoiding this slide is to disconnect our failures from our identity. We all fail; we all have times where we give in to temptation and do things that we regret. But failing does not make you a failure. It makes you human, a work in progress; someone who is growing and learning. If we learn to view our failures as learning opportunities and as wake-up calls, instead of perceiving them as crippling obstacles, we can use them to grow and improve. When we make a bad decision, we cannot let ourselves get depressed. Regret and remorse are essential, but we cannot get lost in these feelings. They must be used in a healthy, balanced, and positive way. When we slip up, take a step backwards, and fall down a notch, we have to immediately stop the downwards movement, pick ourselves back up, learn from our mistakes, and continue our upwards climb. This is the character of one who has a growth-mentality – one who does not get crushed by life, but learns from it instead.
The Power of Decision
It is therefore no surprise that the Torah is replete with lessons of the importance of will and the power of decision. An opinion is quoted in the Gemara (Rosh Hashana 10b) that man was created in Nissan. Why then do we celebrate Rosh Hashana in Tishrei? Tosafos suggests that although Hashem created the world in Nissan, His decision to do so took place six months earlier on the first of Tishrei. The decision itself serves as a form of creation, which is why man is considered to have been created in Tishrei.
The Gemara (Kiddushin 49b) rules that if a man marries a woman on the condition that he is a tzaddik (righteous), we consider the marriage as halachically binding – even if he is wicked! How can this be? The Gemara explains that perhaps he had decided at that very moment to do teshuva (hirhurei teshuva) and to become a tzaddik, and that intention itself would be enough to validate his statement. Based on this possibility, we must view his marriage as possibly binding. This example, once again, displays the spiritual significance of a decision.
There are applications of this idea regarding Shabbos observance as well. If one is outside a city on Shabbos, he cannot walk further than two thousand amos from where he is located at the moment Shabbos begins. However, the Mishna in Eruvin notes that if one is in the midst of traveling right before Shabbos begins, he can point into the distance and say that he intends to be at that place in the distance, and his two thousand amos will be measured from that point. Essentially, halacha recognizes us to be in the place where we want to be; where we decide to be.
The Root of Teshuva
Free will – choice – is the root of teshuva. Teshuva is about reengineering our will, recreating our desire, and rewiring our wants. It’s about the decision to be better, to be great, to become our best and truest selves. As the Ramchal explains in Mesilas Yesharim, if you change what you want (akiras ha’ratzon), you change who you are. When you make a new decision, you create a new reality for yourself. When the shofar blows this year, let us truly awaken. In some sense, we all need a shofar for the shofar; we need a wakeup call to listen to this year’s wakeup call. Many are numb to the wordless blast; deaf to its existential calling. Some have given up on change, while others are too busy with life to stop and truly consider the possibility of more, of a greater life. May we all be inspired to fully utilize this idea, to embark on a journey of genuine teshuva, and continue the process of becoming our ultimate selves.