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Thought for the Day: Regret Purifies the Soul

In his classic work on repentance, שערי תשובה, Rabeinu Yona describes two fundamental dimensions of תשובה: regret for and abandonment of bad behavior.  I have learned שערי תשובה, but (as often happens) when learning a sefer again with a chavrusa, new insights emerge.  Rabeinu Yona compares the process of regret and abandonment to immersing in a mikveh.  Without abandoning the sinful behaviour, the immersion will be ineffective; like immersing in a mikveh while holding onto a dead rat.  In the past, I have always focussed on the image of the dead rat and it's quite graphic message that one must certainly abandon the bad behaviour.

This time, however, I focussed on the immersion itself... in the analogy, regret is the mikveh!  Isn't that interesting?  Leaving the sinful behaviour is, it seems, merely a passive required action to be able to to תשובה.  It would seem that the main effector of תשובה is actually the regret.  Apparently there is sense in crying over spilt milk.  But why?

The M'silas Yesharim notes that there is no place in avodas HaShem in being depressed about past mistakes.  The value of reviewing past mistakes in entirely in being knowing what to do differently in the future.  It seems from Rabeinu Yona that the introspection and review process itself, in fact, is what changes the person.  It is not a dry, emotionally detached checklist of things to avoid.  In fact, the review is supposed to be a process of regret; and emotional journey down memory lane of feeling the pain of bad decisions, leading to a desire to make correct decisions in the future.

I think with this, I now have clarity on something that has bothered me for a long time.  We once asked R' Fuerst about pahtching a child.  He said, "Of course you have to pahtch children; of course, if you pahtch him in anger, then you are transgressing a Torah prohibition."  Ummm... what?  How can the Torah put me in a position where I am dollars to doughnuts guaranteed to be transgressing a Torah prohibition?  Of course I know that feeling anger is forbidden, but it is also very well known that uprooting that character trait of feeling anger is a lifetime worth of work.  Am I supposed to wait till I am 80 before I start having children?

Obviously not. But if I am put in a position of אונס/forced -- in this case by the way I was created by HaShem Himself -- then how can I be punished for that behaviour?

I won't be, obviously.  However, I will suffer for the bad things I have done.  That's not punishment, that just consequences.  The prohibitions in the Torah are not arbitrary rules any more than the laws of physics are arbitrary rules.  If I get burned, I don't regret the burn; I treat the burn.  I do, however, regret the decisions I made, or lack of care I exercised, that led to the burn.  I will be more careful and respectful of hot objects in the future.  The pain I feel now actually helps me to steel my resolve for the future.  That only works because I know that the problem is touching the hot object; if I don't associate the pain now with the heat earlier, then there is no way to improve.

We are in this world to perfect ourselves.  Our beautiful Torah lays out for us all the rules of reality.  When we feel pain, we are able to pinpoint the true source of that pain and then apply regret most effectively to perfecting ourselves to live forever.


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