Self-help vs. Teshuva

The self-help industry has become a very successful enterprise.  Bookstores are full of various titles that help people improve their performance in their career, their personal finances, and their relationships.  In Judaism, there is a special time of year set aside for Self-help – the High Holy Days, or the Yamim Nora’im – the Days of Awe.  The essence of Yom Kippur, as is evident from the ubiquitous confession of sins in its prayer service, is Teshuva – repentance.  Judaism has its own Self-help books – rabbinic texts that were written nearly one thousand years ago – for addressing and dealing with personal dysfunction, ineffectiveness, and failure.  It is enlightening to compare these two independent Self-help literatures.  The outstanding similarity between the two is the fact that they both deal with changing human attitude, behavior, and habit.  But when we compare the types of undesirable or negative behaviors and habits that each system attempts to improve or eliminate, there is both similarity and difference.  Behavior that harms our selves or others would be addressed by both systems, whereas religious shortcomings would typically only be addressed by the Jewish sources.  Is the only difference between Self-help and Teshuva that the latter addresses sins in addition to personal shortcomings, or is there perhaps a more fundamental distinction between the genres of self-improvement?

The codifiers of Jewish law list three components that are necessary to fulfill the commandment of Teshuva:  A feeling of regret for the transgression, a commitment to never repeat it, and a verbal confession to the Almighty.  It would seem that the most important aspects of the process are those that confront and solve the problems: regret and commitment.  The confession seems like nothing more than a formality that verbalizes the more-difficult inner process of repentance.  It is therefore surprising that all authorities agree that verbal confession is a necessary requirement of Teshuva, and without it the commandment of Teshuva has not been fulfilled.  It’s even more difficult to understand how Maimonides (1135 – 1204) could go so far as to indicate that the entire mitzvah of Teshuva is derived from a verse in the Torah describing verbal confession – which implies that not only is confession on par with regret and commitment, but that it’s actually their superior!

Rabbi Dr. Dovid Gottlieb, the author, lecturer and faculty member at Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem, explains the requirement of confession is actually the primary element of Teshuva that differentiates it from self-help.  The above comparison between Self-help and Teshuva only takes two parts of Teshuva – regret and commitment – into consideration.  Those requirements are not necessarily connected to religion whatsoever.  Therefore, based on their testimony alone, there is little difference in method between the two worlds of self-improvement.  Rabbi Gottlieb’s example is of a chronic smoker who is about to have a lung removed, who may remark that what his smoking was foolish, wrong, and a mistake (regret).  “And of course I will stop smoking,” he says, “I can’t afford to endanger my other lung (commitment)!”  These considerations can not only be expressed by a religious person but also by an atheist.  Confession, however, can only be an expression of a religious worldview.  Our shortcomings, sins, and misdeeds can damage our relationship with the Almighty and confession is the element of Teshuva which repairs that relationship.  That is why confession is a central element – and, according to Maimonidies, the central element – of Teshuva.

The difference between self-help and Teshuva is not limited to whether their scope includes sins or not.  The difference isn’t even whether one is a spiritual action or not – for, self-help and self-improvement address our spiritual side just as Teshuva does.  There’s no doubt that the self-help advice, techniques, and insights that the self-improvement books reveal are valuable and helpful.  Still, the most it attempts to do is to perfect our earthly existence, whereas Teshuva is a tool to perfect our heavenly connection as well.

Life is all about constantly rededicating ourselves to overcome our shortcomings and forging ahead.  To live up to the spirit and meaning of Yom Kippur, we must do even more.  We must simultaneously maintain the focus that we are ultimately not just trying to improve our effectiveness, efficiency, and relationships, but are also striving to connect and reconnect ourselves with God.


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