This week’s parshat has a unique name: “Chayei Sarah — the lives of Sarah.”
There is a message here about the multiple lifetimes within a single lifetime, with the multiple stages in a person’s life being referred to as “multiple lives.” In the case of our matriarch Sarah, Torah is happy to report the remarkable quality of the way she lived her life, that she performed valiantly and through every stage of her life: childhood, young adult and old age. Torah is teaching us about the shining qualities of the common ancestor of every Jew and, by doing that, challenging us to raise the bar on what we strive to be and how we endeavor to live our own lives.
But, in addition, this reference to the multiple lives of an individual leads to a larger conversation about the Torah’s belief in every person’s ability to change and even to reinvent themself for the better.
A person’s life is not a single, unstoppable continuum. Things need not continue as they are. Things need not conclude as they began. A rough childhood need not grow into a rough adulthood. And an unpleasant adulthood need not age into a sad retirement. No one is stuck in their past. We are empowered to leave a previous life behind and start a new and improved one. A person who was ill-trained, uneducated or even abused, G-d forbid, in their childhood years has the G-d-given ability to place a period at the end of that sad chapter and write a brand-new life for themself as soon as they realize the need.
A person who takes advantage of this gift is what is called a baal teshuva — a master of return. Jewish wisdom overflows with love and respect for the baal teshuva. A person who walks away from a shameful lifestyle and builds themself anew with higher values and a higher purpose is held in the highest esteem in a Torah environment — in many ways even higher than a person who never had anything to be ashamed of.
Jewish law forbids, in the harshest terms, condemning a genuine baal teshuva for his or her past lives. Ignoring his or her commendable behavior of the present to condemn his or her misbehavior of the past is one of the lowest crimes against a person’s humanity. A person must feel that they have the trust of their community, that when they finally choose to change for the better, their teshuva will be accepted and not mocked.
This is one of the hallmarks of the potential penitence to be found in prisons. When a person serving prison time for the crimes of their past resolves to reinvent themself — their way of thinking, speaking and behaving — only an honest society can make their teshuva work. It is societal honesty that sees justice through so that a person who presents a danger to society is put behind bars; and it is the same societal honesty that recognizes real change and embraces a person who comes out changed, having abandoned a past life and committed to a kinder, more dignified one.
Torah commands us to love others as we love ourselves. The desire to be accepted after teshuva is one of the deepest in the human heart. More than anything, we look to our friends, family and society for second chances. Our self-love allows us to realize that regardless of what we once were, we should be given a second chance to be what we are now. That attitude must be applied to others as well. With a good measure of the wisdom to distinguish between teshuva and calculated posturing, we can suppress the worst in man while encouraging and nurturing G-d’s greatest gift to mankind: teshuva.
With teshuva, one life can end, another can begin and a self-serving stain on society can transform himself or herself into a baal teshuva, one of society’s most precious members. PJC
Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel is executive director of The Aleph Institute – North East Region. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.