Upward and onward … and don’t look back!

Upward and onward … and don’t look back!

Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel
Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel

Parshat Ki Tavo, Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8

One of the most beautiful and popular verses in Torah is found in this week’s Parshah, Ki Tavo. In the midst of showering the People of Israel with blessings, G-d declares, “You will be blessed when you come, and blessed when you go.”

Rashi illuminates the meaning of the blessing to each individual: “May your departure from the world be as free of sin as was your entry into the world.” Imagine that. The degree to which a person is free from sin at his entry into the world is 1,000 percent. He or she is, literally, an innocent baby, who has never had a thought of, nor an opportunity for, sin. And Torah wishes us that after the 120 years that follow, years of wear and tear and challenges and trials and tribulations, we sustain that pristine, baby-like state of purity and innocence.

Sounds a bit fantastic, no?

As with all the mysteries of the Torah, there are certainly infinite answers to this question. But from a personal perspective, there is a crucial message to be heard from this Parshah.

The Torah speaks of coming and going, and Rashi explains the simplest meaning to be coming and going from the world. But within the world, and within life itself, between the starting line and the goal, we encounter many micro-worlds and micro-lives. Every experience and every crisis is its own complete lifetime within our lifetimes, and each one needs its own Divine blessing: Be blessed when you come and blessed when you go.”

As the director of Aleph NE, I have seen up close the struggles of incarcerated men and women and the great challenges that face them “when they come and when they go,” at the time of their arrest and, surpassingly, to a more difficult degree, upon their eventual release.

What the system calls “re-entry” into mainstream society after having served time behind bars is for some even more difficult than the actual prison itself. And that hardship is something I have reflected upon endless times, pondering the resemblance that it has to so many of the personal struggles faced by all people — free or not — in day-to-day life.

“Re-entry” is a wonderful English translation of the Hebrew word “Teshuva.” While some mistranslate Teshuva as penitence, it actually means “return.” The fact that we refer to penitence as return implies that cleaning up our act and shedding past sins is not an entry into to a clean and innocent life, rather it is a re-entry — a return — back to a clean and innocent life. It implies that every person has a clean and innocent core that remains unflawed by sinful experiences and patiently awaits the person’s return to his or her natural state of goodness.

But the return path is littered with obstacles that make changing and re-entering very difficult. One obstacle looms above all the others and that is the challenge of leaving the past behind. All too often, a person trying to return to their innate goodness finds it hard to believe that they have the right — nay, the obligation — to leave all their mistakes behind them and start looking only forward. They say, what about regret and remorse? What about guilt and shame?

And it is this obsession with yesterday’s sins that presents the single greatest hurdle. For until a person can accept that he or she has a starting point that is untainted, a natural, intrinsic place of purity to draw strength from for a new beginning, there can be no new beginning. As long as a person believes that they have damaged themselves irreversibly and purged themselves completely of their innate innocence, they will never feel that sense of hope that is crucial to any significant change of course. And even when challenged to accept the redemptive truth that a total restart is possible, the most destructive forces in the lowest recesses of the human heart would prefer to wallow in guilt and shame, comfortable in the familiar darkness of its own making.

But the challenge is even harder than that.

Our nature is to want to learn from our past. Thus, even when we decide to cease and desist from our past mistakes, we are inclined to take lessons from those very mistakes. But looking backward, even with good intentions, is a prelude to relapse. Because after all the effort expended to finally discard the identity of a sinner and assume the identity of a good person, the slightest nudge backwards can spark a tailspin, shoving the person right back to where their problems started and causing them to once again see themselves as their sins.

We find this tragic reality in the story of the Divine rescue of Lot and his wife from Sodom. As they run, G-d’s angels warn them not to turn around to look at the burning city. Lot’s wife does just that and immediately becomes a solid block of salt. Rashi explains the bizarre punishment by explaining that although she had tolerated her husband’s habit of hospitality in a city that had strict laws outlawing it, she yet resented it bitterly and refused to indulge her guests with any excesses. When her husband wanted to offer guests salt to add flavor to their meal, she objected, insisting that the hospitality itself was enough and the guests deserved nothing more. And thus her sin became her punishment and she became salt. She became her sin.

When G-d sees fit to send His angels to pluck a person from the clutches of their own destructive behavior, the person has one job: Don’t look back. Look ahead to the bright and meaningful future and move, move, move! Don’t slow down, don’t look back. Because if you do, you run the risk of losing hope and once again becoming your own sins.

To every person re-entering a peaceful society with valuable experience from their ordeals, Torah challenges: If, after a torturous ordeal, you still have hopes and dreams, it is because you were blessed when you came into the ordeal. But now as you are released from its grip, it’s up to you to ensure that you are also blessed when you leave. Are you are taking lessons from the past with you? Or are you simply taking the past with you? The two are easily confused, so proceed with caution. And when in doubt, don’t turn around, don’t look back, and leave the past in the past where it belongs.

You were empowered and blessed when you came. You are empowered and blessed as you go.

Upward and onward, one modest step at a time, and become your most beautiful self.

Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel is executive director at the Aleph Institute-North East Region/Hyman & Martha Rogal Center. This column is provided by the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.