Torah Blog


A blog of Torah thoughts, poems and other random odds 'n' sods. For tag cloud click here.
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Entries in self (2)


Teshuvah, Time Travel and Alternative Universes

Rambam (Maimonides) in Hilchot Teshuvah Chapter 2 says something a little odd:

Who has reached complete Teshuvah? A person who confronts the same situation of sin, and is able to commit the sin again, but nevertheless abstains due to Teshuvah alone, not due to fear or failure of strength.
For example, a man engaged in illicit sexual relations with a woman. Afterwards, they met in privacy, in the same country, while his love for her and physical power still persisted, and nevertheless he abstained and did not transgress - this is a person who has done complete Teshuvah

Can we ever be in the exact same situation again? The day cannot be exactly the same, the country cannot be exactly the same, the person we are interacting with is not the same* and our physical condition cannot be exactly the same. We ourselves are not the same person - we have had new experiences, we have new skin cells. It is never identical.

A few sentences further on, Rambam enumerates amongst the paths of repentance that the penitent "change his name, as if to say 'I am a different person and not the same one who sinned.'" This again seems to require an extreme - for the person to be entirely different, while everything else remains exactly the same. Neither option seems very likely. We rarely become entirely different; things rarely (actually, never!) remain exactly the same.

True - except in one, science-fictiony type scenario: alternative or parallel universes. In a parallel universe scenario, one travels down a different timeline where everything can remain exactly the same except for one thing. This is the archetypal "Sliding Doors" moment.

Teshuvah is a weird and illogical notion. Apparently we can go backwards, and wipe the slate clean of deeds concretely done. That should be impossible. It becomes much more logical if we view it as a form of time travel. If we make ourselves into a different person, then that new me gets to travel down a different time trajectory, where everything remains exactly the same (and, really, this is the only logical scenario in which everything remains 100 percent identical!), except me. I am a different person, and therefore I will act differently this time. Viewed this way, what we are asking when we do teshuvah and pray about it, is for G-d, who is beyond Time, to send us down a different timeline, one where that deed never actually occurred...

* * *

As a thought-provoking post-script, however, we can wonder how the change in action will affect the new timeline.There might be changes further down. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

Teshuvah is a wonderful tool to erase damage to ourselves; yet, the things we do out of sin are also a part of us in a way. Can we become an entirely different person, a "good" person, without excising our vitality and what makes us human? Some Modern Western thought might suggest "no", ranging from the Clockwork Orange where Alex's treatment changes him from a violent but empowered human, to a helpless wreck who no longer enjoys classical music; to Star Trek: The Next Generation, episode "Tapestry", where Captain Picard goes back in time to prevent himself from engaging in a brawl and being stabbed in the heart, only to find himself in a new timeline where he is no longer the Captain because he is not a "risk-taker"!

Therefore, the challenge is to become that new person who did not sin, yet nonetheless retain the beating core of who we are, not surrendering what makes us interesting in this world, our unique strong self.
This is not an easy challenge! good luck

* The fact that the woman in this situation of illicit relations is deemed to be the same is an offense against the women's humanity, for how could she be the identical person as last time? In general she appears here as a passive object in the scene, which is a shame... if the man really has done teshuvah, will this not affect the woman too - we can imagine an entire scenario playing itself out, if we read this bibliodramatically.   



Seeing Elijah

"בכל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים"

"In every generation, each of us must see ourselves as if we ourselves emerged from Egypt."

I want to revisit the above statement in a bit of a chassidic way - I have adapted the following story:

The story is told of a young man who was pestering his rebbe. "I want to see Eliyahu at Pesach time, I want to really meet Eliyahu." He pestered him thus for days. Finally the rebbe said: "Not just anyone gets to see Eliyahu. You have to earn it. Here, take this food and medicine and walk a day and a half's journey to a Jewish family who live in a distant village."

Eagerly, the young man took the supplies and set off. The journey was difficult, he got lost, and when he finally arrived, he had trouble locating the Jewish family. He gave them the supplies. They gratefully asked him to stay for dinner, and even though he was running late and impatient to get home, he stayed and smiled with them so as not to ruin their joy. The next morning he had to get up extremely early and go back the way he came, getting lost again.

Finally he arrived home, irritated and exhausted."Rebbe, I did everything you said and I did not meet Eliyahu! You lied to me."

Calmly the rebbe said: "The reason you didn't meet him is because he is right here in the next room!"

The young man's face lit up, and he followed the rebbe's finger into the other room. "Look to the left as you walk in and you'll see him!" the rebbe called after him.

Disappointed, the young man came out again.

"Did you see him?"

"All I saw was a mirror!"

"Exactly! And when you looked in the mirror, what did you see? The Eliyahu Hanavi in yourself."

In every generation, each of us must see ourselves - for that is the very essence of leaving Egypt. To see the highest self we can perceive when we look in the mirror, and live in the knowledge of that expanded self.

(And כאילו is like כאליהו [thanks Ursula!])