The Eleventh Principle of Teshuva: SCRUTINIZING YOUR WAYS
“The whole point of studying Mussar”– the art and science of spiritual excellence– “is to avoid duplicity and guile”, said the great and holy Rabbi Yechezkel Levenstein (a 20th century master of Mussar). And nothing forestalls duplicity and guile better than the sort of introspection and self-knowledge spoken of in this principle of teshuva.
The truth be known, few of us know ourselves. Odd and discordant voices whisper in everyone’s inner ear moment by moment. And we’re each capable of terrible duplicity and guile as a consequence. Yet who among us is honest enough with him- or herself to own up to what they say?
Something in the human heart quietly, cheerfully, and amicably encourages otherwise humble souls to brag, truly honest people to cheat, and wisely prudent individuals to gamble. Yet were you to take those good people aside and ask them if they’d ever thought such things, they’d deny it vehemently. Not because they’d be lying. Simply because they were unaware of the inner voices or they’d squelched them.
But only the very best of us don’t suffer inner conflicts day after day– anymore. For while they have acknowledged the shockingly antisocial, immoral things they were capable of drumming up in their minds, and uprooted them from the depths after a long and well-orchestrated battle, we simply deny it.
“I couldn’t even *imagine* doing that!” is a popular lie we assuage our guilt with. “Who could do such a thing?” is another.
In truth (G-d protect us all) each one of us is capable of harboring untold horrible notions. As such, those of us in pursuit of spiritual excellence would need to do a number of things: first allow ourselves to actually hear the mean and ugly things dredging the bottom of our mind; to stand back and sigh at our actual potential for moral failure; and to then either take it upon ourselves to never allow such things to come to fruition (G-d forbid), or to do teshuva for what we had in fact acted out on, and return to G-d as a consequence.
As the verse that Rabbeinu Yonah cites puts it, “Let us scrutinize and examine our ways, and return to G-d” (Lamentations 3:40).
Rabbeinu Yonah adds that such self-scrutiny not only prevents duplicity and guile in the future, it also enables us to do teshuva for the untoward things we’ve done in the past.
It grants us the insight into what we’ve done wrong, how much wrong we’ve done, and how likely we are to do wrong again.
For unless we’re honest with ourselves we’re likely to forget a lot, and convince ourselves we’re well on the way to spiritual excellence accordingly (much like some are likely to convince themselves how handsome and debonair they were when young, until they see old photographs!). And we’re unlikely to avoid contact with the sorts of moral “germs” we’d once been “infected” with unless we continue to know ourselves.
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