Now it is easy to focus on trying to get the words right. It’s easy to fumble in your mind for the right words that encapsulates the apology you owe to God (and to yourself) for failing a standard.
Sorry, I was in mid-thought. What was I talking about? I was talking about a certain meaning of prayer and teshuvah. Teshuvah is understood as meaning a return, a specific sort, where you turn away from wrong-doing and proceeding along the path of being a good person and doing good deeds. For Gentiles this refers to shrugging off all those things that our seven laws forbids and avoiding those forbidden acts. It also includes deeds that for us are not part of our seven laws yet still go against the standard we are supposed to live at just as human beings, full human beings who use our intellect and bodies in such a way as to reflect our Creator. Man, I’m only getting a glimpse of what that really means and it is quite awesome. But these failings, although they are letting ourselves down rather than sinning against some command of God as it would be for a Jew, still has a negative impact on ourselves and the world. Both of these actions require “return” (I’ll use this word rather than “teshuvah” because I want to respect the fact that I’m a Gentile speaking most likely to Gentiles, non-Jews, and not to Jews).
Now due to the upbringing of many of us, we feel that the right way to repent is to get down on our knees, clasp our hands together, and utter words that show how sorry we are. We’re raised in that sort of culture, right? If we are going to make a change we have to make a speech about it first.
I’ve got a different idea.
I think the Jews had it right when they equated prayer with sacrifice, when prayers were “the bulls of our lips” as the prophet Hoshea preached. And it is possible to repent and move forward without a sacrifice. In the same way a person can “return” and move forward without uttering a single word.
In what manner should a youth purify his way? To observe according to Your word. (Psalm 119:9)
(21) But if the wicked turn from all his sins that he has done, and keep all My statutes, and do that which is lawful and right, he shall surely live, he shall not die. (22) None of his transgressions that he has done shall be remembered against him; he shall live because of all the righteousness he has done. (Ezekiel 18:21,22)
With that last quote, it’s funny how certain people will use that to say sacrifices aren’t needed to get forgiveness. If you actually think about it, neither is prayer.
So how does a person really “return”? Think of one of the key verses in Jonah which reflects what Ezekiel said. When it comes to what God responded to with regards to the people of Nineveh, it never said that he saw their fasting and sackcloth or their cessation of work. The book tellingly says, “God saw their deeds, that they turned from their bad ways …” That’s what tipped the balance in their favour.
Did you know that plenty of people emphasize the importance of prayer when we are just asked to do what God commanded and what he expects from us? The world is not in the dangerous state it is in because people don’t pray. It’s because theft and murder are acceptable in one form or another. It’s because we think we need a new religious group when our problems are social. When people think of freedom of choice as a virtue, we include tend immorality, idolatry and blasphemy and unrestrained sexuality as viable options. It’s because because there is no resistance to evil deeds and good deeds looked down upon.
So the greatest way to “return” is neither to pray, nor is it to give sacrifices. Here what I think it is: if you are doing something bad and wrong and against God’s law, then stop doing it! Not only stop, but avoid it like the plague! It’s an added bonus to start doing good things in its place. But the fundamental thing is to see the wrong, acknowledge that it is wrong, and then treat it accordingly to avoid the act. Remember in the list of things in Ezekiel 18 that God described as making a person righteous, a lot of them was refraining from bad deeds. So being a good person isn’t necessarily positively doing good deeds (although that is still an important aspect), but rather avoiding what goes against God’s Law. Also, it’s not just about avoiding the bad deeds but also not supporting or giving strength to the bad deeds either. There is little point in avoiding murder and advocating abortions that are possible any time during a pregnancy. There is no point in avoiding theft but telling a friend that it’s ok to steal. There is no point in avoiding idolatry yet stating that somebody else’s idolatry is totally fine and encouraging it. There is no point in avoiding injustice and then giving your backing to any organization that does injustice, especially against the seven laws or advising something to commit injustice.
There are so many ways to “return” to a good standard of living it is unbelievable.
Now, as usual, someone’s gonna come up to me and say (for some reason this is almost guaranteed): “David, you’re speaking against prayer! Are you saying it’s wrong to pray?” Of course, I could get frustrated and say “where the hell did you see me say that?” And if they’ve been reading enough of the content of this blog they would see me overtly say that prayer is fine and I do it myself. “So what are you saying, David?” OK, I’ll answer you, hypothetical voice in the back of my head. I’m saying that the road to righteousness, the road to living according to God’s standard, especially God’s commandments for Gentiles, isn’t focused on prayer. It isn’t focused on finding the right siddur or prayer book so you can get the words just right. It should be known that God can understand you even with your mistaken mumbles that you try to say in your head or heart. In fact, he can understand you better than anyone else regardless of what book you read. It’s natural to honour a king, so if you want to honour God through words, enjoy yourself! It’s a great thing to do. But if you want to repent, words are not the focus of “return”. It’s recognizing a deed as wrong through your actions, through refraining from wrong-doing. And you know what else? I just thought of this (although many other writers have said it). Doing good deeds, especially ones opposed to the bad deeds, are a good protective fence against further wrong doing. So it’s damn useful.
I respect the humble heart that says to God, “You know what, HaShem? I messed up. I messed up bad, and I want to get it right.” But the man who changes his lifestyle, his habits, or his actions for the better in recognition of that wrong is a great man! Words or no words, we have to get our actions right.