Teshuvah: Delete or Overwrite?

The Chofetz Chaim famously taught that Hashem gave mankind the wisdom to come up with many modern inventions for the purpose of strengthening our emunah or understanding of many concepts mentioned in the Torah or in the words of Chazal. Thus, for example, the phonograph crystallized for us the idea that all of our words are recorded on High for all eternity, and the photograph similarly is a visual example of how all our deeds can be captured and forever seen.

Of course, as time goes on and technology advances, we are continually presented with even more concretizations of ideas or concepts we might have found difficult to conceptualize up until now. The idea that an action – even an insignificant one – in one part of the world can [go viral and] affect changes half a world away; the awesome power that can be released in one second by one action, word [or tweet]; the fact that it is easily possible to know where someone is [and his exact GPS coordinate] every second of the day or night, follow him around, and even see or hear him all were difficult to grasp decades ago (and sometimes even but a few years back), but are today simple facts of everyday life.

A recent conversation with a perceptive yungerman brought to mind another example, one perfectly tailored to the upcoming days of teshuvah and renewal.

Rav Elya Lopian zt”l (in Lev Eliyahu, Parshas Vayigash, Ha’eimah Vehabusha) quotes from the Targum on the posuk at the very end of Koheles, “Sof dovor hakol nishma…” The Targum writes, “Sof pisgom d’isavid b’almo b’tzina kulo asid l’isparsema ul’ishtamo lechol bnei ansho…” Everything that a person does in this world – even in utmost privacy – all of it will eventually be known and heard (in the World of Truth) to all of one’s fellow family, friends and acquaintances.

Rav Elya speaks at length of the embarrassment of having one’s shortcomings known – because in a World of Truth, the absolute truth, whether good or bad, can never be hidden – and reminds us of how teshuvah not only removes punishment or negative consequences after any wrongdoing, but it actually erases the video – as it were – for all eternity as if it simply never happened.

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The likening of our actions being recorded and videoed to what will transpire when we will ultimately be judged, and the understanding that teshuvah is, in effect, the erasing of that recording, can perhaps illuminate for us how one should engage in real teshuvah, true regret for our actions.

Too often, we feel that our teshuvah, while sincere at the time, simply does not last. Rosh Hashanah comes around and we want to enter a better year than the one that has passed. We desire not only to be given a good year by Hashem, but to give Him a good year, from our part, as well. We want to connect better, feel closer, and grow in middos, mitzvah observance and Torah learning. We know that we’ve come up short in the past – each person in his or her own particular area – and we regret it. We accept upon ourselves to do better this year. In short, we sincerely wish to do teshuvah.

Yet, for all our good intentions, as time rolls along and life goes on, we find ourselves too often falling right back into our old patterns of thought, behavior, actions or inactions.

 

What became of our teshuvah?

Enter the technology of how one deletes an item, recording or video from one’s hard drive. (While this writer is no computer whiz, hopefully a simple discussion of the very basics of deleting and erasing will suffice to elucidate the point in question.) When someone takes a computer file, selects it and then presses SHIFT and DELETE (other methods will simply send it to the Recycle Bin), the file is deleted, or erased. Or at least so it seems.

In truth, the file is very much still there. True, it will no longer show up in any listing of files, but with the right program and a few clicks, the file can be brought right back to existence!

 

How does this work?

A computer (or camera, recording device, or any similar item) places a marker that shows it where every file can be found, where it begins, and where it ends. What a simple delete does is remove the markers from that file. As such, the computer no longer recognizes that space as reserved for that file and considers it available for a new file. However, until a new file is actually written over that space, the old file is still there, untouched. With any basic, free file recovery program, the computer can search all spaces and restore any untouched files, even those from which the markers had been removed.

The way to truly erase a file (“You mean wipe it, like with a cloth?!”) is to actually write something else over the place where the original file had been. Once other information is written over the original file, the original file has been replaced and is no longer there. Many programs that offer “file shredding” or other means of permanent file deletion do just that: They write a string of zeros over the space of the first file, thus rendering it not only technically deleted, but physically overwritten.

Perhaps we can take this lesson and directly apply it to teshuvah, the erasing of our past mistakes and errors.

As sincere as we may be on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – or at any other time of inspiration or challenge – our teshuvah is too often merely a desire to abandon of our past. We no longer want it, desire it or wish to remember it. In effect, what we are doing is removing any “markers” from those areas of our lives.

The fact, however, is that we never really erased the past by overwriting it with good deeds, with positive actions or new growth. This makes it very easy for us to fall right back into our old patterns and “recover” all of our old ways.

If we want to truly erase negative habits, perhaps we should do it by rewriting those areas of our lives. Whatever we did, it came from a part of us. It didn’t just “happen.” Too much focus on ourselves, our pleasures, our looks and our feelings comes from a need inside of us. Jealousy, laziness, greed or negative speech also come from feelings inside of us.

Attempting to simply stop doing what we’ve been doing often fails, because the need that brought us to those actions or inactions is still there inside of us. We haven’t truly erased anything inside of us, but rather simply tried stopping to act on those impulses. What we must do, then, is to learn how to channel those needs to more positive avenues. Overwrite the past with something else, something positive.

A critical nature can be redirected from putting others down to seeking ways to assist others in how to do things right. A penchant for indulgence in physical pleasures can be channeled towards the incomparable pleasure felt when one finishes a masechta, helps another or accomplishes a difficult goal. If a person has a difficult time figuring out how to re-channel his or her inner drives, don’t hesitate to seek guidance from others. The main thing is to realize that merely abandoning one’s past will rarely work as well as redirecting it.

In this way, our teshuvah will not only delete what we don’t like about our past, but will actually overwrite it with something else, something positive and something lasting. When the video of our lives is then viewed in the World of Truth, those spaces that were filled with embarrassing moments will no longer contain such moments. More than that, however, those moments will not even be blank! Instead, they will have been overwritten with good deeds and positive growth. Zedonos na’aseh k’zechuyos.

It’s all a matter of advanced methods of overwriting.

A kesivah vachasimah tovah and a year of brocha, yeshuos, refuos, simcha and Yiddishe nachas to all those who read this column and to all of Klal Yisroel.