People have a right to change for the better.
Unfortunately, there will always be those who call a changed person “fake” or “hypocrite” and remind that person of his or her former deeds.
There will always be those with the conviction that the sinful, flawed you is the “real” you. (It’s not.)
But you can’t let that stop you.
You Can't Collect Scattered Feathers
Then I forgot about it.
But she didn’t.
Around 10 years later, we ran into each other and pretty early on in the conversation, she asked how I was managing with so-and-so.
“Oh, fine,” came my breezy answer.
“Really?” she smirked. “Because you sure weren’t before.”
(“Before” was 10 years prior.)
“Oh,” I said, realizing what the problem was. “Yeah, we had some issues then, and, oh, there were a lot of things I didn’t understand. But I understand them now and we get along fine.”
She sniggered. “Really?” she said. “But don’t you remember how that person said [the appalling & strange thing that person had said]. I mean, that was really weird. You don’t remember that?”
Oh, right! I’d forgotten about it. But fortunately, it no longer appalled or distressed me because I’d moved past it. Now I fumbled for words. And she chuckled again. Then I stammered something like, “That person didn’t mean it that way and I never should have repeated it to others.”
At that point, I think she realized her own impropriety because she sobered up and the conversation ended pretty quickly after that.
Now, I don’t think you really need halacha to tell you NOT to do what she did. I mean, it’s pretty smarmy to remind a person of lashon hara said 10 years ago AND insert it early into a conversation when you’ve only just reconnected. Furthermore, it’s even smarmier to twist their arm about it — not only to remember it, but to get re-offended by it.
I really think that any decent person would realize on his or her own not do such a thing, even without knowing that it’s halachically forbidden.
But it taught me some things.
2) Secondly, it drove home that old parable, that negative speech is like waving a pillowcase full of feathers into the wind — you’ll never be able to re-gather all the feathers. They’ve simply scattered too far and wide. (But it was a lesson I needed to learn a few more times before I really got it. Ultimately, sitting down each day to review these laws really helped.)
3) Thirdly, it showed me how important it was to avoid doing this to others — and to let the other person CHANGE. Really, I don’t understand why she didn’t switch the subject when she saw I initially didn’t remember the incident. Why did she work so hard to conjure it up again and rub it in? I really don’t get it.
4) And finally, I needed to take responsibility for myself. Yeah, she was wrong to do what she did—that was a couple of serious transgressions right there on her part. But she’d never have been able to do that if I hadn’t said what I said in the first place.
I was wrong to have said what I said.
And that’s that.
The Penitent Peddler
And the Kli Yakar describes all this well in Vayikra 14:4 (Parshat Metzora).
There is the famous midrash of the rochel, the peddler, who made his way through the area of Tzippori, proclaiming, “Who wants to buy the elixir of life?”
And only Rav Yannai was interested.
What was the elixir of life?
Shemirat halashon — guarding your tongue from speaking slander (whether true or not), rumor-mongering, tale-bearing, and any other negative speech that is of no benefit.
The Kli Yakar delves into the deeper layers of this story. Because rochel is the same word as tale-bearer – a person who spreads rechilut – the Kli Yakar maintains that this peddler was actually a slanderer who’d done teshuvah and was now encouraging others to do teshuvah too.
Once upon a time, the rochel went about slandering others and "casting strife between brothers," in the words of the Kli Yakar.
“Yet later, he gave his heart to do teshuvah and requested the ways of healing mentioned by our Sages: Torah learning for a talmid chacham and shever ruach [a broken spirit] for an am ha'aretz.
“And he saw that these ‘medications’ benefited him.
“Therefore, his heart filled with the desire to bring merit to the masses and to bring teshuvah to all the very towns in which he knew there were gossipers.”
So the rochel marched through these towns with his tantalizing proclamation.
“For they were like sick people who need medications for a cure, which needs to be purchased.”
But the people wouldn’t allow it.
Yes, they came out at his call — to harass him.
“Etmol hayitah rochel holech rachil — Yesterday, you were a slanderer who went about slandering!” they said. “V’hayom atah rotzeh l’taken darcheinu? — And today you want to fix our path? Kashot atzmacha tachilah! — Clean up your own backyard first!"
(Loose translation — kashot means “adorn” or “decorate” or “fix up.”)
Yet the rochel DID clean up his own backyard!
That’s why he was there. He’d found the right “medication” (Torah study and a broken spirit of remorse) for the “illness” (fault-finding combined with gossiping about those found faults).
And now he wanted to share the “cure.”
Instead, they humiliated him and insisted he was still the same old fault-finding slanderer who’d gone around fomenting strife between brothers.
Of course, this can be considered an atonement for his previous behavior. Their response to him was very wrong, but as far as he goes, he can take it as a kaparah.
Yet why did they respond the way they did?
Baalei Ra'atan Don't Count
People who haven’t done real teshuvah don’t see the possibility of change. Even if they see a changed person in front of their face, they simply do not believe their eyes.
This is a reflection on them, not on you.
3 Types of Trepidation
- You’re very quick to apologize without any change.
If you're doing this, you're not actually doing teshuvah at all.
How so? What's going on with this type?
Subconsciously, this type feels that the self-denigration atones for their mistakes, and in a sense, permits them to repeat the mistake again. There’s no real teshuvah there and they’ll repeat the faulty behavior pretty quickly after they apologize. And they’ll continue this way, often for years, without ever changing.
If this is what you’re doing, people have a right to distrust your apologies and admissions of wrong-doing.
Until you actually change your behavior, people don’t need to take your apologies or breast-beating seriously.
- You’re still in the ping-pong phase of teshuvah.
So you jump back on the wagon and even stay there for a time...until you fall off again.
This occurs because it takes time & trial-and-error to learn the new improved behavior. You’ve boarded the ship and now you need to gain “sea-legs” as you sail the churning waters.
But until you’ve gained your sea-legs, you lurch around, tripping & falling.
Others are within their rights if they choose to keep their distance from your lurching until you’ve got your sea-legs firmly in place. After all, you’ve sprawled onto these people before; they don’t want to get in your way again.
But don't feel bad. The ping-pong phase is perfectly natural, especially if you're learning a behavior that's very foreign to you.
(This is actually a good sign because it means you are really striving for profound change by aiming for behavior that is so different than your sinful ways, you need to learn it like learning a foreign language.)
- You hurt them so much before, they want to make sure you’ve REALLY changed.
Failure Never Erases Success
Falling is pretty common.
For example, after a year of total sobriety, an alcoholic can suddenly go on a drinking binge.
After 6 months of measured behavior, a reformed ka'asan can suddenly fly into an outburst.
There are a few reasons for this. One is simple human weakness.
Another major reason is that it drives home how bad the behavior is. For example, an alcoholic may feel so sick on this sudden binge that he doesn’t even want to ever drink again. Throughout the year, he felt pretty good with his sobriety, but still yearned to at least get tipsy again. Yet after the sickening binge, he no longer even yearns for it.
This is known as descent for the sake of ascent. You needed to plummet in order to really rid yourself of the bad middah.
Another reason is to keep yourself connected to Hashem and disconnected from gaavah. In the midst of a fall, you can’t feel like you’re oh-so victorious and better than others. You also realize that your success came from Hashem and not your own willpower.
Regardless, there are people who will point to your fall as “proof” that you really haven’t changed.
How stupid and horrible of them.
All those moments, hours, days, and weeks of struggle…all those excruciating obstacles you faced as you fought your ingrained bad habits and forged new good behaviors…it’s all meaningless.
It’s nothing? You didn’t do anything at all?
Of course not.
In THEIR eyes, in the eyes of people who’ve never really done teshuvah, your efforts and successes don’t exist.
But your naysayers are wrong, wrong, wrong.
Your efforts and successes DO exist – and they mean a lot!
They’ve already formed an imprint on your soul.
And so you pick yourself up and try again. Hopefully, you’ll last out for longer until the next fall. And then you’ll last longer and longer – until you don’t fall again.
Good is Always Stronger Than Bad
Only bad deeds can be erased (via true teshuvah).
Anything good you do stands forever.
Even evil people get rewarded for the good they've done, no matter how minuscule.
(This is one reason why you'll see bad people with lots of success; they're being rewarded in This World for the little good they've done.)
People who try to convince you that a fall invalidates all the progress you made up to that fall are not coming from a Jewish point of view.
The Only Opinion that Really Matters
You have the right to change.
You have the right to turn over a new leaf.
Sure, we all know that we have an obligation to better ourselves.
But we have a right to change too.
And even if others don’t believe you, even if others mock you or reject you or scoff at you, you need to know that Hashem sees your transformation and that it’s registered in Shamayim.
And that’s all that matters.
Part II: The Happy Cure for Blabbermouthed Fault-Finders (AKA, The Kli Yakar on Parshat Metzorah)
For more on the problem with self-denigration, please see:
5 Reasons Why Self-Denigration Never Helps