Thursday, August 4, 2011

Contrition Crying

Parshat Devarim

by Rabbi Avi Billet

The first Tisha B'Av memory is the incident of the spies, which set in stone the concept of a"b'khiya l'dorot" – a date on which all future generations will have reason to cry. (Taanit 29a)

In the immediate aftermath of the spies debacle, a group of people realized the folly of their complaints and tried to save face through mounting an offensive which was thrown back by Emorites. When our parsha recalls that incident (Devarim 1:45), it is Moshe who recounts it to the people saying, "You returned [from the defeat at the hands of the Emorites] and wept before God; and He did not listen your voice, and did not give an ear to you."

In his commentary, Rabbi J.H. Hertz provides the most profound and poignant message. God did not listen "because their weeping was not the outcome of sorrow over sin; but of sorrow over the consequences of sin. This feeling the old theologians named 'attrition'; in contrast with the sincere penitence – the sorrow over sin itself – which they called contrition. There is all the difference in the world between a man who is contrite and one who is merely 'attrite.'"

Have you ever seen a defendant in court (even on TV) who is obviously guilty? Sometimes the defense lawyer can get the person off on a technicality. Some truly feel badly, but can justify their actions with 'self-defense' (which is generally a valid argument when true). Others have no remorse, but know the prosecution has no real case.

Through the trial and ordeal, they remain stone-faced, showing no emotion. Now the verdict comes in. "Innocent" – defendant is all smiles. "Guilty" – only now, when the realization that "I am going to pay dearly for my actions" sets in, does a person break down and cry. The latter case is 'attrition' – when the "consequences" of my actions cause my feelings of regret and remorse, whilst my actions don't move my stone-cold heart.

"Contrition"is the realization I come to on my own, irrespective of others, that the sin is a bad one, and that there is much work to be done to achieve any semblance of atonement.

We live in a time where "attrition" generally carries the day. I am always right. You are always wrong. There is nothing you can say to get me to change. I am the greatest gift to mankind, and if something comes along and proves I am wrong, that fact or person is lying.

It is only when someone kicks me in the pants real hard that I realize that I have fallen into the mud and that there's a lot of cleaning up that needs to take place before I can get back on my feet. And I only feel this way because I am dirty right now, and I need to look presentable right away.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik said (11/12/73), "Prayer is an art. We have totally forgotten this art. Today it is no more than a mechanical performance. True prayer is more than this. It is an attitude, a state of mind, creating a mood and temperament for the worshiper. It is an exciting experience and an adventure." (Rakeffet, "The Rav, Volume I", KTAV Publishers, p. 146)

In my own life, I have seen very few people who experience true prayer the way Rabbi Soloveitchik described it. I've come to a point that I no longer look at those who cry on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur and Tisha B'Av and think "What's wrong with that guy?" Now I say, "What's wrong with me? How come I can't feel it? How come I can't connect to what I'm doing in such a manner? How come I can't speak to God with heartfelt sincerity? How come I am incapable of letting go, letting everything all out on the table, to ask God to help me, to forgive me, to guide me to the truth and His light?"

Truth be told, this is a lifelong struggle. Some spend a lifetime climbing to a goal, some never quite make it, and some give up along the way.

The question becomes one of attitude and focus. Will we be those who cry from attrition – no apologies, just distaste from the consequences of our actions? Or will we be the ones who are truly penitent, who can admit our mistakes and learn from them after we realize we've committed them? This is a great act of contrition.

As the years continue to bring us further and further from the destroyed Temples, we begin by taking the time to figure out why we are still mourning on Tisha B'Av. If we can pray sincerely, and cry on account of the moving Kinot, our contrition-inspired prayers will help us move mountains in our lifelong quest of getting closer to God.

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