Issues in Teshuvah- Telling Others of our Sins

We know that it's a healthy thing to talk about our feelings with others, even our struggles.  In particular, women often have a need to talk things through with another person.  That's why when I learned the following chassidic text, I was a little surprised at first.

This text is from a manuscript - "Avodat Pnim and Other Chassidic Matters" handwritten and signed by Rabbi Aharon Yosef Luria of Tiberias (1894-1969), a Leading Slonim Chassid. The manuscript contains three essays titled Sefer Refu'ot HaNefesh, Likut Divrei Chachamim and Avodat Pnim

Avodat Pnim 
Chapter 5, Note 5 (Page 57-58) 
Matters regarding Teshuvah 
"A person, even though he knows in his soul that he doesn’t have fear of Heaven at all, it is forbidden for him to say so to another person when he wants to tell of his baseness. For it is a chutzpa before Hashem (may He be blessed, the whole world is full of His glory) to say 'I have no fear of Heaven.' [Except for] when he says it in the midst of very great broken heartedness, and it pains him more than all of the afflictions in the world. The main thing isn’t to tell of his baseness, rather it’s for a person to know it in his soul."

The translation above is my own.  I am also going to write out the Hebrew (in transliteration) here for anyone that it would be helpful for- I heard the text on a podcast by Rabbi Moshe Tzvi Weinberg from the YU Online Podcast series, and I had to hand transcribe it, until after all that work, I found his source sheets are actually online, so thank you Rabbi!  In any case, if you prefer to learn in the original, this transliteration may help you due to the abbreviations etc.

Ha-adam, af al pi sh'yodea b’nafsho sh’ayn lo yirat shamayim clal, asur lo lomar kayn b'piv l'ish acher al atzmo c’sh’rotze lsaper m’shifluto. Ki chutzpa hu lifnei Hashem yitbarach asher m’lo kol ha-aretz cvodo. K'sh'msaper zot m'toch co-ev lev gadol m'od, v'sh'yichav lo yoter m'kol ha-yisurin sh'b'olam. V'ayn ha-ikar l-hagid shifluto rak layda inish m'nafshe.

So, the text is a little surprising at first to me because like I said above, usually we think of it as a good thing to share our issues / challenges with another person, and it's even generally a Jewish value to do so.  Rabbi Weinberg goes into some of those proof-texts in his podcast shiur but for the sake of brevity, just trust me on it.

The reason given by the text itself for why it is not good to voice your lack of faith in G-d in particular is because it is considered "chutzpah" to say it out loud because G-d fills the entire world.  In other words, right in the presence of G-d, you are saying "I don't have any belief in G-d."  Now it is somewhat circular reasoning to tell someone they should not say they don't believe in G-d because G-d is right there listening.  So that is why the advice is only applicable in the scenario where the person is cavalier about not believing in G-d.  If the person is completely broken up about it, let's say like "G-d please help me to believe in  you fully- I know in my head that you exist but I need to feel it in my heart," then that is a different story and it is ok to share that type of feeling with another person.

There are other reasons, however, why it might not be a good idea to share your doubts or religious struggles with another person.  Some of the reasons (these came up in the podcast) are 1) Because words "create" reality- when we speak something aloud, we make it more "real," and therefore likely to repeat, and 2) because it could affect the other person to take that sin less lightly, when they know that you are doing it, because there is less social pressure.  This is only in a case, however, when you tell about your sin in a cavalier way.  If you are broken hearted, the text teaches us, you then may tell a friend, because you truly want to make tesvhuva and your friend is not going to want to repeat your sin when he/she sees you in that state.

This text relates directly to the drash I heard in shul last week from Rabbi Philip Moskowitz at Boca Raton Synagogue, who reminded us that when we improve our own behavior we should keep in mind not only the benefits to ourselves, but to the community at large.  Because when social norms are such that certain things are regularly violated by many people, they become less of a "big deal" to others to violate.  The same is also true in reverse- that when the social norms are such that they reflect the best values, we all continue to bring out the best in each other.  This relates back to this text directly because it's about social norms.  In the text above however, it's taken a step further.  It's not just being careful of our behavior we need to think about- it's also being careful of how we talk about our behavior.

This all brings me to a personal example.  That same Shabbat morning in question (last week) a new neighbor of mine who I have only met a few times but have made a nice connection with, walked to shul with me.  She came over to my house a few minutes before I was ready to leave.  Now, one of the things I really struggle with on Shabbat, in terms of my own spiritual growth, is putting on make-up.  While there is "Shabbat make-up" let it suffice to say that over the years I have had my ups and downs with how stringently I observe the laws regarding putting make-up on during Shabbat.  Right as she arrived I was about to put on make-up in a mirror by the front door.  I almost did not put it on, because I did not want her to know that I am not perfect in my observance, but then I thought to myself "if I am not ashamed before G-d, then it is wrong to be affected by shame before another person," so I went ahead and put the make-up on.  As I was doing so, the new friend said, "You know, I decided awhile back to save myself a lot of time and not put on make-up on Shabbat," which was a very nice way of her encouraging me to stop putting on the make-up.  I said, "I know it is against Shabbat but..." and she interrupted and told me that of course she too is not perfect with every rule, so that I did not feel badly.

In any case, I think putting on make-up on Shabbat is a perfect example of how social norms affect community observance.  After all, if no one at synagogue was wearing make-up, I would be embarrassed to be seen with make-up.  Similarly, if everyone is wearing make-up, it makes it seem to be be less of a "big deal" to break Shabbat in that way.   In addition, I am re-evaluating this particular experience of mine in light of the text I learned today.  For example, in the moment, I had assumed it would be hypocritical of me to hide my putting on make-up from my new friend when I am willing to stand before G-d and do it.  On the other hand, this text makes me re-think that.  There IS value to not sharing every religious struggle that we have.  Each time I voice that I don't observe a certain thing, it makes it more of a "reality," and in addition, it could influence the people around me to stop being as observant themselves.

Wishing everyone a meaningful and introspective month of Elul.