I Used to Sin, But Now I Don't Do That Anymore!

This week's Torah commentary on Parashat Ki Teitzei is adapted from it's original publishing by TORCH (Torah Outreach Resource Center of Houston).

Remember those funny "I used to" jokes? (origin unknown)
  • I used to be a lumberjack, but I just couldn't hack it, so they gave me the axe.
  • I used to work in a muffler factory, until I got exhausted.
  • I used to be a musician, but I wasn't noteworthy.
  • I used to be a doctor, but I didn't have the patients.
  • I used to be a mountain climber, but I found the work rappelling.
  • I used to be a fortune teller, but I got fired. It's okay, I saw it coming.
  • I used to be a ballet dancer but found it too-too difficult.
  • I used to be a part-time hairdresser, but I wanted something more permanent.
  • I used to work in a fire hydrant factory. You couldn't park anywhere near the place.
  • I used to be a transplant surgeon, but my heart just wasn't in it.
  • I used to be a hotel receptionist, but then I had reservations.
  • I used to work for a submarine company, but it went under.
  • I used to work for a paper company, but it folded.
  • I used to be a history teacher, but there was no future in it.
  • I used to be a trapeze artist, but I was let go.
  • I used to be a cosmetic surgeon, which raised some eyebrows...

And then there is this classic from comedian Mitch Hedberg:
  • I used to do drugs. I still do, but I used to, too.

So what does this have to do with anything, you ask? Frankly, not much. It's a very loose tie-in, but I love the jokes and frankly, we need to read something uplifting for a change!
You see, we are presently in the Hebrew month of Elul, leading up to Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment, when, according to Jewish tradition, our fate for the coming year will be decided.
Now is a good time to do Teshuvah/Repentance/[Return or Redo] on all our sins of the past year, so that we will merit a good judgment for the coming year.
One of the main components of the Teshuvah process is Azivat HaCheit/ Forsaking Sin.
Rabbeinu Yonah, in his classic work, Shaarei Teshuvah (Gateways of Repentance), lists Azivat HaCheit as the "Second Principle of Teshuvah" [The other two main Principles of Teshuvah are Charatah/ Sincere Regret, and Vidui/ Verbal Confession.]
Rabbeinu Yonah explains that Azivat HaCheit/ Forsaking Sin requires the penitent individual to resolve with his "entire heart" that he will never repeat his sin.
Obviously, this means he must make a sincere resolution that he truly intends to fulfill, and he must try his hardest to avoid repeating the sin. Even if he ultimately fails, that does not negate the teshuvah that he did for the (first) sin. It only means that he must do teshuvah again and must try even harder this time.
Maimonides takes Azivat HaCheit a huge step further. In his Mishneh Torah Laws of Repentance 2:2, he writes the following:

What constitutes Teshuvah? That a sinner should—
(1) abandon his sins and remove them from his thoughts,
(2) resolving in his heart, never to commit them again, as [Isaiah 55:7] states "May the wicked abandon his ways...." Similarly, he must
(3) regret the past as [Jeremiah 31:18] states: "After I returned, I regretted."
(4) [He must reach the level where] he who knows the Hidden One will testify concerning him that he will never return to this sin again, as [Hoshea 14:4] states: "We will no longer say to the work of our hands: `You are our gods.'" He must
(5) verbally confess and state these matters which he resolved in his heart.

Yes, you read that correctly. According to Maimonides, one has to have such a firm commitment and resolve never to repeat his sin that G-d would be able to testify the person won't be a repeat offender.
So we see that Azivat HaCheit is not just some kind of shallow New Year's Resolution thing, which typically doesn't last (for most people) for too long. Rather, this is serious business and it requires a sincere commitment and a tremendous effort to ensure that we don't go back to our old ways right after Rosh Hashanah.
We need to work on our Azivat HaCheit and build up such a strong resolve not to sin again to the point that we can honestly say to ourselves: "I used to (fill in particular sin), but now I don't do that anymore!"
The only problem is how do we do this?
I would like to share with you one profoundly simple idea from our Sages that I think can help all of us succeed in our Azivat HaCheit this year.
The Midrash, expounding on a verse in Shir Hashirim/Song of Songs 5:2, states that G-d lovingly tells the Jewish people:

"Pitchu Li Petach K'Chudo Shel Machat, Va’ani Eftach Lachem Petach K'Pitcho Shel Ulam -
Make Me an opening of repentance no bigger than the point of a needle, and I will widen it for you into openings through which wagons and carriages can pass. (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 5:3)

The commentators explain that G-d is telling us that we don't have to do the whole job ourselves.
If we want to make a teshuvah "breakthrough" and effect positive changes in our lives for the coming year, all we need to do is to make a tiny little hole - like the size of the eye of a needle - and G-d will help us take care of the rest.
The one condition, however, is that the little hole that we make has to go all the way through to the other side, i.e. whatever small resolution we do take upon ourselves during the month of Elul has to be one that we know we will definitely be able to fulfill.
And when G-d sees that we were sincere with that one tiny resolution - and that we actually came through on it - He will "make our little hole much bigger" and help us come through on all our other challenges as well.
The basic idea is to pick one small area in our lives that needs improvement and commit to changing it - but we need to make sure that we've picked something which we can virtually guarantee that we won't fail at, so that G-d will be able to testify that we are 100% sincere in our commitment, and that we will not repeat that sin again…
Thank G-d, we all still have time during this month of Elul to get cracking with our Azivat HaCheit and Rosh Hashanah resolutions - and to making sure they stick!

Shabbat Shalom