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There is a principle that the Torah doesn't ask us to do anything that is unreasonable/unachievable (see here). Surely that means that we don't have any excuse to say "this is too much for me". If something is Halacha (EDIT: and it is applicable to me now), it should be achievable and therefore we should be following it now.

On the other hand, we're told to only try to take on small incremental improvements when trying to do teshuva. I know that there are plenty of sources for this approach.

How do we reconcile these two seemingly conflicting ideas?

Even if you say that it is all achievable, but not immediately, how many people will achieve it all during their lifetime, or even in any number of lifetimes? I think it is the gemara that says that only 4 people didn't sin during their lives, so how do we understand the idea that it is all achievable for everyone?

Surely we can't say that it means that any single halacha is achievable, but we can't keep all of it because it is too much all together?

(This is closely related to 2 recent questions that I've asked, so sorry if it seems repetitive and thank you to those who have answered on those. I think it is different enough though that it is worth asking though.)

BEGIN EDITs: I'm only referring to mitzvos which are actually possible for us to keep. Obviously those which aren't don't apply

If we aren't expected to keep all of halacha that applies to us, what does it actually mean that it is halacha? What are the parameters for what we are expected to keep and what we aren't? Are we saying that the goal is to optimise our adherence to halacha, but not expect to actually ever make it all of the way there? Does that mean that if we sincerely make a real effort, anything that we do wrong is not counted as a real aveirah when it comes to judgement because it is beyond our capability to overcome?

Sorry, I don't have sources - I'm terrible at remembering them, but these are things that I have heard repeatedly in the past.

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  • This is a good question which would be made much stronger if you provide and link sources.
    – Dov
    Sep 21 at 9:14
  • There are many halachot we are sadly unable to keep without a Temple, and others one cannot keep depening on life circunmstances such as halachot birkhat cohenim (in the case of Leviim and Yisraelim) and still others we hope never to keep (divorce with a get, Yibbun). The rest? It's a journey, we strive to keep all of them but no one is expected to off the bat. Sep 21 at 9:20
  • See Sefer HaIkkarim, Maamar 3, 31:6 concerning that G-d does not ask anything too hard for us, there are many other places, but can't remember them
    – Shmuel
    Sep 21 at 9:23
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    Not everything is possible, there are approx. 270 mitzvos that can be observed properly in this era. The Alter Rebbe (Shulchan Aruch HaRav) states, based on the Gemara in Menachos 110a that studying halacha about, let's say the mitzvah of one of the offerings, it is considered as if he actually brings the offering.
    – Shmuel
    Sep 21 at 9:51
  • Sorry, I should have been clearer - I'm only referring to halacha that actually applies to us. I'm a male Yisroel living outside Israel when there is no Beis HaMikdash, so I realise that already excludes a lot of stuff, but I mean what does apply. Sep 21 at 10:50

4 Answers 4

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I once heard an amazing, simple, vort from a rebbi of mine. He used to say it each year around this time.

The Gemara in Avoda Zara 20B says the following;

ת"ר (דברים כג, י) ונשמרת מכל דבר רע שלא יהרהר אדם ביום ויבוא לידי טומאה בלילה

The Gemara cites another source that interprets the verse cited above. The Sages taught a baraita explaining the verse: “And you shall keep yourself from every evil thing” (Deuteronomy 23:10), which is immediately followed by the verse: “If there be among you any man who is not ritually pure by reason of that which happened to him by night” (Deuteronomy 23:11). This teaches that a person should not think impure thoughts by day and thereby come to the impurity of an emission by night.

Tosfos in this Gemara explains that this a real bonafide mitzvah, not an asmachta. He then asks, if so, every Jew is commanded to follow this, why was it so special that Yechezkel hanavi achieved it? He answers that although we are all commanded to follow it, hardly anyone actually gets there.

שלא יהרהר אדם ביום - האי קרא דרשה גמורה היא ולא אסמכתא כדמוכח פרק נערה שנתפתתה (כתובות דף מו.) והקשה ה"ר אלחנן א"כ מאי רבותיה דיחזקאל דאמרינן פרק שני דחולין (דף לז:) ונפשי לא מטומאה שלא הרהרתי ביום ובאתי לידי טומאה בלילה ואור"י דמכל מקום רבותא היא ממה שהיה מציל עצמו מהרהור מה שאין כן בשאר אדם דאינו ניצול מהם בכל יום כדאמרי' בבבא בתרא פרק גט פשוט (בבא בתרא דף קסד:) שלשה דברים שאין אדם ניצול מהם בכל יום וקא חשיב הרהור

My rebbi proved from this Tosfos that there are halachos, even doraisa, that the vast majority of Jews can’t keep in their entirety. Yet the Torah still wrote it! Obviously, our job is to continually strive to perfection even if it’s hardly attainable.

With this it’s easily understood the rest of that Gemara that exhorts us to strive for the highest levels (and is the basis of the sefer Mesilas Yesharim) because although most will never reach there, we are still obligated (midoraisa) to give it our best shot (and then some)

מכאן א"ר פנחס בן יאיר תורה מביאה לידי זהירות זהירות מביאה לידי זריזות זריזות מביאה לידי נקיות נקיות מביאה לידי פרישות פרישות מביאה לידי טהרה טהרה מביאה לידי חסידות חסידות מביאה לידי ענוה ענוה מביאה לידי יראת חטא יראת חטא מביאה לידי קדושה קדושה מביאה לידי רוח הקודש רוח הקודש מביאה לידי תחיית המתים וחסידות גדולה מכולן שנאמר (תהלים פט, כ) אז דברת בחזון לחסידיך

From here Rabbi Pineḥas ben Ya’ir would say: Torah study leads to care in the performance of mitzvot. Care in the performance of mitzvot leads to diligence in their observance. Diligence leads to cleanliness of the soul. Cleanliness of the soul leads to abstention from all evil. Abstention from evil leads to purity and the elimination of all base desires. Purity leads to piety. Piety leads to humility. Humility leads to fear of sin. Fear of sin leads to holiness. Holiness leads to the Divine Spirit. The Divine Spirit leads to the resurrection of the dead. And piety is greater than all of them, as it is stated: “Then You did speak in a vision to Your pious ones” (Psalms 89:20).

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  • This is fantastic
    – Alexander
    Sep 21 at 20:17
  • The idea behind hirhur being common is that these are thoughts that occur naturally, and one is only forbidden from continuing in them once they arise. Yechezkel was saved from having them at all (probably by keeping his mind busy with Torah).
    – N.T.
    Sep 22 at 6:45
  • @Chatzkel thank you for this - it really helps me! Sep 23 at 12:21
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I

The gemara (Shabbos 55b, Bava Basra 17a) names four people who didn't sin, and only died because the original snake got Chava and Adam to choose mortality. Meaning, they must have performed every obligation that came their way as well as avoiding every prohibition.

תָּנוּ רַבָּנַן אַרְבָּעָה מֵתוּ בְּעֶטְיוֹ שֶׁל נָחָשׁ וְאֵלּוּ הֵן בִּנְיָמִין בֶּן יַעֲקֹב וְעַמְרָם אֲבִי מֹשֶׁה וְיִשַׁי אֲבִי דָּוִד וְכִלְאָב בֶּן דָּוִד The Sages taught [in a beraisa]: There were four people who died [only] because of the advice of the snake. And they are: Binyamin, son of Jacob; Amram, father of Moshe; Yishai, father of David; and Khileav, son of David.

Commentaries discuss whether this list is exhaustive, four people in all of history, or if the intent is that of all the people in Tanakh, only these four. It seems clear that the overwhelming majority of people don't perfectly keep all of halakhah. Including Avraham, Yitzchaq, Yaaqov, Sarah, Rivqa, Moshe, Aharon, Miryam, David... All of the major figures in history became who they were despite their less-than-perfect observance.

For that matter, the gemara appears to emphasize the point by naming each of the four in terms of how they relate to someone else. The gemara's target audience knows who Binyamin, Amram, Yishai and Khiliav were. (Even if I personally didn't recognize that last one.) But Amram isn't just Amram, he is "Amram, Moshe's father". And "Yishai, David's father". (The use of "ben" is less startling, but still in these cases, redundant. There is only one default "Binyamin" and only one "Khiliav" in Tanakh.)

One can only conclude (as other answers said), our job isn't perfect observance.

To give you an idea just how out of reach that is, there is this mitzvah (Shabbos 133b):

אַבָּא שָׁאוּל אוֹמֵר: ״וְאַנְוֵהוּ״ — הֱוֵי דּוֹמֶה לוֹ, מָה הוּא חַנּוּן וְרַחוּם — אַף אַתָּה הֱיֵה חַנּוּן וְרַחוּם. Aba Shaul would say: "Ve'anveihu" ["and I will glorify him", to be reread "ve'ani-veHu -- and I and He"] -- become like Him. Just as He is Gracious and Compassionate, so too you should be Gracious and Compassionate.

I think we can agree at the outset that no human is ever going to perfectly emulate the Divine. We're limited; Hashem isn't.

So what does this mitzvah mean? And how did (e.g.) the Avos or Moshe did succeed in ways their perfectly observant family members did not?


II

The Kotzker Rebbe once asked his students: There are two people on a ladder, one on the fourth rung, and another on the 10th, which one is higher? The book where I saw this thought doesn’t record his students’ answers. I assume some recognized it as a trick question, and answered that it was the one on the fourth, some answered the 10th figuring the rebbe was leading them somewhere, and others were silent. But the rebbe’s answer was succinct, “It depends who is climbing the ladder, and who is going down.”

Once I told the story, the idea was likely familiar. The idea of spirituality is not where you are, as that is largely a function of forces beyond your control (your upbringing, your genetics, etc…) Rather, it’s the direction you’re heading in, and how rapidly you’re getting there. To apply a notion from Kierkegaard, it’s not about being a good Jew, it’s about the process of becoming one. The journey, not the destination, is what matters.

This should be clear when we look at the mitzvah of emulating G-d. We are never going to get to the end state, behaving exactly like Hashem. No matter how far we go, we're still only an infinitesimal fraction of the way there. Our job is to keep on working to get there. The one way in which we can be like Hashem is by not being what we were made to be, but to keep on becoming what we choose. The most transcendent thing about humanity is our very ability to transcend.

Holiness is measured by our engagement in becoming, so why do we think of teshuvah, repentance, in terms of who to be by Yom Kippur? My dream that this would be “The Year” I finally get in gear was my deciding to be someone new. Teshuvah as motion, getting from point A to the desired point B. Fighting motion is always inertia, and this dream was really my expecting to shift that on the proverbial dime. Expecting sudden relocation to get to that point B is as unreliable as setting oneself a destination without planning the journey.

A different metaphor: teshuvah as acceleration – changing the direction and speed we’re taking in our lives, changing the course of life’s journey to aim for that “point B”, rather than simply expecting to leap there. Not “getting there” by Yom Kippur, but turning to head toward the right direction, and taking more effort to pick up speed.

Wow, that ended up longer than I thought it would be! I hope, though, it helped dispel some of the feeling of being overwhelmed, keeps away despair, and gives you ideas planning a next step.


See also my answer to "Being punished for things beyond bechira point", which involves the need to gradually move what Rav Dessler calls the nequdas habekhirah, the "decision point". The place where the desire to do the right thing and the wrong one battle, and the decision gets conscious attention and therefore fully subject to free will.

With each good decision, we habituate ourselves with doing the right thing. We move our "comfort zone". And thus move the nequdas habechirah. And since we are primarily judged for the decisions we make of our own free will, the result is that judgement revolves on which direction that point is moving, not on where it is.

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  • Beautifully written, thank you for sharing your perspective. Sep 22 at 14:28
  • 1
    Part II was mostly from my booklet of essays I compiled to give something relevant to do when the chazan drags things out beyond your patience: aishdas.org/10YemeiTeshuvah.pdf Sep 22 at 15:09
  • 1
    Looking forward to perusing it. Sep 22 at 15:25
  • @MichaBerger thanks. I really appreciate you taking the time to put this together and it is very helpful. I don't really understand the point that each of the people listed in the gemara is relative to someone who we know better though - what does that tell us? Sep 23 at 12:26
  • Well, if only four people never sinned, or four people in Tanakh never sinned, then everyone else did. Billions upon billions of people, including the usual paragons like Avraham, Moshe, David... none of them kept halakhah perfectly. Those examples show you (1) it's acheivable in theory, (2) but just barely so, and (3) those who acheive it are amazing people, but we have yet greater than them in our history. Moshe got to be Moshe Rabbeinu despite his own imperfect observance. Sep 23 at 18:09
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Here are some sources that it is natural for a Jew to keep all the mitzvot:

Deuteronomy 30:14

כִּֽי־קָר֥וֹב אֵלֶ֛יךָ הַדָּבָ֖ר מְאֹ֑ד בְּפִ֥יךָ וּבִֽלְבָבְךָ֖ לַעֲשֹׂתֽוֹ׃         Know, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.

Rabbi Alexander would pray (Berachot 17a):

Master of the Universe, it is revealed and known before You that our will is to perform Your will, and what prevents us? On the one hand, the yeast in the dough and the subjugation to the kingdoms on the other.

Succah 52a

Rabbi Yehuda taught: In the future,God will bring the evil inclination and slaughter it in the presence of the righteous and in the presence of the wicked. For the righteous the evil inclination appears to them as a high mountain, and for the wicked it appears to them as a mere strand of hair. These weep and those weep. The righteous weep and say: How were we able to overcome so high a mountain? And the wicked weep and say: How were we unable to overcome this strand of hair?

So it seems that it is fully expected that we should find keeping the mitzvot natural, like breathing. However, the situation on the ground seems different, and the above sources indicate that the yeitzer hara, the שְׂאוֹר שֶׁבָּעִיסָּה, is the problem. The above sources paint a picture that this problem is something that is actually paper thin. A little bit of clarity and knowledge can dispel it. If Hashem were not hidden, for example, we wouldn't be able to sin. This indeed will be the case when the Moshiach comes.

Why aren't we privileged to that knowledge? Why are so many people born to assumptions and darkness, a ruach shtus that causes them to sin (Sotah 3a), and find it very hard to keep the mitzvot properly? How is it possible that one day Hashem will say:

I testify that they [the Jewish people] fulfilled the Torah in its entirety. [The nations] say before Him: Master of the Universe, is there a father who can testify about his son? As it is written: “Israel is My son, My firstborn” (Exodus 4:22). The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to them: Heaven and earth will testify about them that they fulfilled the Torah in its entirety.

Of course, there are many answers but we turn to Tanya (this the central theme of Likutei Amarim, specific chapters to start would be 1, 11, 14) to make it crystal clear, which is we are born into these situations, the situation of being a rasha, a benoni or a tzaddik as part of His Plan. There is a plan for all this. The truth is that it is very natural for us to keep all the mitzvot, but there is some value in "Yerida L'tzorech Aliyah", going down and doing teshuva, in order to reach a new closeness with Hashem that wasn't possible before-hand. This is the chassidic explanation of the kabbalistic idea of "rescuing sparks".

Hashem only knows if you "should have known better". Try your best, but realise that many poskim have declared that we are tinokei shenishba (see The Tinok Shenishbah written by Rabbi Chaim Rapoport for the London Beth Din in 5757). Hashem is a righteous judge, carries our sins (accepts that He put you in a difficult situation, to fulfil His plan, and is grateful and we offer a korban on His behalf for doing this - see Bereshit Rabba 1:14, Zohar beginning of Parashat Vayigash, V'Habriach Hatichon 5658, Chayav Inish 5718), considers us all Tzaddikim, and one day will reveal how every Jew never deviated from Hashem's Ratzon even for a second!

The Ishbitzer says (Mei Hashiloach - Yitro):

"Emor l'nafshi yeshuaseich ani" - The term 'amira' connotes whispering. Hashem whispers in the ear of the penitent sinner, 'I am your salvation. For even though you have transgressed the words of the Torah, there is nothing that stands in the way of teshuva'. Later on, Hashem will illuminate for this individual that, in fact, he did not cross the boundary of His Desire at all.

The conclusion of being told that we can do it, but also being told that Hashem is going to put us in situations that we will end up sinning is this: don't be disheartened! You are in a foreign, dark land, subjugated by powerful nations, far from home. There is a reason and a purpose for this, and you are a faithful servant. If you only knew who you were, you'd know how natural it is to be humble, to always judge favorably, to love and fear Hashem, to love mitzvot and keep all of the amazing mitzvot that feel are way greater than you. Keep going and hope for His salvation every day when we will all say "thank you Hashem for having rebuked us" (based on Isaiah 12:1) and we will receive the clarity we need to match our faith that there is an incredible purpose to the galus. Emet.

In the meantime, remember, Hashem is "marbeh lisloach" (Amida), and while we continue to struggle, and to sin, He will always forgive us, and He has shown us how to attain that forgiveness.

Shana tova

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Idea no. 1 – there are halochos applicable to me now. I may not be keeping them all now.

Idea no. 2 – the most effective route in Teshuva is to take small steps.

Firstly, there is no conflict between these 2 ideas. Even if there were no person who could “achieve it all during their lifetime” the Halocho does not change because of that.

Secondly, Dinonline explains two different concepts in Teshuva:

Rabbi Yehuda ben Bteria’s approach sees teshuva as the obligation to correct every sin individually – learn hilchos Shabbos so you never are mechalel Shabbos again; learn hilchos Shmiras Halashon so you never again tell lashon hara.

Rabbi Akiva sees teshuva as a path in life, a direction. Teshuva according to Rabbi Akiva is a change in direction, a recalibration of our focus in life. Rabbi Akiva sees viduy as a general proclamation of having strayed from the direction of spiritual pursuit and requires expression of those things that caused us to stray from Hashem.

Rabbi Akiva's approach can be compared to a car journey. If we are travelling in totally the wrong direction, small adjustments to the route will not correct the mistake. Similarly there is a sort of Teshuva that requires a total change of direction.

If we focus on Rabbi Akiva's approach and not on the gradual approach, the whole question falls away.

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  • I think you missed the point in idea #1 - it is that if the Torah doesn't make unreasonable requests of us, and we're being asked to keep the whole Torah, surely we have an obligation to do all of it now? Sep 21 at 20:01
  • @wizzardmr42 we have an obligation to try our best to do all of it now.
    – Esther
    Sep 21 at 20:53
  • @Esther surely if we try iur best to do it all now then we are going against the 2nd idea? Sep 22 at 21:54
  • If it isn't possible to change everything at once (most likely) then "your best" is whatever you can change now (without getting too overwhelmed/harming your mental/physical health).
    – Esther
    Sep 22 at 22:01

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