What Clintons speech teaches us about repentance

CHICAGO — Well, it seems Elul came a little early at the White House this year.

Elul is the month on the Jewish calendar that began last Shabbat, Aug. 22. But Elul is not just another month on the Jewish calendar.

In many ways, Elul is the most fascinating month on the Jewish calendar, the most challenging, the most difficult.

It's all those things because it is the most personal.

There are no big holidays during Elul, indeed no Jewish holidays of any kind. Rather, it's a month when the focus is very much internal.

Elul is the month that comes before the month in which Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur occur, the days when we stand before God and look back at the year we've just lived and look ahead to the coming year.

Big stuff. But you don't just walk into Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and do that. Not if you want to do it right.

You have to prepare. Which is what Elul is all about.

Cheshbon hanefesh, spiritual reckoning, and tshuvah, repentance, are at the very core of what Elul is all about. And as I say, that didn't start until last Shabbat.

But watching TV on Monday night of last week, I got the sense at least one person had started it a little early.

It's not often you get a vivid example of cheshbon hanefesh and tshuvah on national TV from the mouth of the president of the United States.

But so much of what Bill Clinton said was exactly what Elul requires of us: Cheshbon hanefesh, taking a spiritual inventory, seeing where we fell short. And then doing tshuvah for it.

Maimonides teaches us that there are three parts to tshuvah: acknowledging wrongdoing, taking full responsibility for it and vowing never to do it again. For a true tshuvah, one must do all three.

I think we can learn much about cheshbon hanefesh and tshuvah from that four-minute address from the White House. And the timing, frankly, couldn't be better.

The president did a lot right in terms of his tshuvah. He acknowledged his wrongdoing, saying his relationship with Monica Lewinsky "constituted a critical lapse in judgment and a personal failure on my part."

Good. He took responsibility. In fact, he did so twice, saying he "was solely and completely responsible" for what he did and saying also "I must take complete responsibility for all my actions, both public and private."

Also good. He even said he wouldn't do it again, sort of, noting that now in terms of his family and God, "I must put it right and I am prepared to do whatever it takes to do so."

Good again. Pretty much a real tshuvah. But not perfect. For he deviated from the path of true tshuvah by trying to explain his reasons for his mistakes and citing as one of the reasons big, bad Ken Starr.

To really be tshuvah means dispensing with rationales and justifications and explanations and excuses. There should only be "I did wrong," not "and here's why." There is no why. Tshuvah is facing your sin in the face and saying it's a sin without trying to explain why you did it.

I think of Ken Starr as the yetzer hara, the evil inclination within each of us, goading us, pushing us to do things we shouldn't. We can always pin our sins on the yetzer hara. But tshuvah isn't about others, it's about us.

Which is perhaps why the speech was ultimately unsatisfying. True tshuvah, unadorned and unequivocal, is incredibly powerful, penetrates the heart, changes worlds. Dilute it and you lose that force.

And so, Clinton showed both what to do and not to do as we set out to do tshuvah this Elul. He also showed us how tough it is.

I think there are also other Jewish lessons for us to learn from the whole situation. For what the Bill and Monica affair gives us, I think, is an opportunity to see how wise Judaism is, how much better our lives would be if we recognized how much the Torah understands human nature.

For starters, there is sex. Let's face it, this thing is about and has always been about sex. The whole business of perjury and obstruction of justice was just another lawyerly game.

The Torah understands well the awesome pull and power of sex, how potent a force it is in our lives.

Who, after all, would believe a man twice elected president of the United States would jeopardize it all for some hanky-panky with a young intern in the Oval Office?

Can't happen, we'd say. Nobody would be that stupid, would take the chance, would risk losing so much.

And yet he did. Which says not so much about him but about all of us. Sex can make us do crazy, insane, unbelievable things.

Which is why the Torah outlines such careful rules regarding sex, about how we are to conduct ourselves before marriage, during marriage and throughout our lives in our interactions with the opposite sex.

Many of us dismiss all those guidelines, saying that the rules are archaic. We say that some teachings, like the one that says a man and a woman who are not married to each other should never be alone in a room together, are ridiculous. But I think Bill Clinton shows what sex can do to any of us and why some rules, even if we seem not to need them, may be better for us than we realize.

There's another Jewish lesson here. Back when the Jewish people had a king, our tradition required that his first act upon taking office was to acquire two Torahs. He would keep one in his palace and one would travel with him.

Why? As a reminder. To be a cue to him about how to act, what his responsibilities are. The rest of us aren't required to always have a Torah with us. But the king, who presumably is better than the rest of us, was.

The reason for this is that Judaism understands that a king, with all that power, needs the constant reminder of what is expected of him, where the true authority lies.

Imagine if there had been a Torah in the Oval Office. Imagine if everywhere the president went, there was a Torah, or in his case, a Bible, always within sight.

Learn from Bill. And make this Elul a meaningful one.