Words like “repentance” and “atonement” are not the most warm and fuzzy. They conjure up all sorts of feelings of self-torment and guilt. Yet, here we are, High Holidays around the corner with days of soul-searching imminent. Perhaps we can deftly dodge the painful self-scrutiny for a little bit, in order to address a deep, dark gnawing question about someone else’s spiritual and emotional estrangements.
Consider Don Draper, our tortured hero of Mad Men fame, a welcome diversion. Thus we not only sidestep our own foibles — we at the same time offer succor to the painful withdrawal from seven years of delicious viewing delight.
The finale left many confounded. Was that a peaceful meditative yoga pose? Or a mocking grin? Has Don Draper arrived at the “real thing” for real? Is the tortured, conflicted, self-punishing Dick Whitman identity finally set aside with an evolved Don Draper fully repented in his place? I think so. And so might Maimonides.
In his Laws of Repentance, Maimonides, the 12th-century rabbi, physician, and codifier of Jewish law, describes the transformation experienced by the penitent through the process of teshuvah, which literally means “returning.” “How excellent is the virtue of repentance! Yestereve, he was cut off from God, Lord of Israel … and today he cleaves unto the Divine Presence.”
In his list of behaviors that lead to the path of repentance, Maimonides includes the possibility of changing one’s name, as if to say, “I am a different person (acher) and not the same one who has committed a misdeed.”
Drawing greatly from Maimonides, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik taught and wrote extensively about the repentance process. In a 1961 lecture, he offered a novel approach to the complicated first-century Jewish scholar, teacher, and heretic, Elisha Ben Avuyah, of Milton Steinberg’s A Driven Leaf fame. Rabbi Soloveitchik describes stunningly how Elisha Ben Avuyah, after he sinned, was like another person — acher. However, after repenting he would be returned to his true self, Elisha. “Because the real sage never sinned … never betrayed The People Yisrael, never identified with the Romans, and never sought to tear Jewish children away from Torah and the fear of Heaven. It was another person, Acher, who was the traitor. The entire time of his misdeeds, his true self was hidden, being held hostage to the pseudo-personality of Acher, the other.”
Says Soloveitchik, “Suddenly, the hidden soul … demanded to be heard, ‘Elisha, you are not Acher! The dark soul who has enthralled you is not your friend, but your worst enemy! Elisha, identify rather with me, with your past, with your teachers and your colleagues! Come to me, push Acher away, he is not you.’”
In our continuous noble journey of self-knowledge, there are at times detours. Teshuvah is a recalibration and redirection, a course correction. The idea is powerful and profoundly positive. Teshuvah is a life-affirming progression involving a re-creation and reinventing practice. Our true self is evolving. Dick Whitman becomes Don Draper. Finally, it’s the Don of a new day.