Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Yesterday was Fat Tuesday, Pancake Day, Shrove Tuesday, or Fausnaught Day, depending where you live. These names all signify the attempt to get something fattening or sweet to eat before Lent begins. I suspect, however, that many people who ate donuts and sweets yesterday are not planning to give them up for Lent and some have no idea what Lent is and why it is significant. If you were in New Orleans yesterday it was Mardi Gras, which takes the above idea to all kinds of extremes. And I doubly suspect that many people at Mari Gras also have no intention of giving up something for Lent.
Ash Wednesday is supposed to be a beginning of self-reflection, a time of concentrated repentance. Some will go to church today and receive ashes as a mark of their repentance. Some will wash them off immediately; others will wear them all day. The ashes are supposed to signify our need to repent. But as happens for many of us in life, we go back and do the same things that we repented of.
With that in mind, I thought I would offer some wisdom on repentance from Jewish sages. All but the first are from the Babylonian Talmud.
Ben Sirach 34:25-26
He that washes himself after the touching of a dead body, if he touch it again, what is the point of his washing? So is it with a man that fasts for his sins, and goes again, and does the same: who will hear his prayer? or what does his humbling profit him?
Rabbi Adda b. Ahaba also gave a similar statement:
One who sins and confesses his sin, but does not repent may be compared to a man holding a dead reptile in his hand, for although he may immerse himself in all the waters of the world his immersion is of no avail unto him; but if he throws it away from his hand then as soon as he immerses himself in forty se'ahs of water, immediately his immersion becomes effective. (Ta'anith 16a)
Our brethren, neither sackcloth nor fasting are effective but only penitence and good deeds, for we find that of the men of Ninevah scripture does not say, And God saw their sackcloth and fasting, but, God saw their works that they turned from their evil way. (b. Ta'anith 16a)
This last one is my favorite.
Rabbi Eliezer said:
Repent one day before your death. His disciples asked him, Does then one know on what day he will die? Then all the more reason to repent today, he replied, lest he die tomorrow and thus his whole life is spent in repentance. (b. Shabbath 153a)