Rosh Yeshivah of Telz Yeshiva, United States.
HaRav Mordechai Gifter zt"l
This article was originally published by Yated Ne'eman in 1991/5751. It describes the basic principles and guidelines for doing teshuvoh.
"Return, O Israel, unto HaShem your G-d, for you have failed in your iniquity." Man deviates from the path of righteousness because of the impression that his perverted ways will lead him to success, to joy, happiness and peace of mind. That is why the prophet Hoshea calls upon Israel to realise that the way of sin does not lead to success, but to failure. If man were to reflect upon this, he would realize that his sinful life has led only to failure and this realization would itself spur him to repentance.
We live in a period in which the terrible results of departures from norms of decency and justice have become manifest. The world is filled with lies, deceit and oppression. International relations are based on lies and falsehood. Both public and private morality have declined greatly.
In the past a sin was something you would try to do in secret; nowadays notions of shame no longer seem to be present, and everything is done openly. The Jewish people, including its observant members, have not escaped the polluting influence of this atmosphere.
On the private level, it should also be clear to every individual who considers his past acts that they have only brought him failure and that success is far beyond his reach. "His refreshment consists of tears and his diet of sighs." (from the selichos of erev Yom Kippur)
The Ramchal in Mesilas Yeshorim, Chapter One, talks about this: "No reasonable person could believe that the purpose of man's creation is for his state in this world (meaning when he does not consider this world as only a corridor or reception room, since, by considering it to be mere preparation for olam habo he does elevate even this world into a type of world to come).
"After all, what is the true value of life in this world? Who is genuinely happy and contented in it? 'The days of our life are seventy years, and, if exceedingly vigorous, eighty years, yet is their persistence but travail and vanity.'
"Filled with all sorts of sorrow, diseases, pains and troubles, the distractions of this world lead man away from the truth, making his mind dull. There is no greater sorrow than that experienced by someone whose troubles have deprived him of that elevation for which man yearns by virtue of his being a spiritual being with a soul. And, after all this - death! Not one in a thousand is to be found who has, when all is said and done, derived true pleasure and peace of mind from this world, and even such a person, if he manages to enjoy a hundred years of life, he is as good as dead."
Recognition of the failure of sin to produce happiness will lead man to a returning (shuvo), to which Ibn Ezra adds, "little by little, toward HaShem." It may be for this reason that Hoshea uses the word shuvo (which, as a noun, also means calm or quiet) instead of shuv, indicating that the path to teshuvo is a slow one. One should be wary of sudden, spur-of-the-moment teshuvo, since it is not enduring. Such teshuvo is not the result of deep introspection, but of a momentary awakening. After a short while the repenter returns to his previous state of foolishness. He who wants to reach Hashem, cannot do so hastily, for, as R. Chaim Vital says in Sha'ar HaKedusho: "The consequence of speed is regret."
That is why Chazal taught that the wicked are full of regrets, since their actions are influenced by momentary factors. Similarly, non-Jews — as the prophet Yonah said — find it easy to repent, because their teshuvo is only momentary and not deep.
A man must therefore undergo a process of thorough self- examination, and the realisation that sin has not brought him success only comes gradually, after a lot of thought. That is why teshuvo comes withshuvo, and only this teshuvo really brings man "unto Hashem."
It is up to man to grasp the opportunity of a spiritual awakening given to him by Hashem's kindness. "Shuvo ad hashem" — return unto Hashem, while the attribute of mercy is still dominant. If you put it off, then you may — chas vesholom — be forced to repent because of the attribute of justice — elokecho. The name "HaShem" emphasizes G-d's conduct of mercy, while elokecho emphasizes stricter, more exacting conduct.
As chazal said in Rosh Hashono, "'Hashem, Hashem': (I am merciful) before a man sins and after he sins." This refers to the quality of mercy shown to the sinner — while he is still a sinner — to ease his path to repentance. How great therefore, is our duty during these yomim noraim, during which the Almighty draws Himself near to us, to make the most of this opportunity to repent.
R. Nechemiah points out one of the essential aids to teshuvo. He says, "Take for yourselves good preachers, like Levi bar Sisi and his friends. When troops came to his town (a time in which the midas hadin was obviously active there) Levi bar Sisi took a sefer Torah and climbed to the roof, saying, 'Master of the universe, if I have failed to keep one commandment mentioned in this sefer, let these robbers come up here, and if not, let them not come!'"
I remember hearing from my great-uncle the Rov of Telz zt"l, that when he was learning in Volozhin he heard that R. Chaim Volozhiner once gave a derosho on Shabbos Shuvo and started by quoting the possuk, "my flesh prickles in fear of You." No sooner had the words left his lips than he immediately fell to the ground in a dead faint.
When we have people of this stature to awaken our sensitivity, the path to teshuvo is made much easier, but what are we to do when the person who gets up to talk in front of a holy gathering of Yeshivah students is so poor in both deeds and knowledge, woe to us!
However, if our attitude will be correct, we must not, chas vesholom despair of finding refuge from our sins, as we did not intentionally sin and act perversely. We sinned because we failed in not finding the strength to fight our powerful evil inclination, and if we repent slowly and gradually, we will be rewarded with life.
This is what Rabbeinu Yonah writes at the end of "The Foundations of Repentance": "Let the repenter not tell himself, 'Why should I exert myself for nothing, how can my repentance ever overcome all my sins? Anything I can do will not suffice when balanced against my transgressions.' He should not say such things, for HaKadosh Boruch Hu has promised through Yecheskel his prophet that 'their sins will no longer be remembered. . . he will live because of his righteousness.'"
I think that we can interpret the prophet's statement, "For you have failed in your iniquity" as a mitigating factor in Israel's favour, telling them not to despair of repenting. The source of sin is the great obstacle in life, which man finds hard to overcome. He does not sin out of rebelliousness or malice, but because of his inability to stand up to the test.
"R. Simoi said, 'It is like a large rock blocking a road which is an obstacle for passers-by. The king said, 'chisel it away, little by little, until I order it to be removed. So does HaKadosh Boruch Hu say to Israel, "My sons, the evil inclination is a great obstacle and you cannot get rid of it suddenly and in one go, but only calmly and slowly, (as the Ibn Ezra says, you must 'chisel it away' bit by bit) and eventually I will remove it altogether, as it says, 'And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh'". "
HaKadosh Boruch Hu realizes that a sin is the result of a defeat in the war against the evil inclination, and thus any amount of self-improvement, however small, constitutes something of eternal significance. Chazal teache us to relate the individual's repentance to the eternal plan of perfecting the world under the kingdom of the Almighty. Every individual's small step towards repentance hastens the period of redemption, when the obstacle known as the evil inclination will be redundant and therefore removed. Man will then be part of a world in which knowledge and cognition reign supreme, and the world will be filled with the knowledge of Hashem.
All this has already been said by Ramchal in the first chapter of Mesilas Yeshorim: "HaKadosh Boruch Hu has put man in a place where there are many factors drawing away from Him. These are the physical desires which, if man succumbs to them, cause him to depart from the true good. Man is therefore placed in the midst of a fierce battle, for all the affairs of the world, whether they be for good or for bad, are trials. Poverty on the one hand and wealth on the other, as Shlomo said, 'Lest I become satiated and deny, saying, 'Who is G-d?' or lest I becomme impoverished and steal. . . ', tranquility on the one hand and suffering on the other, so that the battle rages against him to the fore and to the rear. "
This means that the situation one finds himself in at the moment is called the battle at the fore. Man is always being tested, and even if the situation should change, it will still be a test. The battle fought at the rear refers to the test which he has not yet encountered. This may be the explanation of the prayer, "And remove the soton from before us and from behind us (v'hoser soton milefaneinu ume'achareinu)."
Man is constantly under attack in this world, and it is his defeat in this battle which leads him to sin. The prophet calls out to him and tells him that since he did not fall into sin because of rebelliousness, therefore "Return, O Israel." It is within your ability to reach "unto Hashem your G-d," if you will only (in the words of Ramchal) "be valorous and victorious on all sides, you will then be a complete man who will have the merit of uniting yourself with your Creator, and you will leave the corridor of this world to enter the palace of the world to come to glow in the light of life. "
In the selicho, "Odon befokdecho enosh labekarim", we argue our case not by appealing for mercy or by pointing out what deeds we have done, but by admitting that we have not found the strength to stand up to our evil inclination, and we appeal to the Almighty to grant us the strength and courage to fight it.
How great is the merit of a sigh in these days of din and rachamim - of strict accountability and of mercy. Every sigh that comes from the heart is a small chip away from the large boulder that blocks our path to HaShem. And if the sigh comes from deeper within, and brings with it a tear, what great things are accomplished by this. Let us cry about the ugly things in our lives, and long to bask in the light of HaShem, boruch Hu. How much good it does to cry today about yesterday's laughter. We must remember "that tomorrow, son of man, you will cry because of laughing today." (from the selichos of Tsom Gedaliah)
Still, we must beware of falling into the trap of self- delusion which was pointed out by the prophet Yeshayo (58:3), "'Why have we fasted and You did not see? Why have we afflicted our soul and You paid no attention? 'Behold, on the day of your fast you pursue your business and exact all your labourers".
The rosh yeshivah of Telshe, HaRav E. M. Bloch zt"l, explained that man has a tendency to feel that by fasting he has fulfilled his obligation to repent, and this feeling nullifies the sadness and heartbreak he felt previously. On the contrary, the fast should only be a means for attaining such feelings, and not an end in itself which will lead to a suppression of them.
We all of us have felt satisfaction from a sigh and a tear or two, after which we feel the job to have been completed, but that tear on the first day of Rosh Hashono should lead to more tears on the second day and so on, so that by Yom Kippur we should be shedding rivers of tears. One of the reasons that this does not happen is that we have been caught by the trap which the prophet revealed to us. Such teshuvo is not likely to reach "unto Hashem your G-d".