Repentance

  • Harav Yaakov Medan
Adapted by Immanuel Mayer
Translated by Kaeren Fish
 
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In memory of Batya Furst z"l
Niftera 28 Elul 5765. 
Dedicated by her family.
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The phenomenon of teshuva
 
In the haftara of Shabbat Shuva we read:
 
“Yet even now, says the Lord, turn to Me with all your heart, and with fasting and with weeping and with mourning, and rend your hearts, and not your garments, and turn to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and great in love, and repents of evil. Who knows whether He will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind Him, a meal offering and a drink offering unto the Lord your God?” (Yoel 2:12-14)
 
The forgiveness promised by the prophet raises a problem: where lies the distinction between mercy extended to the penitent, and simply forgoing any demands with regard to human behavior? While the trait of mercy is certainly becoming, renunciation and yielding entail a lack of justice and truth. As Ramchal (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto) writes in his holy work, Mesillat Yesharim:
 
“All this is straightforward and clear, for God is a God of truth as Moshe Rabbeinu said: ‘The Rock, His work is perfect; For all His ways are justice: a God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and right is He’ (Devarim 32:4). For since God desires justice, to ignore the bad would be just as much an injustice as to ignore the good. Therefore, if it is justice that He desires, then He must pay each man according to his ways and according to the fruits of his deeds to the utmost exactness, whether for good or for bad. Thus ‘a God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and right is He" (Devarim 32:4), which our Sages explained [the dual terms]: ‘to the righteous and to the wicked’ (Ta’anit 11a). For this is the trait [of justice]. He judges everything. He punishes every sin. And there is no escape.” (Mesillat Yesharim, chapter 4)[1]
 
Many scholars have addressed this question. Here I shall follow the approach of the Maharal, who explains that when a person repents, it becomes clear that the sin was never really a part of his essential personality. Therefore he is able to shake the sin off him, as it were, and he may be forgiven for his misdeed.
 
We might compare this to a car which, following a road accident, suffers damage to its chassis and loses half its value on the market. If the owner were to sell his car without reporting the defect, he would be misleading the buyer and this would be a mekach ta’ut – a mistaken transaction. If, on the other hand, one of the headlights is not working, then the car is still deficient, but what it is missing is not integral to its essence. The seller should still compensate the buyer with the price of a new headlight, but the sale could not be annulled on the grounds of a mistaken transaction. Similarly, teshuva is possible by virtue of the fact that the sin is not integral to the sinner; it is not truly part of him – as becomes evident through his correction of his sin and his complete renunciation of it.
 
Still, we are left with the question of how regret and tikkun (repair) are to be achieved on the practical level.
 
Practical guidance
 
Can a person really decide, from one day to the next, to set out on a new path? We often use the expression “to turn over a new leaf” in the book of our lives. Essentially, what this means is that it does not matter that the previous pages were full of ugly scribbles or unrepeatable words. We’ll cover them over with a new page, and we’ll see only that. But if we don’t focus on the previous page and don’t spend time erasing the ugly marks and cleaning it up, the chances are that the new page will soon end up looking just the same. How, then, do we go about fixing the previous page and erasing our mistakes? Is each one of us truly capable of feeling profound regret over all the misdeeds we committed during the previous year? And can we really undertake this process annually?
 
I doubt it. However, I am certain that each of us is able, with serious effort, to commit to effecting fundamental change in two, three, or four aspects of our routine behavior. Some of these should be related to sanctity, to Torah and prayer; others should pertain to personal integrity, loyalty, charity and justice.
 
Each of us can identify a small number of deficiencies in our conduct over the course of the day, and decide that we will pay attention to them in the coming year and try to repair them. A person who does this will be able to present himself before God on the Day of Mercy as a penitent, to plead for mercy for himself and for Am Yisrael, and to ask for the power and ability to effect change in himself.
 
This person will need to commit himself to performing a spiritual accounting at set times during the year – perhaps on every Yom Kippur Katan, or every Erev Rosh Chodesh. At those times he will have to examine whether he is fulfilling his commitment and drawing closer to his aim, or, heaven forefend, remaining in the same place or even receding from his aim. He will have to think about what he needs to do in order to enhance his progress, and as next Yom Kippur approaches he will have to see whether he has succeeded or not, what he needs to keep working on in the next year, and what other objectives he might add.
 
Vidui (confession)
 
Vidui is the central mitzva of Yom Kippur. True vidui (confession) is not a casual matter. The formulation is very general, and there is a real danger of sinning further, through ‘vidui peh’ – confession that is recited mechanically by our mouths but not felt in our hearts. The Chaye Adam sensed this and added to his written vidui a long list of private misdeeds, arranged in alphabetical order. But what do we gain from reciting a list of sins written by someone else – albeit a giant of Torah and mussar?
 
Each of us must devote some time to reaching deep within ourselves and making a list of all the misdeeds that we can remember, and it is proper that we arrange them alphabetically and recite them along with the alphabetically-arranged vidui in the siddur. How many times were we careless on the road? How often have we “stolen” the right of way of another driver at a junction? How often have we recited the ‘asher yatzar’ blessing thoughtlessly? And so on.
 
Recognition of improper behavior is important even if we are unable to summon all the deepest wellsprings of regret within ourselves. However, it is an important step only if we have a true desire to improve ourselves, even though we know that right now we are incapable of investing all the inner resources necessary for repairing our countless misdeeds.
 
The Ten Days of Repentance
 
One final point: the Ten Days of Repentance logically should have been placed at the end of the year, rather than at its start. After all, they offer an opportunity to sum up and repair the sins of the year gone by. It would be something like a repeat test, to improve our grades for the year we have just completed.
 
However, these days fall at the beginning of the year. Teshuva, meaning ‘repentance’, literally denotes ‘return’ – returning ‘to,’ not returning ‘from.’ Its essence is not a flight from sin (as important as that is) but rather a return to God. We start the new year by telling God how important it is to us to return to Him, to be close to Him, without the barrier of ‘your iniquities which have separated you from your God.’
 
(This sicha was delivered on leil Shabbat, parashat Haazinu 5772 [2011].)