With Elul well underway and Rosh Hashanah rapidly approaching, let’s spend some time discussing the meaning and function of teshuvah, repentance.
Like any Mitzvah, teshuvah has technical requirements that must be met in order for it to be properly fulfilled. Just as the matzah for Pesach must be prepared and baked in a very specific manner in order to be used at the Seder- and especially so that it does itself become chametz!- so must our repentance be manufactured according to specific guidelines, to ensure that our efforts are crowned with success.
Before delving into technicalities, though, here’s teshuvah’s presentation in the Torah:
For this Mitzvah that I command you today is not beyond you, and it is not distant….
…For this matter is very close to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, to do it.
-Nitzavim, 30: 11,14
“This Mitzvah” refers to Teshuvah…
Rabbi Tzvi Einstadter of Baltimore makes an interesting observation on this passage. Imagine a person who’s asked to pick up an object from the table. The friend making the request does not need to encourage his friend by saying, “Listen, you don’t need to use a crane to pick up the pencil; it’s really light, and you can use just one finger.”
That’s because the perception of the one doing the lifting is usually fairly accurate, as he knows roughly how heavy the item in question is. Therefore, there’s no need to dispel any major misconceptions. In our own exaggerated example, one’s assessment of the pencil would not be so poor as to necessitate the ruling out of heavy machinery.
Why, then, asks Rabbi Einstadter, did Moshe Rabbeinu spoke to B’nei Israel in exactly such unusual terms? As we saw, first he assured the people that Teshuva was not completely beyond them… and then explained that it was in fact ‘very close’ and accessible to them! Seemingly, one of these teachings- either that repentance is not beyond us, or that it is actually well within reach- is an unnecessary exaggeration!
Observes Rav Einstadter: it must be that repentance can be viewed in two completely different ways. True, the simple act of lifting an object does not lend itself to wildly differing assumptions. Teshuva, however, is apparently different. Repentance does seem exceedingly difficult to many of us… even though at its core it is really an ‘easy’ process.
This being the case, let’s now try to understand what B’nei Israel’s misconception about repentance- then and now, thousands of years later- might be rooted in.
To understand this, we circle back to what we mentioned earlier: returning to Hashem must be carried out with a specific process. Now, precisely what steps must one take in doing teshuvah?
Rambam lists the necessary components that the returnee must do*:
1. Abandon the sin, accepting to not repeat it. ‘He Who knows the thoughts of people’ should ‘be able to testify’ that this is ‘a new person’, who will not sin this way again.* One who resolves to be better without first stopping to sin is like an impure person who immerses in the Mikveh- while still holding a dead rodent.
- Regret the sin. One must feel remorseful for having acted against Hashem.
- Confess the sin. One must verbally express to Hashem that he regrets having sinned, does not want to sin again, and asks for forgiveness.
On the surface, none of this appears very easy to do. Genuinely deciding to break or change one’s ego, desires, and habits overnight seems close to impossible! Could all of this really be required by the Torah of the average person?
The great Mussar master Rav Yisrael Salanter (Or Yisrael, Letter 6) teaches many fundamental ideas relating to repentance. First, we must realize that two people who commit the same sin may be given two different sentences in the Heavenly Court. Why? Well, for starters, we know that one who performs a Mitzvah is rewarded not simply for the accomplishment of the good deed, but also in accordance with the challenges he overcame in carrying it out:
“According to the pain is the reward.”
-Pirkei Avot, 5:26
Someone who resists sinning despite the challenges he faces will receive more reward in the World to Come than one for whom this test always came easy. One who undergoes difficulties in order to perform a positive Mitzvah is treated likewise.
Some commandments are naturally easy- not to murder, for example- and some are usually more difficult to obey- such as not speaking Lashon Horah, slander. On top of this, a person’s inborn characteristics, environment, and circumstances can all impact his or her difficulty level in fulfilling Mitzvot.
Now, being that reward is in accordance with what a person endured to do the right thing, it turns out that certain commandments are more severe than we would imagine. Although murder is certainly a huge sin, one doesn’t usually receive reward for not killing his friend during an argument- after all, he’s not really tempted to do so.
If this is the case, then by extension, one who violates an ‘easy Mitzvah’ is punished severely-even if it is not a crucial a Mitzvah as some others- because he has no excuse.
Continuing this train of though. Rav Salanter explains that just as there are many levels of Torah obligation- such as Torah laws, Rabbinic decrees, and custom- each sin and good deed can be said to contain many levels in its own right. (One may fulfill a Mitzvah in its basic way, or in all its full detail. One may have pure intentions as he performs a Mitzvah, earning great reward, or may really do so for honor or reward, which is fine. A person may even have negative, unacceptable intentions when doing the Mitzvah. These are but some of the many things Hashem knows and considers in judgment as He views our actions.)
As such, a sin that someone committed can be seen in levels and parts as well. If he spoke Lashon Hara eighty times, God forbid, over the course of the year, his large, repetitive sin in fact contains many individual moments.
A person who experienced tremendous anger or jealousy can be said to have sinned in many smaller ‘units’ of negative feelings. Included in the great kindness of Hashem in giving us the opportunity to repent altogether is that He also allows-actually demands- that our repentance be done in small stages. One who tries to do ‘complete’ repentance by correcting and reversing his deeds without building up slowly to the goal is making a tragic mistake. Because making some huge paradigm shifts in one’s persona demands so much of a person’s ego and self-control, it is axiomatic that one who ‘jumps’ will fall.
Because a sudden overhaul is beyond the sinner, it must be that the Torah requires us to do repent differently- namely, in gradual, deliberate steps.
How can one fulfill his obligation in repentance, though, if he cannot resolve to totally change right away? Isn’t this still tantamount to immersing while in contact with the source of impurity? It seems that this question is predicated on a faulty assumption: viewing the dead rodent as the totality of his sins. However, the rodent represents something more nuanced and subtle: the sinner’s willingness to violate God’s will. Once a person shows that he truly doesn’t want to be a sinner anymore, and he takes logical steps within the Teshuva process, he has repented on one level, in one unit, of his sin. Rather than changing ‘completely’ from his entire record of sin, he can change completely from one full unit of his sin. Thus, his Teshuva is full, so long as he is acting with the end goal of spiritual perfection on his radar, as the segment he is repairing represents his entire sin, as it were.
We’ll end for now with a few amazing words that fit perfectly with this idea…
Return, Yisrael, until Hashem you God, for you have stumbled in your sins
Why does the verse speak of returning “until” Hashem, rather than to Him?
This seems to be what the Eben Ezra bases his words on…
Bit by bit, “until” he ‘reaches’ Hashem.
-That is, the verse is showing us that returning does not need to mean arriving at the destination right now. Rather, the journey is itself an accomplishment, and so the verse exhorts us to engage in returning, while never forgetting the ultimate end goal.
We can now answer Rabbi Einstadter’s question. The natural tendency is to view repentance as requiring a total and instant personal overhaul- and that it is therefore too difficult. However, the truth is that we must work instead in segments, because otherwise there can be no teshuvah. Teshuva is really quite close to us after all.
May we repent properly and realistically!
* See Rambam, Laws of Teshuvah, for how he organizes, lists, and explains these laws.
Have a great Shabbat!
Elli Schwarcz is an alumnus of the Toras Moshe, Ner Israel, and Carteret Yeshivos, and has been involved in Jewish outreach for almost 15 years. He is a Hebrew School and English Language Arts teacher, and has a Master’s Degree in Counseling from Johns Hopkins University. Of all his pursuits, Elli most enjoys teaching high-level Jewish thought and Talmud to teenage boys, exposing them to the beauty and wisdom of their heritage while highlighting their own ability to engage in advanced Torah learning. Elli lives in Lakewood, New Jersey, with his wife and children.