The answer is given by way of a parable. Imagine a man traveling on his boat. A vicious wave tips the boat and throws the man into the water. After initially flailing about, he summons his inner strength and swims to the shore. When he reaches safety, he realizes that in the confusion and turmoil, he forgot his Rolex watch on his boat and that he will never see it again. Obviously, the man is easily forgiven for forgetting about his watch under those conditions.
Now imagine that the man is thrown from his boat by a strong wave, and after swimming ashore, he realizes that he swam to safety without thinking about saving his wife who was traveling with him. In all the tumult, he forgot about her. The act of forgetfulness in such a situation is unforgivable. Their relationship doesn’t allow for forgetting.
At Har Sinai, we forged a relationship with Hashem that endures through blood and fire, in good times and bad. Ki anu amecha ve’Atah Elokeinu. There is no exclusion in times of confusion. We seek to live with that reality, pledging allegiance to the ideal and embodying it. Emunah and bitachon are our lifeblood.
The emotional high point of the tefillos of the Yomim Noraim follows the gripping prayer of Unesaneh Tokef, when the entire shul cries out, “Useshuvah usefillah utzedakah maavirin es ro’a hagezeirah!”Teshuvah, tefillah andtzedakah have the power to overturn a ruinous judgment. But how exactly does this work? What is so unique about these three activities that they can reverse a Divine verdict?
Rav Zvi Schvartz from Rechovot once asked me what the difference is between a person who is a kofer and a person who is a ma’amin. The answer, he said, is gratitude. A kofer,at his core, is a kofui tov, whereas a ma’amin is a makir tov.
The conversation prompted me to gain an insight into the manner in which teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah are intrinsically related, and how they are able to neutralize an evil decree.
Rav Schvartz’s comment is packed with profound insight. A kofer cannot acknowledge a Supreme Ruler of the world, because that would imply indebtedness to a Force other than his own intelligence and strength. In his arrogance, he is convinced that he is totally self-sufficient. He is subservient to no one.
Jews who sin are contrasted with animals, as the posuk states, “Yoda shor koneihu vachamor eivus b’alav, Yisroel lo yoda, ami lo hisbonan.” Even an animal recognizes its master, who feeds it and cares for it, the posuk states. Am Yisroel, when sinning, doesn’t recognize the G-d Who cares for them.
A ma’amin knows that he was placed in this world by Hashem, Who cares for him and sustains him. He knows that his life and his livelihood are gifts, and that every aspect of his existence, including his environment, social standing and day-to-day accomplishments, come from Hashem. The awareness that he owes all of life’s blessings to the One Above stimulates constant gratefulness and appreciation.
A ma’amin wakes up in the morning and says, “Modeh Ani, thank You, Hashem, for giving me another day of life.” He davens and says, “Modim, I thank You for all Your miracles, wonders and favors that sustain me.” He sits down to breakfast, thanking Hashem both before and after he eats. Gratitude to Hashem for another 24 hours of life and hope for His continued munificence set the tone for the rest of his day.
He doesn’t permit his ego to block his awareness of his dependence on his Creator. He doesn’t feel diminished as a human being when he expresses appreciation to Hashem for His guiding Hand in every facet of life.
He is not too conceited to recognize that there is Someone above him Who watches over him and cares for him. It doesn’t hurt his ego to be thankful every waking moment. And since he knows that Hashem sustains him, he knows that Hashem created the world and he knows that he must follow the commandments that Hashem laid out in the Torah in order for him to thrive in this world.
Both as appreciation to Hashem for all of the kindness He extends to us and because he recognizes that the Creator has placed us here for a purpose, the believer engages in teshuvah in order to bring himself closer to his Maker. Hakoras hatov is an integral part of his personality, and he understands that if for no other reason than hakoras hatov, he has to keep the mitzvos.
For a ma’amin, hakoras hatov sparks a readiness to reciprocate in some small measure by upholding the Torah and clinging to its laws. But just as important, hakoras hatov inspires teshuvah. It generates the desire to purify oneself, strengthen one’s faith, and come closer to the One Who protects and nurtures.
Thus, as Rosh Hashanah approaches, the ma’amin intensifies his efforts to do teshuvah in order to please his Maker to the greatest extent possible. He does this out of a sense of appreciation for the good he has received and the recognition that the One Who nourishes him has set a code for him to live by.
How does a person arrive at teshuvah? Doing so requires conducting a serious cheshbon hanefesh. A person must subject his deepest self to intense scrutiny, seriously reviewing every aspect of his conduct. But that is only half the battle.
Once we have performed a painstaking self-assessment, we have to internalize and apply what we’ve discovered. We have to set about correcting our character flaws, and rectifying the mistakes and errors of judgment we made.
The process, when performed correctly, can be excruciating. After going through it, we emerge changed people. It is not enough tobeat our chests andklap al cheit. We have to actually change our psyches and adopt different behaviors. The teshuvah process has to humble every being as it reminds him of his proper place in creation and prompts a greater appreciation of Hashem’s role in his life.
Teshuvah brings us back to where we were before we sinned. It sets us on the path we should have been on all along and gives us the energy we need to do it right this time.
Teshuvah triggers an outpouring of sincere tefillah. Tefillah is a natural outgrowth of teshuvah. With a fresh awareness of how small and helpless we really are in the face of life’s frightening precariousness comes a spontaneous outpouring of tefillah, on three levels. We proclaim Hashem’s supremacy over all of existence, we thank Him for His daily kindnesses, and we beg that we merit His continued generosity.
We pray for His salvation from all our troubles, individually and collectively, and for a year of health, happiness and success.
Middos tovos and proper ethics are prerequisites for teshuvah, for if a person is conceited, he will never come to recognize that it is not his “koach ve’otzem yado” that support his lifestyle, and it is not his superior intelligence that earns him his living. Rather, he is dependent upon a Higher Power for all he has. Tikkun hamiddos and proper ethics are prerequisites for teshuvah.
A man once arrived in the yeshiva of Kelm. The person sitting next to him during davening noticed that at the portions of davening that called for the return of the Shechinah to Tzion, the distinguished-looking visitor uttered the words with great devotion. During the portion of davening requesting personal sustenance, however, the person rushed through the prayers. The talmid who observed this conduct discussed it with the Alter of Kelm.
The Alter explained that the person, despite his impressive outer appearance, was in fact not really a great ma’amin. “In matters pertaining to himself,” said the Alter, “he believes that he controls his life, arranges his own success, and doesn’t require G-d’s help. In areas outside of his realm, he prays for Hashem to bring about the changes everyone is awaiting.”
As long as a person continues to believe in “kochi ve’otzem yodi,” that his success is due to his superior intelligence, his ga’avah will render him incapable of repenting. He will be unable to reach the level of understanding required to draw himself closer to his Master, and he will wallow in sin and self-indulgence even as he goes through the motions of religiosity.
A person with an untamed ego will not be able to thoroughly examine himself and his actions in order to repent. His ego will blind him from recognizing that he is not in charge and that he has to subjugate himself to his Creator.
How often does it happen that you try to show someone the truth about something and, despite the absolute clarity, the person refuses to listen? You patiently work through an issue, take it apart piece by piece, and reconstruct it to forcefully drive home the truth, all to no avail, because the person you are trying to reason with can’t sidestep his ego and view the matter objectively.
Ga’avah is one of the yeitzer hora’s favorite tools. It prevents a person from comprehending what is obvious to everyone else. It derails a person from properly preparing for Rosh Hashanah and from becoming a special person.
In the face of the yeitzer hora’s constant maneuvers, we have to throw our energies into seeking strategies to offset the many challenges that prevent us from becoming better people. One of the most effective strategies, the Gemara tells us, is chochmah.
The posuk in Mishlei states, “Emor lechochmah achosi at.” The Gemara in Maseches Brachos (17a) explains that the ultimate purpose of chochmah is teshuvah and maasim tovim.
In order to overcome the roadblocks put in place by the yeitzer hora, we have to strengthen our ability to use chochmah. Only with chochmah can we subdue the yeitzer, as the posuk (Mishlei 24) states, “Betachbulos ta’aseh lecha milchamah,” in fighting your enemy – the yeitzer hora – you have to use chochmah to outwit him.
Chochmah is acquired by learning sifrei mussar, which touch our inner core and put us back on course, following the literal translation of the word teshuvah, to return.
Another powerful weapon available to us is embedded in the Yom Hadin itself. The Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 11a) states thatRosh Hashanah is the day on which Yosef was freed from the Egyptianjail, as well as the day that marked the end of crushing slavery for the Jews in Mitzrayim. Thus, in addition to being a day of judgment, Rosh Hashanah is also a day of redemption. On this day, we can all be released from enslavement to the yeitzer hora and to the web of desires that ensnares us. The avodas hayom and the day’s built-in redemptive power can return us to an earlier, more ennobled state.
Once a person reaches that higher level of spiritual awareness brought on by teshuvah, he realizes that he is not superior to other people, who were created just as he was, b’tzelem Elokim. His eyes open to the plight of the many people in this world who are in need of assistance, evoking his sympathy and compassion. As part of the spiritual growth triggered by teshuvah and tefillah, he has a growing awareness that it is not enough to care for himself and satisfy his own indulgences. He must share his blessings with others.
Ga’avah prevents a person from helping others. An arrogant individual looks down upon others and views them askance, with a measure of scorn and hate. His negative middah keeps him from using his gifts to help others. He looks down upon them and views them as somehow deficient, and inferior to himself.
Once the baal teshuvah repents, however, he becomes a makir tov to the Ribono Shel Olam and thus proves that his convictions have been corrected and his priorities straightened out. He has come to recognize that he is not all-powerful, and that he is dependent upon the grace of Hashem for his wisdom, wealth, health and happiness. He has attained a new level of contentment reserved for those who are humble and walk in the path of Hashem.
This thought echoes the oft-repeated comment of Rav Yisroel of Salant that the way to prevail on the Yom Hadin is to behave selflessly, helping and giving to others, and becoming involved in improving the klal. A communal-minded person indicates via his altruism and benevolence that he recognizes his mission: to emulate Hashem by being a giver. A baal tzedokah who conducts himself lesheim Shomayim is, in essence, the truest manifestation of a makir tov.
Whenteshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah flow naturally, a person indicates that he has reached the level of observance required to prevail in the din of Rosh Hashanah. Thus, with our hearts focused on implementing the lessons embedded in these words, we proclaim, “Useshuvah usefillah utzedakah maavirin es ro’a hagezeirah.”
We endeavor to reach that lofty level and find favor in Hashem’s eyes, so that He will bless us all with akesivah vachasimah tovah.
But then there are those of us who, as hard as they try, feel that they have not been able to return to the desired pure and exalted state. What are they to do? Should they give up? Is it possible that teshuvah wasn’t meant for them?
My dear friend, Rav Simcha Bunim Cohen, reminded me that the novi Yirmiyahu speaks to such people in the haftorah we read on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.
The novi proclaims (Yirmiyahu 31:17), “Shamoa shomati Efraim misnodeid. I have heard Efraimmoaning. He is saying, ‘Yisartani va’ivaseir k’eigel lo lumod, You have rebuked me and I have accepted Your punishment like an untrained calf. Hashiveini ve’ashuvah ki Atah Hashem Elokoy. Bring me back and I shall return.’”
The Bais Haleivi, in his peirush al haTorah, inParshas Vayishlach, as an addendum printed on the bottom of the page, offers a fascinating explanation of the posuk. He says that Klal Yisroel asks Hashem to help us return to Him with teshuvah. We say that we are k’eigel lo lomud, like an uneducated calf.
When a cow is plowing a row in a field, or pulling a wagon, and it veers off course, the farmer or the driver whips it and it returns to the path it is meant to be on. That is only if the cow has previously plowed or pulled a wagon. Since it knows where it should be and the job that is required of it, if it is punished for going the wrong way, it can rectify itself.
But if the cow is untrained, has never plowed, or never pulled a wagon on a road, then as much as you whip it, the cow won’t do what is demanded of it. In fact, if it is whipped, it is liable to run even faster in the wrong direction, requiring the owner to work even harder to return it to the furrow.
The Bais Haleivi explains that we say to Hashem, “Please don’t whip us. Don’t punish us, for we know not of what we do. We have received so many punishments and reminders to adhere to the proper path, but we are untrained and lost. Hashiveini. Please, Hashem, bring me back. Return me to the proper path, without the whip. Show me the way; where I should be going and how I should behave, ve’ashuvah, and I will return and remain on the path You have charted for me.”
Teshuvah is for everyone. We all want to return to Torah and behave as Hashem intended. At times, it is difficult for us to right ourselves and we require painful reminders.
There is a concept in halachah of kofin oso ad sheyomer rotzeh ani (Rambam, Hilchos Geirushin, 2:20). Even if Jew proclaims that he does not want to follow halachah, if he is beaten and submits and declares that he will do what is incumbent upon him, we accept his declaration. The Rambam (ibid.) explains that “rotzeh hu la’asos kol hamitzvos ulehisracheik min ha’aveiros, veyitzro hu shetakfo, vekivon shehukah ad shetoshash yitzro veomer rotzeh ani…” Every Jew, says the Rambam, intrinsically wants to observe the mitzvos, but his yeitzer hora overcomes him. Therefore, when his evil inclination is beaten down and the person says that he wants to do the mitzvah, we accept his declaration as if he willingly observed the halachah.
Everyone essentially wants to do teshuvah and return to Hashem’s embrace, but some find it difficult to overcome their habits and the yeitzer hora, which leads them astray. They feel so removed from kedushah and Torah that they feel they can never rid themselves of their addictions. If they would only call out, “Hashiveini! Hashem, help me. Bring me back,” then ve’ashuvah, they would be able to return. No one should ever give up on themselves, and we should never give up on anyone.
We must remember that people are inherently good. If people have fallen into lives of darkness, we should be there for them. Hashiveini ve’ashuvah. The day will come when they will return to a life of light. We pray that their return is not dependent on whipping and other punishments.
I was discussing this concept last week with my friend, Rav Eliezer Sorotzkin, who heads Lev L’Achim, and he shared an insight. We all know that Elul is an acronym of the words Ani LeDodi VeDodi Li,which appear in Shir Hashirim (6:3). The complete posuk reads, “Ani leDodi veDodi li haroeh bashoshanim,”which is literally translated as, “I am my Uncle’s and my Uncle is mine, the shepherd with the roses.”
What does it mean? Chazal use the acronym to explain that Hashem is especially close to his beloved nation during the month of Elul. He is our shepherd and we are his flock. But shepherds use different methods to keep their sheep together and to lead them where they have to go. Some strike them when they veer off the path. Some throw sticks at them to keep the flock together. Some send dogs after them. Others shout at them. Some throw stones to scare the sheep.
But then there is the loving shepherd who sits under a shady tree and plays the flute. The sheep gather around him and follow his melody. Such a shepherd is referred to as a roeh bashoshanim, herding the flock with roses and love.
We proclaim that Hashem is especially close to us during the month of Elul, guiding and leading us as a roeh bashoshanim.
We turn to Him and plead: Please don’t strike us. Don’t afflict us. Don’t send Hamas, ISIS or Iran to remind us who we are and what we should be doing. Please don’t have the government enact harsh decrees so that we will be chastised in order to return to the proper path. Heal the sick, cure the wounded and empower the weak, and lead us with a flute, not a stick. Show us the correct path with roses, not stones.
Hashiveini ve’ashuvah. Lead us back, Hashem. Bring us into Your embrace and inscribe us in the Book of Life.
Kesivah vachasimah tovah to all.