This issue has been dedicated in honor
of the recent yahrzeit of I. H. Bernstein -- Yitzchak Tzvi ben Shimon Menachem
Nachum Halevi, by his grandchildren. Passed away 26 Elul 5726 -- Sept.
Chodshei Hashanah Vol. 2, Part 30
Every year, the following issue comes up: The self-examination of Yom
Kippur seems very difficult. Regret and embarrassment over our mistakes
make us cringe at the thought of facing up to the past.
Rebbenu Yona in Yesod Hateshuva deals with this issue succinctly: A
person should not tackle the past and bemoan all his errors. If he were
to do so, he would become ashamed and not be able to improve himself. Rather,
he should see himself as a new-born individual, with no connection to the
past -- neither merits, nor errors. He enters with a clean slate, and can
start fresh, without being burdened with a disturbing past. If approached
in this way, a person will feel released, as if he has just unloaded a
Strangely, though, the same author wrote the contrary, in another work:
A basic requisite to Teshuva is to be bitter over one’s mistakes. Only
in this way can a person change fundamentally; according to the level of
the bitterness, is the degree of the change of heart. (Sha’arei Teshuva,
First Gate, 13.)
Which is the important aspect, to regret the past, or to avoid past
errors and turn over a new leaf?
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 107) states that Dovid Hamelech (King David) erred
in having asked to be tested. He was punished by having to face a test
too difficult to withstand, until he saw the error in his having made such
a request. Originally he said, "Examine me, Hashem, and test me; refine
my insides and my heart." (T’hilim [Psalms 26:2].) Later, he reversed
himself: "You have tested me, and found nothing suitable; muzzle my
mouth that it not transgress." (Ibid., 17:3, according to Rashi’s
commentary to Sanhedrin)
Rav Yitzchak Hutner (Pachad Yitzchak, Rosh Hashanah, 7) shows that the
Talmud’s statement cannot be taken literally. Dovid Hamelech could not
have completely regretted having asked to be tested, for the original request
is a verse that remains in the book of T’hilim (Psalms 26:2): "Examine
me, Hashem, and test me; refine my insides and my heart."
Rather, Dovid Hamelech came to the realization that
a prayer expressing concern precede a desire to be tested. Only one who
truly realizes the dangers inherent in being "tested" may merit
to withstand the "test."
In Hilchos Teshuva, Rambam states the ideal, complete
repentance. If a person returned to the same situation to which he had
succumbed to temptation, under the exact circumstances, but this time withstands
the temptation -- only in such a case has complete Teshuva been fulfilled.
(Hilchos Teshuva, 2:1) Surely this is difficult to understand. Would a
person ask for such a thing to happen -- after having succumbed to temptation,
to request to be faced with the same temptation again, in order to overcome
it? Perhaps he will fall to temptation again! Surely he would be much better
off running away, and not encountering such a test...
If we are to improve our ways, the important aspect
ought to be to change our direction. Why focus on the negative aspects
of the past? On the other hand, if we do not examine our blunders, the
likelihood of returning to them is great. It is similar to the contemporary
question of reforming criminals. Some say, why focus on punishments? Simply
set them on a new path and release them. Experience shows, however, that
convicted criminals are likely to return to their former ways.
Ideally, the past would be uprooted entirely. The
criminal would have to come to a deep conviction of the seriousness of
his crimes; in order to be reinstated as a law-abiding citizen, observable
procedures indicating his remorse would have to be confirmed.
That is the ideal. In dealing with our own, self-initiated
improvement program, though, it is not always practical to deal with the
In Hilchos Deos (2:2), Rambam writes that if a person
has acquired a bad habit, he should go to the other extreme. Eventually,
he will become accustomed to living without the habit entirely. Then he
can return to a median path.
We imagine that this aspect comes first and foremost:
Relinquish the bad habit until you no longer think of it. There may come
a time when we will be able to directly deal with every aspect of the past,
and come to terms with it; until such time, however, ‘turning over a new
leaf’ retains priority.
In fact, Rambam seems to state this clearly. After
the ‘complete Teshuva’ which we discussed above, he writes: "What
is Teshuva? He forsakes his error, turns his thoughts away, decides not
to act in such a manner again..." Only after this, does the Rambam
mention the need for regretting the past. (Hilchos Teshuva, 2:2)
Rabbi Yaakov Bernstein
11 Kiryas Radin
Spring Valley, NY 10977
Phone: (914) 362-5156