The Secret of Teshuvah
Volume 26, No. 46
Sponsored by Martin & Michelle Swartz on the 70th yahrzeit of Martin's
great-grandmother Josefine Hofmann (nee Oesterreicher) Hy"d (22 Elul)
The Greengart and Lerman families in memory of father Zvi ben Ben Zion a”h
The Fisher family in honor of the Katz family’s generous assistance
There are two holidays mentioned in the Torah whose primary significance is
not described there. Nowhere in the Torah is Rosh Hashanah described as the
Day of Judgment. Likewise, Shavuot is not referred to in the Torah as the
holiday of the Giving of the Torah. Why?
R’ Shlomo Ephraim z”l of Lunschitz (17th century; author of the Torah
commentary Kli Yakar) answers by noting that there are two other dates that
are hidden as well: the date of one’s eventual death and the date of the
arrival of mashiach. The reason for all of these is the same, says R’
Shlomo Ephraim. Being in doubt forces us to think differently. Not knowing
the date of the Giving of the Torah allows us to feel every day as if the
Torah is new. Not knowing when mashiach will come can drive us to repent
constantly in order to merit his arrival. Not knowing when we will die also
can lead us to repent constantly in preparation for the Great Judgment.
Finally, not knowing when the Day of Judgment (Rosh Hashanah) is prevents us
from sinning all year long, when it is seemingly safe to do so, and planning
to repent at the last moment. (Olelot Ephraim II 33)
Of course, we do know when the Day of Judgment (Rosh Hashanah) and the Day
of the Giving of the Torah (Shavuot) are because the Oral Tradition teaches
us these facts. Perhaps, suggests R’ Menachem Simcha Katz shlita (Brooklyn,
NY), the Torah is teaching us a second lesson: that without complete loyalty
to the Oral Tradition and meticulous adherence to the laws found in it
(i.e., in the Talmud), teshuvah is impossible or meaningless. This is
alluded to in the blessing of the daily Shemoneh Esrei which speaks of
teshuvah: “Return us our Father to Your Torah, draw us close our King to
Your service, and [then] return us in complete repentance before You.”
(Simcha L’ish p. 406)
“You will return until Hashem, your Elokim.” (30:2)
R’ Moshe Zvi Neriyah z”l (1913-1995; rosh yeshiva in Kfar Ha’roeh, Israel,
and founder of the Bnei Akiva youth movement) wonders: Is this verse
referring to a place to which one returns, as the word “until” implies?
He explains: The result of the teshuvah process is that G-d forms man anew.
He continues: Teshuvah is remarkable; had Hashem not told us that it is
effective, we would never have imagined it on our own. *Doing* teshuvah is
logical, but that teshuvah is *accepted* is not. How can one just erase the
past and be born anew?!
Several verses refer to teshuvah using “purification” as a metaphor, for
example (Vayikra 16:30) “For on this day he shall provide atonement for you
to cleanse you; from all your sins before Hashem shall you be cleansed” and
(Yirmiyah 17:13) “Hashem, mikveh of Israel!” This is because we can grasp
the concept of purification by analogy to physical cleansing. In turn, this
assists us in grasping the cleansing and renewing effect of teshuvah.
With this we can understand as well the “place” to which one returns when he
repents. It is not a physical place but rather the “point” from which one
was created. (Me’orot Neriyah: Elul-Tishrei p.19)
One might think that he is *obligated* to sin so that he can fulfill the
mitzvah of teshuvah. Otherwise, he might go through his entire life without
ever performing this mitzvah.
Not so, says R’ Chaim Chizkiyah Medini z”l (author of the halachic
encyclopedia Sdei Chemed; died 1904). Rather, just as our Sages say that
one who studies the laws of the Temple service is deemed to have performed
the service, so one who studies the laws of teshuvah is considered to have
performed that mitzvah. Thus, even if one never sins, he still can fulfill
the commandment to repent. (Drush B’ma’alat Midat Ha’anavah; reprinted in
Ohr Ha’chamah p.338)
“For this commandment that I command you today – it is not hidden from you
and it is not distant.” (30:11)
R’ Moshe ben Nachman z”l (Ramban; 1194-1270) writes that this refers to the
mitzvah of teshuvah.
R’ Moshe Zuriel shlita (former Mashgiach Ruchani of Yeshivat Sha’alvim)
observes that many people find teshuvah difficult. We all feel as if we
generally do what is right. Morever, our Sages teach us that we should
approach the Day of Judgment with the confidence that we will emerge
vindicated and triumphant.
Nevertheless, R’ Zuriel writes, if we understood the depth of Hashem’s
judgment, we would not be so complacent. Who can claim that he has not
offended his spouse, family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, etc. during the
year? Do we realize the seriousness of this sin? Do we repent for it properly?
We are all familiar with the halachah that teshuvah does not atone for a sin
against another human being unless the offended person is appeased. We
therefore are used to asking our friends, “Do you forgive me?” And, of
course, they say, “I forgive you.” But do they really forgive us, or are
they simply too embarrassed or uncomfortable to tell us that they still feel
hurt? Do we take steps to right the wrongs that we have committed, or are
we satisfied with a pro forma apology?
Moreover, we forget that appeasing those we have offended is only the first
step. We still must appease Hashem when we offend His loved ones. The
Gemara relates that a great sage was severely punished because he came home
late from yeshiva and caused his wife to shed one tear as she sat by the
window watching for him. She would not have wanted him to be punished, but
Hashem does not tolerate even a small show of insensitivity from a person of
stature. Even the fact that he was preoccupied with Torah study did not
save him. True, we are not on the stature of that sage, but our sins are
not as subtle either.
Even when a person hurts another with the best of intentions, he is
punished. We read at the beginning of Shmuel I that a man named Elkanah had
two wives–Peninah and Chana. Peninah had children and Chana did not. Our
Sages say that Peninah used to goad Chana to pray for children by asking
questions such as, “Have you bathed your children for school today?”
Peninah had the best of intentions; she wanted Chana to cry from the depths
of her heart so that she too would give birth. And it worked!
Nevertheless, Peninah was punished severely.
And who has not offended his parents?! The halachic work Chayei Adam (67:3)
writes that even thinking negatively about one’s parents is a grave sin
about which the Torah says (Devarim 27:16), “Cursed is one who degrades his
father or mother.”
Therefore, concludes R’ Zuriel, let us all realize that we have sinned
grievously. Let us ask for forgiveness from those we have offended and from
their Father in Heaven. Then we truly will be able to enter Rosh Hashanah
with confidence. (Otzrot Ha’Torah p. 664)
From the Haftarah . . .
“I will rejoice intensely with Hashem, my soul shall exult with my Elokim,
for He has dressed me in the raiment of salvation, in a robe of
righteousness has He cloaked me, like a bridegroom who dons priestly glory,
like a bride who bedecks herself in her jewelry. For as the earth brings
forth her growth, and as a garden causes its sowings to grow, so shall my
Master, Hashem / Elokim, cause righteousness and praise to grow in the face
of all the nations” (Yeshayah 61:10-11)
R’ Shlomo Kluger z”l (rabbi of Brody, Galicia; died 1869) commented on these
verses in a number of derashot.
In a derashah delivered in 5620 / 1860, he focused on the first verse, which
describes how Hashem has dressed us as brides and bridegrooms. R’ Kluger
explained: Everyone knows that the most beautiful bride and the most
handsome bridegroom may not be so pleasing to look at beneath their fancy
clothes and make-up. So, too, our repentance on Rosh Hashanah and Yom
Kippur may be little more than window dressing. Even so, Hashem takes pride
in us as if we are his beautiful bride. This is part of His kindness to us.
In a derashah delivered the following year, R’ Kluger focused on the
connection between the first and second verses quoted above. He said: The
midrash says that we should shave and don clean clothes in anticipation of
Rosh Hashanah because we are confident that we will be inscribed for a good
year. But can we really be so confident? After all, many righteous people
die in any given year!
The answer is that if a righteous person dies at a particular time, that
must be what is good for him. Of course, we ordinarily cannot see how that
is the case. Nevertheless, as the second verse above tells us, “as the
earth brings forth her growth, and as a garden causes its sowings to grow,
so shall my Master, Hashem / Elokim, cause righteousness and praise to
grow.” When a farmer puts seeds in the ground, they must first decay before
anything can grow from them. One who knows nothing about agriculture thinks
that the farmer is throwing away perfectly good seeds, but we know better.
Similarly, what seems bad to us, who do not know Hashem’s ways, is actually
This is alluded to by the verse’s use of the name Hashem / Elokim (i.e., the
Name is spelled “yud-keh-vav-keh,” but it is pronounced “Elokim”). The Name
“Hashem” reflects G-d’s Attribute of Mercy, while the Name “Elokim” reflects
His Attribute of Justice. In reality, they are one and the same. The first
of our verses says as well, “I will rejoice intensely with Hashem, my soul
shall exult with my Elokim . . .” The prophet tells us that one who
understands can see that the two Names reflect the same G-d. (Kohelet
Yaakov: Elul p.265-266)
The editors hope these brief 'snippets' will engender further study
and discussion of Torah topics ('lehagdil Torah u'leha'adirah'), and
your letters are appreciated. Web archives at Torah.org start with 5758 (1997) and
may be retrieved from the Hamaayan page.
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