The Sfas Emes referred to this day and to this ma’amar as “Shabbos Teshuva.” As this name indicates, the focus here on Teshuva (return to HaShem; return to one’s true self; repentance) The Sfas Emes begins the ma’amar with a statement that may come as a surprise . He says that all of us — even a person who has sinned and caused much evil (“Ve’ahf she’chata ve’hirshi’a harbei”) — must believe that nevertheless, the essence of his Jewishness is untouched. What is this “essence of his Jewishness”? The neshama tehora (the pure, unsullied soul) that HaShem gives every one of us.
You may ask: if our neshama remains pure, how come do we do aveiros sins? The Sfas Emes answers by quoting a statement in the Gemara. Chazal tell us that: “Ein ahdam chotei ahd she’nichnas bo ru’ach sh’tus”. That is: a person who does an aveira is a person who has fallen prey to a spirit of silliness. The Sfas Emes is assuming that being extraneous to the person, the “ruach shtus” does not affect this/her Jewish essence. The Sfas Emes concludes this paragraph by quoting a pasuk in Yesha’ayahu (60:21): “Ve’ahmeich kulam tzadikim …”(ArtScroll: “Your people will all be righteous …”). Note that ArtScroll’s translation sees universal righteousness as coming only in the future. By contrast, the Sfas Emes reads this pasuk as telling us something about reality now. People who work in kiruv (outreach) can take this thought of the Sfas Emes as powerful chizuk for their daily activities.
We move on now to the second paragraph of this ma’amar. Here the Sfas Emes introduces elements of Chazal’s approach to Teshuva. In principal, Teshuva can be motivated by ahava (love) or by yir’a (fear of HaShem; awe of HaShem). But, the Sfas Emes, continues: in reality, Teshuva is impossible without love. You may wonder: how does love come into this picture? Answer: as a gift. Thus, the Sfas Emes quotes a pasuk in Hoshei’a (14: 5): “O’haveim ne’dava” (ArtScroll: “I will love them gratuitously”). That is, HaShem promises to love unconditionally — i.e., even though we don’t deserve it.
This formulation seems supremely conventional. The Sfas Emes, however, reacts with a cry of puzzlement: “Vehu davar peleh! Aich sha’yach ne’dava le’ahava? (“This is a wonder! How does a gift fit in with love?”) The Sfas Emes goes on to explain. In fact, this process is not “gratuitous” — a free gift. This process works for a person who tries to come closer to HaShem even though he does not know how to do it. He yearns to return to HaShem; but he has no idea of what to do to come closer to Him. All he can do is to offer himself — as a ne’dava — to HaShem. In response, HaShem offers the person His love, as a gift. Thus, a dynamic that begins with yir’a can grow into ahava — the love that, as the Sfas Emes told us earlier, is essential for Teshuva.
Finally, for one more nuance in the ahava, yir’a, and Teshuva story, we go now to the last paragraph of the Sfas Emes in the year 5637. The Sfas Emes there asks: “Hayitachein”? is it conceivable that a person who has sinned can do Teshuva based on love of HaShem? How will such a person acquire love for HaShem? The Sfas Emes continues by explaining that in fact the Teshuva process begins with yir’a. But HaShem responds to the person’s effort by granting him the gift of ahava.
So we see that Teshuva Mei’ahava involves love on both sides — love of HaShem for the person; and the person’s love for HaShem. To my (admittedly limited) knowledge, this is an entirely new interpretation of the phrase “Teshuva Mei’ahava.” Recognize it as such, and appreciate it as such.
Copyright © 2003 by Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff and Project Genesis, Inc.