Volume 36, No. 51
6 Tishrei 5783
October 1, 2022
Aaron and Rona Lerner
in memory of his mother
Fayga Reva bat Yoel Aharon a”h
Every year, the first ten days of the month of Tishrei are set aside as the “Aseret Yemei Teshuvah” / “Ten Days of Repentance.” R’ Avraham Halevi Horowitz z”l (16th century; father of the Shelah Hakadosh) explains that this period was designated as the time for Teshuvah because Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of [man’s] creation. Our Sages teach that G-d knew at the time of creation that mankind could not be perfect and would sin. Therefore, He created the concept of Teshuvah even before He created the physical world. However, writes R’ Horowitz, it would not have been seemly for Rosh Hashanah itself to be the day of forgiveness; after all, that is the Day of Judgment. Therefore, Hashem has given us a period after the Day of Judgment to mitigate the harshness of the judgment through repentance. This is the meaning of the verse (Yeshayah 55:6), “Seek Hashem when He can be found” (which our Sages say is a reference to the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah). When “can He be found”? Only after He shows Himself by creating the world!
Therefore, continues R’ Horowitz, on each day of the Ten Days of Repentance, one must turn aside somewhat from his mundane affairs — or even better, at night, when he is in any case free from the interference of other people — to reflect on his sins and confess about them. This should be done with crying, tears and heartbreak as if a close relative had died, as we read in Tehilim (119:136), “My eyes shed streams of tears because they did not keep Your Torah.” A repentant person should not underestimate the importance of tears, for our Sages have taught that the “Gates of Tears” are never locked. (Emek Berachah p.200)
“Hashem said to Moshe, ‘Behold, you will lie with your forefathers, and this people will rise up and stray after the gods of the foreigners of the Land, . . . and it will forsake Me and annul My covenant . . . My anger will flare against them on that day and I will forsake them; Ve’histarti/ and I will conceal My face from them and they will become prey, and many evils and distresses will encounter them. They will say on that day, “Is it not because my Elokim is not in my midst that these evils have come upon me?” But Hastair Astir / I will surely have concealed My face on that day . . .’” (31:16-18)
Many have asked: These verses seem to say that Moshe will die, the Jewish People will stray from Hashem, He will be angry and will turn away from them (“Ve’histarti” / “And I will conceal My face”), the Jewish People will recognize that it was a mistake to stray from Hashem (“Is it not because my Elokim is not in my midst that these evils have come upon me?”), and Hashem will respond by again concealing His face. Will Hashem not accept the Jewish People’s repentance? Moreover, why will the post-repentance concealment be greater than before (first, “Ve’histarti”–one degree of concealment; then, “Hastair Astir”–double concealment)?
R’ Yaakov Moshe Charlap z”l (1882-1951; rabbi of Yerushalayim’s Sha’arei Chessed neighborhood and Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Mercaz Harav) explains: The Jewish People’s statement, “Is it not because my Elokim is not in my midst that these evils have come upon me?” implies a belief that Hashem watches over us when we are righteous and ignores us when we are not righteous, that a person can, at times, be outside of Hashem’s Hashgachah, that “because Hashem is not watching over me, random bad things happen to me.” But, that is not correct, and Teshuvah cannot be predicated on that mistaken premise. There is never a time when Hashem is not watching over a Jew. When Hashem conceals His face, He simply makes it harder for us to recognize His hand in our lives. But, to return to Him in Teshuvah, we must recognize that He is always there. (Mei Marom: Sha’arei De’ah, Vol. 19, p.509-510)
R’ Shlomo Alkabetz z”l (1505-1584; author of the Friday night hymn Lecha Dodi, among other works) explains differently. He writes: Certainly, the Jewish People’s confession (“Is it not because my Elokim is not in my midst . . .”) is a sign of true repentance. To understand Hashem’s response, we need to know that there are two kinds of Yissurin / suffering in this world: those whose purpose is to awaken us to repent, and those whose purpose is to cleanse. The first concealment of Hashem’s face in these verses is meant to awaken us, so it comes dramatically, all at once (“Ve’histarti”). After we repent, Hashem brings us Yissurin that cleanse us, but, in His kindness, He breaks them into smaller units (“Hastair Astir”). (Kitvei Ve’chiddushei Rabbeinu Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz Mi-Ktav Yad)
Teshuvah in the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah
“Three books are opened on Rosh Hashanah–one of the completely wicked, one of the completely righteous, and one of Beinonim [defined below]. The completely righteous are inscribed and sealed immediately for life. The completely wicked are inscribed immediately for death. ‘Beinonim’ are left hanging from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur. If they merit, they are inscribed for life. If not, they are inscribed for death.” (Rosh Hashanah 16b)
Rambam z”l (1135-1204) writes: “Just as a person’s sins and merits are weighed at the time of his death, so the sins of every human being and his merits are weighed every single year on the Yom Tov of Rosh Hashanah. Whoever is found to be a Tzaddik is sealed for life. Whoever is found to be a Rasha is sealed for death. The Beinoni is given time until Yom Kippur. If he repents, he is sealed for life, and if not, he is sealed for death. (Mishneh Torah: Hilchot Teshuvah 3:3)
R’ Yitzchak Blazer z”l (1837-1907; one of the three primary students of R’ Yisrael Salanter, founder of the Mussar movement; rabbi of St. Petersburg, Russia, because of which he is known as R’ Itzele Peterburger) writes: Rambam appears to understand the term “Tzaddik” as referring to a person who has done more Mitzvot than Aveirot / sins and a “Rasha” to be a person who has done more Aveirot than Mitzvot. Thus, a Beinoni must be someone whose Mitzvot and Aveirot are exactly balanced. If so, asks R’ Itzele, why is his judgment dependent on Teshuvah? Why can’t he just perform another Mitzvah or two and thereby be judged a Tzaddik?
He explains: When Hashem makes Himself “accessible” to accept man’s repentance, as He does during the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah / Ten Days of Repentance, and a person does not avail himself of that opportunity, that sin is so great that it outweighs any extra Mitzvot that a person might do. Thus, only Teshuvah can get the Beinoni sealed in the Book of the Living.
R’ Itzele continues: The work Reishit Chochmah [R’ Eliyahu de Vidas (1518-1592; Eretz Yisrael)] explains this with a parable. A band of thieves was caught and thrown in prison. Over time, they dug a tunnel and escaped. However, one member of their group chose to stay behind in the cell. When the king discovered the escape, he said to that one prisoner, “You fool! You could have escaped!” So, too, Hashem exclaims, “Teshuvah is before you, yet you are not returning!” [In another version of this parable, the king punishes the thief who did not escape because, by remaining behind, the thief showed that he did not fear the king’s ability to punish him. So, too, when people do not repent, they show a lack of awe of Hashem.] (Kochvei Ohr: Ma’amar 5)
R’ Yitzchak Hutner z”l (1906-1980; Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Chaim Berlin in Brooklyn, N.Y.) offers a different explanation: The terms Tzaddik, Rasha and Beinoni do not refer to the quantity, or even the gravity, of a person’s Mitzvot and Aveirot. That would not be logical, for it would mean that a person could be a Tzaddik one moment, a Rasha the next moment, and, just as suddenly, a Tzaddik again. Rather, these terms refer to a person’s attitude toward good and evil. A Tzaddik is a person who consciously chooses to live a life that is “mostly merits.” Even if he performs mostly sins one day, he will remain a Tzaddik if he has not changed his overall attitude. He may be compared to someone who the world views as a calm person; even if that person sometimes loses his temper, that doesn’t change the fact that he is overwhelmingly a calm person. [A Rasha, then, is a person who chooses to live a life that is “mostly sins.”] A Beinoni is a person who does not identify with either good or bad. He performs good deeds and bad deeds, but does not identify either category with his “self.” This explains why he cannot get into the Book of the Living just by performing a few Mitzvot. Performing Mitzvot won’t change his nature as a Beinoni. Rather, in order to “merit,” a Beinoni must repent, meaning that he must abandon his Beinoni nature and consciously adopt the philosophy of “mostly merits.”
R’ Hutner continues: With this understanding, R’ Itzele’s question (Why is Teshuvah necessary for the Beinoni rather than just performing more Mitzvot?) is not a question. Also, we now understand why Rambam replaces the Gemara’s phrase, “if they merit,” with the phrase, “if he repents.” Repentance is the only way a Beinoni can merit to be inscribed in the Book of the Living, for only Teshuvah alters the Beinoni’s worldview and turns him into a Tzaddik. (Pachad Yitzchak: Rosh Hashanah, Ma’amar 18)