Gates of Teshuvah
Thoughts Culled From Our Sages

 


Yalkut MeAm Lo'ez: The verses in Parashat Nitzavim discusses the mitzvah of Teshuvah.  This subject is particularly appropriate to the Shabbat preceding Rosh Hashanah.  For this reason, we present the following treatise, culled from the works of our Sages.

 

The Gates of Teshuvah

Though Teshuvah is generally translated as repentance, its literal meaning is 'return.'  The use of the latter term reveals a fundamental perspective on the relationship we share with G-d.

Repentance implies a reversal of previous behavior.  A person becomes conscious of the shortcomings of his previous deeds and firmly resolves to change his behavior in the future.  Repentance stresses an awareness of our faults, weaknesses, and failures.  These realizations serve as powerful motivating forces, and prompt us to improve our behavior.

In contrast, the concept of returning reflects an entirely different postion.  Each Jew possesses a Divine soul which is a "spark" of G-d.  This G-dly potential represents the core of our beings, our real "I."  Teshuvah implies re-establishing contact with this inner power, and making it the dominant force in our lives.

Therefore, Teshuvah is characterized by happiness and joy.  Though a Baal Teshuvah (one who returns to G-d) feels a certain dimension of sorrow and remorse over his previous behavior, his predominant mood is happiness.

He returns to G-d, and re-establishes contact with his essential soul.  A moment before, his sins had separated him from a relationship with G-d.  Now, his Teshuvah has removed those obstacles.  A person who appreciates this phenomenon will naturally respond with joy.

The definition of Teshuvah as return to one's fundamental G-dly essence implies another concept.  Some people think of repentance as applicable only to a limited range of individual's  They feel that some righteous individuals may be too holy, and thus, above the need for repentance.  Others may be considered to estranged, and this, incapable of carrying out this spiritual service.

However, since everybody shares the same infinite G-dly essence, every Jew, regardless of his spiritual level, can and must turn to G-d and do Teshuvah.

No matter how low his spiritual level, he still possesses this unbounded spiritual potential.  No force or power can prevent its expression.  When his inner soul powers are aroused, he can overcome any obstacles, and express his fundamental G-dly nature.

Similarly, no one is "above" teshuvah.  We must repent, not because of sin, but because of our distance from G-d.  Even the most refined among us are limited by the very nature of their finite human nature.  They are thus, separated from G-d.  Teshuvah involves stepping above the humanity and expressing our infinite G-dly essence.

Berachot 34b states: A completely righteous man cannot stand in the place of a Baal Teshuvah.   Similarly, Zohar relates that Mashiach will make the righteous repent.  Regardless of the level of an individual's service, Teshuvah can lift man above his present level to greater heights.

 

Teshuvah in History

Zohar declares:

When G-d desired to create the world, He pondered the pros and cons of the creation of man.  He asked the Torah for counsel.  The Torah replied: "Master of the world, if You create man there are times when he will sin...  Thus, neither the world nor man will be able to exist."

G-d replied: "Is it for nothing that I ma called 'Merciful, Compassionate and Patient...?'"

Therefore, before G-d created the world, He created Teshuvah.  Teshuvah is always available to man.

Indeed, from man's very first moments, Teshuvah was necessary.  After the sin of the Tree of Knowledge, Adam returned to G-d, and was thus saved from immediate death.  His son, Kayin, also repented after the murder of Hevel.

From the beginning of our national history, the Jews were dependent upon G-d's willingness to accept our Teshuvah.  After the sin of the Golden Calf, the entire people were to be destroyed and only through Teshuvah was the nation's future preserved.

Our Sages relate that when Moshe ascended to receive the Tables, he saw G-d writing "G-d is patient."

Moshe said: "For the righteous." 

G-d answered: "No, also for the wicked."

Moshe replied: "May the wicked perish."

G-d told him: "You will later recall My words."

After the sin of the Golden Calf, Moshe prayed to G-d, asking for His patience.  G-d answered him: "You said My patience should be reserved only for the righteous."

Moshe replied: "You said, 'Also for the wicked.'

Throughout the journey in the desert, and in the early years of the settlement of Eretz Yisrael, Teshuvah saved the fate of the entire nation on many occasions.  The history of our people, as recorded by the Scriptures, shows periods of sin, during which Jews were subjugated by Gentile power.  Afterwards followed periods of Teshuvah, during which the people returned to G-d, and He granted them success and prosperity.

Besides the Teshuvah of the Jewish people as a whole, the Scriptures describes the Teshuvah of individuals.  For example, the story of David and Bat-Sheva is related at length.  Shabbat 56a explains that from a strictly Halachic perspective, no sin was involved in David's act.  Nevertheless, from a moral perspective, his behavior did not befit the leader of the entire nation.

Immediately, after being reproved for his deed, David turned to G-d in sincere repentance.  Many Tehillim, particular Tehillim 51, expressed his regret for his deeds and his desire to re-establish his bond with G-d:

Cleanse me thoroughly of my wrongdoing and purify me of my sin... Purge me with hyssop and I shall be pure.  Cleanse me and I shall be whiter than snow.  Let me hear joy and gladness... Create in me a pure heart, O G-d.  Renew within me an upright spirit.. I will teach transgressors Your ways, and sinners will return to You.

Our Sages (Sanhedrin 107a, Avodah Zarah 4b,  5a) explain that it was not characteristic of David to perform such an act.  G-d and ha-satan joined to present him with a temptation that he could not overcome, so that he would provide the Jewish people with an example of complete Teshuvah.

At the dedication of the Temple, the gates of the Sanctuary did not open to allow the Holy Ark to be placed inside.  Shlomo prayed for the gates to part, but they remained shut.  However, when he entreated G-d (2Divrei HaYamim 6:42): "Remember the faithful love of David, Your servant," the gates sprang open.  This was public testimony that David's Teshuvah had been accepted.

The split into the kingdoms of Yisrael and Yehudah plunged the people into a process of spiritual decline.  At times, the kings and kohanim departed from the path of Torah and led the nation to sin.  At this juncture, the prophets were asked to exhort the nation to Teshuvah.  The prophet Hoshea (14:2) exclaimed: "Yisrael, return to G-d,... for you have stumbled in your iniquity."

Similarly, although Yermiyahu warned the people that their sins would cause Yerushalayim's imminent destruction, he promised them (25:5): "Please, return form your evil ways and wicked deeds. [Then,] you will dwell in the land.. forever."

Although this process of spiritual decline was to continue until the Temple's destruction and the exile of our people, the concept of Teshuvah did not depart from our people.  Even during this period of decadence, the brilliant light of Teshuvah would shine forth on occasion.  Thus, when describing King Yosiah, 2Melachim 23:25 relates that: "No king could compare to him and [the manner which which] he turned to G-d with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might."

2Divrei HaYamim 33:6 describes how King Menashshe "did much evil in the sight of G-d" and introduced all forms of paganism to Yisrel.  However, ultimately he repented and "humbled himself greatly before the G-d of his fathers" (33:12).  Using figurative terms, our Sages relate that Menashshe had to "carve a tunnel below the Throne of Glory" for G-d to accept his Teshuvah.  Nevertheless, he was willing to make this great effort to return to G-d.

2Melachim 21:24-9 relates that "there was none like Achav, who dedicated himself to performing wickedness in the sight of G-d."  However, when Achav heard severe words of admonition from Eliyahu the prophet, "he rent his clothes, put sackcloth on his flesh, and fasted."  G-d accepted his Teshuvah and told Eliyahu: "See how Achav humbles himself before Me.  Because he humbles himself before Me, I will not bring the evil in his days." 

Teshuvah is the legacy of the Jewish people, but not their sole property.  Yonah (3:10) relates the Teshuvah of the people of Nineveh.  "G-d saw their deeds; that they had repented of their evil ways, and He changed His mind about the punishment which He said He would inflict upon them."  Every Yom Kippur, this narrative is recited as the Haftarah of the Minchah service, to encourage us to follow their example.

In the post-Biblical period, our Sages related a number of instances in which individuals turned to G-d in complete Teshuvah:

Nathan bar Ukvah was strongly attracted to a married woman.  His desire for her was so powerful that he became sick and was confined to his bed. 

Once this woman suffered a series of financial losses and was in dire need of money.  She sent world to Nathan that if he would lend her the money, she would consent to his wishes.  He eagerly did so. 

When she came to him, he was suddenly overcome by the fear of G-d and sent her home untouched.  Afterwards, his face shone with a G-dly light which the Sages compared to the rays of Moshe's countenance (Sanhedrin 31b, Rashi's commentary).

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People would say that there was not a prostitute in the world with whom Eliezar ben Durydea did not visit.  Once he heard of a prostitute in a distant land who charged exorbitant fees.  Undaunted by the reported price, he set off on the journey.

When they were intimate, she burped.  She said, "Just as this burp will never return, so too, the Teshuvah of Eliezar ben Durydea will never be accepted by G-d."

These words made a powerful impression on him.  He abandoned her and sat between two mountains. "Mountains, pray for mercy for me," he implored.

"Before we pray for mercy for you we will have to pray for ourselves," they replied.

"Heaven and earth," he shouted.  "Pray for mercy for me."  But they replied to him in the same manner as the mountains.

"O Sun and Moon, pray for mercy for me."

"Stars and constellations, pray for mercy for me."

In all cases, the reply was the same.

"Repentance depends only on me," he realized.  He sat down, put his head between his knees, and cried until his soul expired in his tears.  A heavenly voice resounded forth. "Rabbi Eliezar ben Durydea merits a place in the World to Come."

When Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi heard of the incident, he broke down in tears, exclaiming: "There are those who acquire a portion in the world to come in one moment... Not only are Baalei Teshuvah accepted by G-d, but they merit the title of Rabbi."  (Avodah Zarah 17a)

Teshuvah is not a phenomenon of the past, but an ever-present potential in the Jewish people.  In every age, it remains the eternal heritage of our nation.

 

The Season of Teshuvah

Shabbat 153a declares:  "All of one's days should be spent in Teshuvah."   Since Teshuvah is timeless, it cannot be limited to a particular month or season.  Rather, it is relevant throughout the year.  Nevertheless, the 40-day period from Rosh Chodesh Elul until Yom Kippur has been singled out as the season of Teshuvah for the Jewish people.

After the sin of the Golden Calf, Moshe spent forty days in prayer and supplication asking for atonement for the Jewish people.  During this period, G-d did not respond to his pleas.  However, on the 29th day of Av, G-d accepted Moshe's prayers and agreed to forgive the Jewish people.  He told Moshe to ascend Mount Sinai and to receive the second Tablets.

Moshe remained on the mountain top for 40 days, during which G-d renewed His favor with the Jewish people.  On the tenth of Tishrei, he was given the second Tablets, as a sign of the acceptance of Yisrael's Teshuvah.

From that time, these days have become a period of repentance and forgiveness.  Each year, they mark the recurrence of Divine compassion, which both arouses and facilitates the acceptance of the Teshuvah of the Jewish people.

Rosh Hashanah is also a day of repentance.  RaMBaM writes:

The sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is a Divine decree.  However, it also contains an allusion: [It is as if the shofar is saying:]  Wake up... Inspect your deeds. Do Teshuvah.  Remember your Creator... You who forget the truth in evanescent vanities and waste your years in empty matters... Pay heed to your souls.  Improve your behavior..." (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 3:4)

Though we are forbidden to mention our sins on Rosh Hashanah, the day is characterized by the acceptance of G-d as King and the determination to carry out His will.  This represents a fundamental element of Teshuvah, the firm resolve to change one's behavior in the future. 

The ten days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur are called the "Ten Days of Teshuvah."  RaMBaM's Hilchot Teshuvah 2:6 describes this period as follows:

"Teshuvah and prayer are always proper.  However, in the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, they are better, and are accepted immediately as Yeshayahu states: "Seek out G-d when He is to be found" (55:6)

Rosh Hashanah 18:a explains that the latter verse refers to this ten-day period. 

The Rabbis have explained that there are seven days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, one for each day of the week.  Repentance on any given day of the week can elevate all the corresponding days of the previous year.

Yom Kippur is a day "of pardon from sin... an end, a forgiveness, and a pardon of all our sins"  (Neilah liturgy)  

Shevuot 13a explains that Yome Kippur itself atones for the sins of the Jewish people.

Yoma 20a demonstrates by the use of Gematria, numerology, that evil has no power on Yom Kippur. Ha-satan, "the satan" is the Hebrew term for the archangel of evil.  Its numerical equivalent is 364, one day less than a full year.  On one day a year, Yom Kippur, the "satan" has no power.

Though Yom Kippur is a day of spiritual heights, it cannot be left as an isolated experience.  Rather, we must use the influence of Yom Kippur to make Teshuvah a constant factor in the entire year to come.

 

The Effects of Teshuvah

Rabbi Yishmael taught that the effect of Teshuvah is dependant on the nature of one's sin:

A person who transgresses a positive commandment receives atonement immediately after repenting.

When a person violates a negative command and repents, G-d tentatively accepts his Teshuvah and complete atonement is withheld until Yom Kippur.

When a person violates sins that are punishable by premature death, his atonement is more severe.  Teshuvah and Yom Kippur have only a temporary protective effect and complete atonement can only be obtained through enduring suffering and privation.

A person who profanes G-d's Name is judged with still greater severity.  Teshuvah, Yom Kippur, and suffering yield only temporary protection from retribution.  Only with the sinner's death is his atonement completed. (Yoma 86a)

G-d's willingness to accept our Teshuvah is an act of great mercy.  Even the lower two levels of acceptable repentance, in which suffering and death must complete the atonement, reflect His kindness.  RAMBaN, in his commentary to Iyov, writes that enduring the sufferings of Iyov for seventy years do not correspond to enduring even brief suffering in Gehinnom.  By giving man the opportunity to expiate his sins in this world, G-d shields him from the severe punishment of the World to Come.