Selections From Shaarei Teshuvah By Rabbenu Yonah
Translated and freely adapted in certain places - Yalkut MeAm Lo'ez
G-d, in His kindness, prepared a way for people to atone for their sins, as it is written, "Good and upright is G-d. Therefore, He instructs sinners in the way" (Tehillim 25:8) G-d urges even those who have sinned a great deal to repent, as it is written, "Return to Him against Whom you have deeply rebelled" (Yeshayahu 31:6).
G-d will accept a sinner's repentance even if his feelings are motivated only by sorrow and difficulty. G-d assists those who turn to Him and gives them a spirit of purity, which elevates them to the level where their love for Him is expressed.
Therefore, we must avail ourselves of G-d's generosity, and turn to Him in Teshuvah. By refusing to avail himself of this opportunity, a person shows lack of concern for G-d. Kohelet Rabbah 7:15 describes this attitude with the following parable:
A band of robbers was imprisoned by the king. As time passed, they dug a tunnel under their dungeon and escaped. One prisoner refused to join them. When the jailer discovered the escape, he vented his anger on the remaining prisoner, beating him furiously.
"You saw the tunnel," he shouted. "Why didn't you escape with your comrades?"
Only the ignorant delay Teshuvah. A wise person will take advantage of the opportunity given to save his soul. Delaying his repentance increases the probability that he will sin in the future. The anguish and emotional pain a person experiences in repentance will restrain him from being lured to sin again.
The degrees of Tehsuvah are as infinite as G-d Himself. The most complete Teshuvah is that of a young person whose natural drives are still powerful, and yet dedicates himself to G-d's service. Nevertheless, G-d will always accept our Teshuvah, regardless of our age or circumstances.
Twenty qualities are fundamental to Teshuvah:
Regret: A Baal Teshuvah must relaize that it is terrible and bitter to be separated from G-d. Each sin draws one further apart from Him. He must say to himself: "How could I have abandoned G-d's ways? Why did I exchange eternal good for temporary satisfaction? G-d gave me life and endowed me with intellect. How could I use them to sin against Him?"
Our Sages explained that bitterness and sorrow over one's behavior is more effective than receiving hundreds of lashes.
Abandoning sin: A Baal Teshuvah must firmly resolve never to sin again. Our prophets have urged us: "Return, return from your evil ways" (Yechezkel 33:11) and "Let the wicked forsake his path" (Yeshayahu 55:7).
Contemplation of the seriousness of his acts, showing sorrow at his rebellion against G-d: The Baal Teshuvah must be conscious of the great kindnesses which G-d shows to His creations. Every moment, He renews all existence. By sinning, he showed a lack of appreciation for this beneficence.
The sorrow one feels after these thoughts will help to expiate one's sins. G-d desires to forgive our sins, for our souls are His Handiwork as it is written, "I have made souls" (Yeshayahu 57:16). When we open our hearts to Him and reveal our sorrow over our behavior, He will extend His mercy to us.
The experience of pain: The only way of earthenware vessel which has become ritually impure can attain ritual purity is by being broken. Similarly, a person who has sinned against G-d can only purify himself by breaking his nature. This can be accomplished by penance: fasting, bewailing his acts, etc. However, the regret caused by contemplation of the gravity of one's behavior is of greater importance.
Worry: One must keep in mind the punishment he will receive for his sins. As explained above, there are certain sins for which Teshuvah is insufficient. In those cases, complete atonement can only be achieved through suffering.
Similarly, a person must constantly be concerned that his Teshuvah is incomplete and a more total service is demanded of him. Furthermore, he must constantly take note of his behavior so that he will not sin again. Our Sages related that before Yaakov, our father, confronted his brother Esav, he was worried that his merits had been reduced by sin. If these thoughts occurred to a spiritual giant like Yaakov, they are surely relevant to us.
Shame: A Baal Teshuvah must keep before him the shame occasioned by his sins, as it is written, "I was ashamed, even confounded, because I had to bear the reproach of my youth" (Yermiyahu 31:19).
Shame will also prevent a person from sinning. Berachot 28b relates that before Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai passed away, his students approached him and asked for a blessing:
"May your fear of Heaven be as your fear of flesh and blood," he responded.
"Is that all?" they asked him.
"If this blessing comes true, you will never sin," he replied. "A person will only sin in private, saying to himself, 'May no one see me.'"
The ultimate level of shame must be felt in our relationship with G-d. We should feel ashamed to rebel against G-d's glory or to do what is evil in His eyes, for at every moment, we are in G-d's presence.
Humility: Any person who is even slightly aware of G-d will realize the spiritual and social shame sin causes. Therefore, even after his repentance, a Baal Teshuvah will humble himself with all his heart.
This quality is mentioned frequently in Sefer Tehillim, "He is vile, despised in his own eyes" (22:7), "I am a worm and not a man, the reproach of men, despised by people."
Humble actions: Not only must a Baal Teshuvah feel humble, he must express that humility in his behavior. He must not raise his voice. He should not walk haughtily, with his eyes raised above. These external manifestations of humility will remind him to remain humble of heart.
Conquering physical desire: Physical desire tempts people to sin. Therefore, we must learn to control our desires and wants, rather than to be controlled by them.
To correct one's behavior, precisely in the area in which he sinned: Our Sages declared: "The righteous compensate for their behavior in the very matter in which they sinned." For example, were one to have committed the sin of slander, the proper means of atonement would be to use one's powers of speech for Torah study.
Introspection and examination of one's deeds: Eichah 3:40 states: "Let us search and examine our ways and return to G-d."
A person who honestly appraises his deeds will know when he has to repent, and how to protect himself against sinning again in the future. Similarly, he will know the extent of his sins, and thus be motivated to humility.
The realization of the seriousness of each sin: A person must recognize the degree of punishment merited for each sin. Certain sins are punishable by lashes; others by premature death; and others by execution by a Torah court. Knowledge of the magnitude of each sin and the punishment it warrants will motivate the individual to more profound repentance.
Considering all sins as equally important: Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi declared: "Be as careful [in performing a seemingly] minor Mitzvah as [in performing] a major one." This can also be understood regarding sin. There are no minor transgressions. Every sin is an act of rebellion against G-d.
Furthermore, defeating one's natural tendencies in a seemingly insignificant matter will initiate or reinforce a behavioral pattern, allowing control to be shown in more difficult situations.
Confession: Atonement is not complete without confession, as it is written, "He shall confess the sin that he has committed" (VaYikra 5:5).
Prayer: A Baal Teshuvah must constantly pray to G-d and ask for mercy. Furthermore, he must ask G-d to assist him in repenting, as it is written, "Turn me [to You] and I will return for You are Hashem, my G-d" (Yermiyahu 31:17).
Correcting one's transgression: To whatever degree possible, a person must make recompense for his misdeeds. For example, in monetary matters, he must return any stolen property. Similarly, if he embarrassed a colleague, he must ask forgiveness from him.
To constantly seek good deeds: Mishlei 16:6 states, "Kindness and truth expiate sin." We must express regret for our sins. However, the time spent bemoaning one transgression can be used to two Mitzvot.
To recall one's sins constantly: Tehillim 51:5 states: "I acknowledge my transgression, and my sins are constantly before me." The awareness of one's sins should not lead to depression and sorrow. The Hebrew word translated as "before me," (negdi) can also be rendered as "from afar" (see BaMidbar 2:2; 2Shmuel 18:13) A person must remain aware of his sins and therefore remain humble. However, his prevailing attitude must be joyful, as the above psalm continues, "Let me hear gladness and joy" (ibid 10)
To forsake one's sins while desire is strong: Yoma 86b declares: "Whose repentance reaches the Throne of Glory? A person who experiences a trial, [returns] to the same place and the same woman, at the same period, and emerges guiltless."
To motivate others to Teshuvah: When a person helps a colleague advance in spiritual matters, G-d "enlightens the eyes of them both." Motivating others to return to G-d will assist a person in his own spiritual service.
Generally, six forces rouse a person to repent:
Troubles and difficulties: When a Jew experiences difficulty, he will naturally attribute it to his sins, as in Devarim 31:17, "It is because my G-d is no longer with me that all these evils have befallen us." This realization will prompt him to return to G-d.
In human relations, when one person turns to another only at a time of difficulty, it is possible that the person approached would not respond so favorable to his fellow's plea for help. Nevertheless, G-d in His abundant kindness accepts our Teshuvah even under these circumstances.
Advancing age: As a person begins to prepare himself for the inevitable, he becomes more concerned with life's purpose. Also, as his physical powers begin to ebb, more of his attention is focused on spiritual values.
Listening to words of Mussar from the wise: A person who hears wise counsel should respond by turning to G-d in Teshuvah. By doing so, he can emerge from deep darkness to bright light in one moment.
Studying Torah: The study of Torah raises a person's level of spiritual awareness and hence, motivates him to Teshuvah. For this reason, after the return from the Babylonian exile, Ezra assembled the entire Jewish people and read them portions of Torah. The people responded by bursting into tears (Nechemya 8).
The ten days of repentance: On Rosh Hashanah, G-d judges the entire creation, and on Yom Kippur that judgment is sealed. Thus, these ten days are a time when each of us is being judged. This knowledge should motivate sincere Teshuvah. Who can sit quietly while his life is in the balance? How insensitive are those who spend these days involved in their normal affairs, without thinking of repentance.
The knowledge that our fate is not in our hands: We are not masters of our destiny. A person must realize that he may die at any moment, and will have to present his soul before G-d. Surely, the consciousness of that possiblity should stir a person to Teshuvah.
The Midrash explains that the wicked will ask G-d to postpone their death so that they may repent.
G-d will reply to them: "This world can be compared to the days preceding the Shabbat, and the World to Come, to the Shabbat. If a person does not prepare for the Shabbat, he will have nothing ot eat on the Shabbat."
Rabbi Akiva declared:
"Rejoice O Yisarel! See who purifies you, your Father in heaven."
"G-d is the Mikveh (literally 'hope') of Yisrael. Just as Mikveh purifies the ritually impure, G-d purifies Yisrael" (17:13) (Yoma 85b)
G-d is always willing to accept our Teshuvah. Furthermore, He will grant us strength and perseverance to make that Teshuvah more complete.
G-d tells the Jewish people: "Open your hearts to Me even the width of a needle's point and I will open them as wide as the gates to the Temple."
A Jew must show that same degree of openness to his colleagues. G-d will not accept Teshuvah for sins against one's fellow man until one has appeased the wronged party. Thus, we must be anxious and willing to forgive our colleagues. In that way, we will motivate G-d to forgive us as well.
Yoma 86b explains that through Teshuvah even our intentional sins are transformed into merits. Teshuvah relates to a quality which totally transcends the differences between darkness and light. It allows for the transformation of darkness, sin, into light, merit.
Our Sages said, "Teshuvah hastens the Messianic redemption." In this service of transformation, we see the trasition from darkness, exile, to light, redemption.
Our Sages declared: "When Yisrael will repent, it will be redeemed immediately."