3.03 UNDERSTANDING TESHUVA AND SLICHOS: THE FAMOUS QUESTION
As we mentioned, there are four steps to teshuva: 1. Regret 2. Abandonment 3. Confession 4. Commitment never to do the transgression again. There is a famous Gemora that talks about step 4 of the teshuva process.
One who has sinned and confesses his sin but does not commit not to do it again may be compared to a man holding a dead reptile in his hand, for although he may immerse himself in all the waters of the world; his immersion is of no avail unto him; but if he throws it away from his hand, then as soon as he immerses himself in forty se’ahs of water (the minimum requirement for ritual immersion), immediately his immersion becomes effective. (Taanis 16a)
An absolute prerequisite for teshuva is a commitment never to do the transgression again. Without that commitment, all the heart-pounding in the whole world doesn’t mean you did teshuva.
If we read through the Machzor of Yom Kippur, we see that there are two confessions that we make many times that day: The Ashamnu Confession and the Al Chet Confession. If you go through them, you will see an extensive list of sins. As a matter of fact, as one goes through the list, he will see that there is almost no category of sin left out.
Now comes the question. If we have such an extensive list that covers every angle of our life, how can we really do teshuva? Are we making a commitment never to do any sin ever again?
What is really happening when we do the Ashamnu and the Al Chet Confessions? Are we playing some sort of game? How can we realistically do teshuva on everything and commit never to transgress again? The purpose of this sheet is to bring several different approaches to these very important questions.
APPROACH #1-COMMITMENT TO CHANGE IN THE FUTURE IS ENOUGH
G-d doesn’t ask you to change in an area that is not feasible for you to change in yet. So how can you commit to change in such an area? The answer is that by making a commitment to change at the earliest possible moment is a commitment to step four of the teshuva process.
When one hears the reproof of the wise and of others who admonish him, he should listen and hear, and humble himself and repent, and accept all of the words of reproof, excluding none. Such a man, in a brief instant, goes from pitch darkness into great light; for when he listens. . . and takes upon himself to do all that he is taught by those who understand the Torah from that day forward . . . he has completed teshuva and becomes a different person. And from the time he makes this mental commitment and so resolves in his heart, he acquires for his soul merit and reward for all the mitzvos and ethical commandments: and he is indeed fortunate, for he has set his soul aright in a minimum of time. In this connection our Sages said, ‘And the children of lsraei went and did so’ (Shmos 12.28). Now did they do so immediately? Did they not do so only on the fourteenth of the month? But since they took it upon themselves to do so, the Torah accredits it to them as if they had done so immediately. (Shaare Teshuva-Gate 2:10-Heard from R. Yitzchak Berkowitz)
According to approach #1, the answer is not to attempt to change in an area that is not feasible. We are not commanded to be angels. We are commanded to be human beings and change according to the right pace. But when a person makes a serious commitment to change and to do the things necessary when the time will be right, it is considered as if he had already changed.
Another scenario might be the following: What do you do if you are in a situation where you don’t know halacha and Yom Kippur is coming? How can you do teshuva on sins that you don’t know exist?
Someone who is not an expert in the mitzvos will stumble many times. And he will do many sins all his days and not feel it. Therefore, a person needs to know the sins that he did. But how can he know? Only through the learning of the mitzvos and understanding what he did not fulfill. (The Orchat Tsaddikim quoted in Shaar Teshuva, R. Shaul Vagshall, Chapter 11, p.34)
But if one doesn’t know how he transgressed, how can he do teshuva? How is it possible in the small amount of time before Yom Kippur to learn information that takes many years? If this is so, is it impossible for such a person to do teshuva?
It appears also in such a situation that it is enough if a person takes upon himself to learn practical halacha from now on in order to fulfill the mitzvos in the proper way, and to learn what he is forbidden to do. (Shaar Teshuva, R. Shaul Vagshail, Chapter 11, p. 34)
In other words, when a person makes a commitment to do the things necessary to bring him to teshuva at the right time, it is considered as if he had done teshuva now.
This means that during Elul, an individual is supposed to take a good look at his life and come up with a plan that will make him as perfect as is possible as soon as possible. Then, when he does the confessions on Yom Kippur and says I will never do such and such ever again he will really mean it. (Next week we will have a series of sheets giving practical suggestions for making this plan).
APPROACH #2 – IF YOU MEAN WHEN YOU SAY IT. YOU DID TESHUVA
The Beis Elokim asks the following question: if a person did teshuva and then went back and did the transgression again, does that mean that his teshuva was not considered teshuva?
It appears from the words of our Rabbis that if a man did teshuva and decided in his heart never to do it again, G-d forgives his sins with that teshuva. If afterwards he sins again, it was the Yetzer Hara that seduced him again anew to do what he sinned in. This does not mean that his first sin is recalled and considered by G-d since it was nullified in the first teshuva. And if he sins time after time, this is nothing other then the Yetzer Hara returning and seducing him again. (The Beis Elokim brought down in Shaar Teshuva, R. Shaul Vagshall, Chapter 16, p. 45)
A good analogy to explain this principle is the example of an ‘addicted smoker. After he understands that smoking is bad and harmful to his health, he decides to quit smoking once and for all. Now we all have witnessed smokers that have attempted to quit but didn’t succeed. And in some of these cases their commitment to refrain did not last more than one day. We would not say that when they made their commitment it was not sincere. Rather, after a day or two, their clarity weakened and as a result when their desire to smoke returned they did not have enough will power to resist.
This is the situation with us. At the time when we strengthen our clarity in an area, and as a result make a strong decision, we certainly are making a sincere decision. Our teshuva is considered real teshuva. It is only afterward that our Yetzer Hara renews itself against us and causes us to stumble. (ibid.)
APPROACH #3-YOU DO WHAT YOU CAN AND G-D WILL DO THE REST
The main point is to do your best and if you try as hard as you can, G-d will assist you and show you the way. If you sincerely takes the process as far as it can go, G-d will give you divine assistance to accomplish things you never dreamed possible.
And it is clear from the Torah that G-d assists the penitent when they are limited by nature and implants in them a spirit of purity whereby they may attain to the level of loving Him, as it is said, “And you shall return unto the L-rd, your G-d, and listen to His voice according to all that I command you this day and your children, with all your heart and all your soul” (Dvanm 30.2). And in the same connection it is said, And the L-rd your G-d will circumcise your heart and the heart of your seed. (Ovarim 30.6) It also says, “Good and upright is the L-rd: Therefore He instructs sinners in the way.,, (Tehillim 25.8) (Shaarei Teshuva, Shaar Rishon)
APPROACH #4-SHOOT FOR THE SKY AND GO FOR GREATNESS
Some people hold that on Yom Kippur one should not let himself be held back from any constraints. One of the purposes of the whole list of sins in the confessions of Yom Kippur is to show us the opportunity for greatness.
The Rabbis say that we have the ability to be great and reach heights of potential beyond our wildest dreams:
There are those who acquire their World to Come in many years and there are those who acquire their World to Come in one hour. (Avodah Zara 17a)
So on Yom Kippur when we say the confessions we should not box ourselves into any past images. Forget your past, sharpen your free will muscles, and pray to G-d to give you the ability to commit to greatness in the most powerful way.
The crown of Torah is sitting and ready for every Jew. Whoever wants It, let him come and take It. (Rambam, Hilchos Talmud Torah)
It Is fitting for every man to be a Tsaddik like Moshe Rabeinu. (Rambam Hilchos Teshuva 5.1)
Every Jew Is required to ask, ‘When will my actions reach to the level of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov?” (Tanna D’be Eliahu 102)
Every person has the ability to change and be great. Every person can do it a lot faster than he ever dreamed of. How is this accomplished? According to his approach pray from the bottom of your heart to receive the ability to be great. If you have true faith in Gd and total dedication to this goal, G-d will allow you to jump through time and space to achieve your goal. (See sheet number 2, Page 2 on Yaakov Avinu)
So here is Yom Kippur. This approach suggests to try to go for the ultimate. How do you commit to never do all of those sins again? Just pray to G-d for the ability to succeed and try your best. If you don’t succeed when you tried your hardest, G-d won’t hold you accountable.
APPROACH #5-DON’T LOOK AT THE PAST OR AT THE FUTURE. JUST LOOK AT THE PRESENT
When you do teshuva, keep as focused as possible on where you are right now in your commitment:
It can happen that a person will become discouraged from taking upon himself a commitment to teshuva because he will say, “I already committed not to do this many times in the past, and I failed, so, of course, in the future the same will also occur.” This is a very wrong approach to take to the teshuva process. For when a person does teshuva, he should not look at the past nor towards the future, but rather at the present; at what is in his mind at that moment (which is his real state). Therefore, someone who is returning should be very careful not to think about the future and cause himself doubts by dwelling too much on the past or mulling over the future. (Based on Shaar Teshuva, R. Shaul Vagshall, Chapter 17, p. 47)
APPROACH #6-IF YOU KNOW THAT YOU WILL SIN AGAIN NO MATTER WHAT, AT LEAST HAVE A DESIRE NOT TO
If you have really worked on yourself and tried as hard as you can not to do an aveira but you know that you will stumble again, what should you do? In your heart desire not to do the sin again. Make fences so you won’t transgress, and pray that you won’t come across that temptation again. This puts you In a different category. You are considered as one that has begun to do teshuva. Someone who has begun to do teshuva is In a totally different world than one who has done nothing at all. (Ibid.)
APPROACH #7-ANY PART OF THE TESHUVA PROCESS IS A STEP IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION
Every step of the teshuva process is a step in the right direction even the desire to do teshuva itself.
The Beis Elokim in Chapter 12 stated that the matter of teshuva is not like the rest of the mitzvos. By other mitzvos if you are lacking a certain part of the process it is considered as if you didn’t do anything. With teshuva, even if it is not complete and you only did one of the elements involved, every step helps to take away G-d’s anger and save you from punishment. He continues in the name of the Teshuvas HaRan that even if someone decided that he wants to do teshuva and he didn’t even do one of the steps of the teshuva process, Hashem will mitigate his punishment slightly because every part of the teshuva process is considered important by itself. Therefore, everyone must do everything in his power and not say that any part of the teshuva process was in vain, G-d forbid. (Based on Ibid, p. 48)
The purpose of this sheet was to explain what it means to make a commitment never to do a sin again. We have brought many approaches to answer this complicated question. May these answers inspire us to find the proper approach to these High Holy Days that will bring us to our greatest potential.