By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Chassidim recount that the Komarna Rebbe related that he heard from Rav Mordechai of Chernobyl that it is known that the Baal Shem Tov was told by Eliyohu Hanovi that every time one Jew wishes another a kesivah vachasimah tovah, malochim suggest that he is meritorious.
Perhaps we can understand this by quoting the Rama (at the end of siman 582), who says that on Rosh Hashanah, people should wish each other, “Leshanah tovah tikoseiv. May you be inscribed for a good year.”
The Mogein Avrohom (ibid.) states that the wish should be “Leshanah tovah tikoseiv veseichoseim,” adding the wish that they not only be written for a good year, but also that their good fate should be sealed. He explains that this is on account of the obligation to view others as tzaddikim, who are immediately sealed on Rosh Hashanah for a good year.
The Taz (ibid., 4) says that while we should view others as tzaddikim, we should view ourselves as beinonim, referring to the Gemara in Rosh Hashanah (16b) famously quoted by the Rambam in Hilchos Teshuvah.
A person who views others as tzaddikim indicates that he has undergone teshuvah and can view others favorably. Someone who wishes others, “Leshanah tovah tikoseiv veseichoseim,” is no longer encumbered by middos ra’os, and the malochim sing the praises of such a person.
Humility is an indication that the process of teshuvah has been completed. How do we get there?
The Gemara in Maseches Taanis (30b) discusses the concept that the most joyous days for Klal Yisroel are the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur. The Gemara explains that it is simple to understand the greatness of Yom Kippur, because on that day, Jews can be forgiven for their sins and the second set of Luchos was delivered to man.
It would seem that the two attributes of the day are intertwined. Not only was the re-giving of the Luchos on Yom Kippur a sign that Klal Yisroel had been forgiven for the sin of the Eigel, but the power of the Luchos is the power of the Torah. It is the Torah that raises man and brings him closer to Hashem, allowing his sins to be forgiven.
A person who dedicates his life to Torah becomes sanctified, as his life takes on added significance. Just as teshuvah allowed the dor hamidbor to recover after sinning with the Eigel, it allows the sinner in our day to return to Hashem’s embrace.
We seek to become closer to Hashem. Torah is the prime method of accomplishing that.
As we approach the Yom Hadin and ponder the awesomeness of the day of judgment, we also engage in teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah to remove the barrier that separates us from Hashem.
Following the shofar blasts of Malchuyos, Zichronos and Shofaros, we ask Hashem to look at us “im kevonim im ka’avodim.” Either view us as children and pity us as a father pities his offspring, or look at us as slaves and recognize that our gaze is fixed upon You until we find favor in Your eyes and are judged favorably.
Thus, we recite twice daily the kappitel of L’Dovid, for it refers to our bitachon in Hashem, “ori veyishi,” our light and hope. Even as others abandon us, seek to entrap us, and declare war on us, “bezos ani voteiach,” we maintain our faith that Hashem will assist us. During the Yomim Noraim period, as the Soton seeks to prevent us from getting closer to Hashem and disparages us before Him, we believe that he will look upon us with kindness and love.
Rosh Hashanah is the day when our fates are decided. The day is awesome and frightening. Everything that will happen in the coming year is decided on this day.
With gratitude for the good bestowed upon us in the past year, we stand at the onset of the new year like poor people, begging for sustenance. We seek sources of merit that will shield us from the din, from anguish and agony, and from destruction and despair.
We can follow a healthy diet and do regular exercise, but there is no guarantee for good health. Expenses are so high that many people are unable to make ends meet. People seek to find happiness in their lives and aren’t able to. People look for menuchas hanefesh, shidduchim, nachas, good health, and more, knowing that on Rosh Hashanah our fates for the upcoming year are decided.
We promise to mend our ways. We say that we have examined our actions of the previous year and will do what we must to merit the gift of another year.
How do we clean our slate and earn a better year?
How does a person arrive at teshuvah? Doing so requires conducting a serious cheshbon hanefesh. We have to subject our deepest selves to scrutiny, and review every aspect of our conduct through the year. Then we set about correcting our character flaws, and rectifying the mistakes and errors of judgments we made.
We think about the times we were lackadaisical about performing a mitzvah, and if there was an aveirah, we must remove those stains and resolve to be more serious about the mitzvos and the Torah.
We emerge from the process changed. Teshuvah is humbling, as it reminds us of our place in creation and prompts a greater appreciation of Hashem’s role in one’s life.
Teshuvah brings us back to where we were before we sinned. It sets us on the path we should have been on and provides us the energy we require to be properly and thoroughly engaged.
Teshuvah triggers an outpouring of sincere tefillah. With a fresh awareness of how small and helpless we are in the face of life’s frightening precariousness comes a spontaneous outpouring of tefillah. We proclaim Hashem’s supremacy over all of existence, we thank Him for His daily kindnesses, and we beg that we merit His continued generosity.
Rav Aryeh Finkel, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Mir in Kiryat Sefer, was chazzan at the Mir in Yerushalayim for Mussaf on the Yomim Noraim. One year, as everyone waited for him to begin, he stood in a corner speaking with a young bochur in learning. It was a strange site, for not only was everyone waiting, but annually, prior to stepping up to the amud, Rav Finkel would sit emotionally engrossed in preparing himself for the tefillah and nobody would dare approach him.
Some began motioning to the rosh yeshiva that it was time to begin Mussaf, but he ignored them. Finally, he told the boy that someone was waiting for him and they would continue their conversation after davening.
He later explained that the boy was new to the yeshiva and had no idea that Rav Finkel was the baal tefillah for Mussaf. He had approached Rav Aryeh with a question after laining and Rav Aryeh didn’t want to hurt his feelings, so he answered the question and a conversation ensued. The rosh yeshiva feared that if he would interrupt the bochur and tell him that the entire yeshiva was waiting for him, the boy would be very embarrassed. Therefore, he continued speaking to him until he decided that he could tell him that someone was waiting, without causing embarrassment.
Such is the thought process of a person who has perfected his middos, performed teshuvah, and is respectful of everyone and their feelings. An onov considers others in a way that a baal gaavah cannot.
Middos tovos and proper ethics are prerequisites for teshuvah, for ga’avah prevents a person from recognizing his shortcomings as well as his dependence on Hashem. A conceited person is not able to reach the level of understanding required to draw himself closer to his Master. He wallows in sin and self-indulgence even as he goes through the motions of religiosity.
Ga’avah derails an individual from properly preparing for Rosh Hashanah and from becoming a special person.
Ga’avah prevents a person from helping others. An arrogant individual looks down upon others and views them askance, with a measure of scorn and hate. His negative middah keeps him from using his gifts to help others. He views others as somehow deficient and inferior to himself.
This is what the Rambam (Hilchos Teshuvah 7:8) refers to when he writes “baalei teshuvah darkan lihiyois shifeilim va’anavim b’yoser.”
In the face of the yeitzer hora’s maneuvers, we have to offset the many challenges that prevent us from becoming better people. One of the most effective strategies, the Gemara tells us, is chochmah.
The posuk in Mishlei states, “Emor lechochmah achosi at.” The Gemara in Maseches Brachos (17a) explains that the ultimate purpose of chochmah is teshuvah and maasim tovim.
In order to overcome the yeitzer hora, we have to strengthen our ability to use chochmah. Only with chochmah can we subdue the yeitzer, as the posuk (Mishlei 24) states, “Betachbulos ta’aseh lecha milchamah,” in fighting your enemy – the yeitzer hora – you have to use chochmah to outwit him.
Chochmah is acquired by learning Torah, which touches our inner core, raises us and puts us back on course, following the literal translation of the word teshuvah, to return.
The Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 11a) states that Rosh Hashanah is the day when Yosef was freed from the Egyptian jail, as well as the day that marked the end of crushing slavery for the Jews in Mitzrayim. Thus, in addition to being a day of judgment, Rosh Hashanah is also a day of redemption. On this day, we can all be released from enslavement to the yeitzer hora and to the web of desires that ensnares us. The avodas hayom and the day’s built-in redemptive power can return us to an earlier, more ennobled state.
Once a person reaches that higher level of spiritual awareness brought on by teshuvah, he realizes that he is not superior to other people, who were created just as he was, b’tzelem Elokim. His eyes open to the plight of the many people in this world who are in need of assistance, evoking his sympathy and compassion. As part of the spiritual growth triggered by teshuvah and tefillah, he has a growing awareness that it is not enough to care for himself and satisfy his own indulgences. He must share his blessings with others.
The baal teshuvah has attained a new level of contentment reserved for those who are humble and walk in the path of Hashem.
When teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah flow naturally, a person indicates that he has reached the level of observance required to prevail in the din of Rosh Hashanah. Thus, with our hearts focused on implementing the lessons embedded in these words, we proclaim, “Useshuvah usefillah utzedakah maavirin es ro’a hagezeirah.”
We endeavor to reach that lofty level and find favor in Hashem’s eyes, so that He will bless us all with a kesivah vachasimah tovah.
But then there are those who, as hard as they try, feel that they have not been able to return to the desired pure and exalted state. What are they to do? Should they give up? Is it possible that teshuvah wasn’t meant for them?
The novi Yirmiyahu speaks to such people in the haftorah we read on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.
The novi proclaims (Yirmiyahu 31:17), “Shamoa shomati Efraim misnodeid. I have heard Efraim moaning. He is saying, ‘Yisartani va’ivaseir k’eigel lo lumod. You have rebuked me and I have accepted Your punishment like an untrained calf. Hashiveini ve’ashuvah ki Atah Hashem Elokoy. Bring me back and I shall return.’”
The Bais Haleivi, in his peirush al haTorah in Parshas Vayishlach, as an addendum printed on the bottom of the page, offers a fascinating explanation of the posuk. He says that Klal Yisroel asks Hashem to help us return to Him with teshuvah. We say that we are k’eigel lo lomud, like an uneducated calf.
The Bais Haleivi explains that we say to Hashem, “Please don’t whip us. Don’t punish us, for we know not of what we do. We have received so many punishments and reminders to adhere to the proper path, but we are untrained and lost. Hashiveini. Please, Hashem, bring me back. Return me to the proper path, without the whip. Show me the way. Show me where I should be going and how I should behave, ve’ashuvah, and I will return and remain on the path You have charted for me.”
Teshuvah is for everyone. We all want to return to Torah and behave as Hashem intended for us. At times, it is difficult for us to right ourselves and we require painful reminders.
There is a concept in halacha of kofin oso ad sheyomar rotzeh ani (Rambam, Hilchos Geirushin 2:20). Even if a Jew proclaims that he does not want to follow halacha, if he is beaten and submits and declares that he will do what is incumbent upon him, we accept his declaration. The Rambam (ibid.) explains that “rotzeh hu la’asos kol hamitzvos ulehisracheik min ha’aveiros, veyitzro hu shetakfo, vekivon shehukah ad shetoshash yitzro veomer rotzeh ani…” Every Jew wants to observe the mitzvos, but his yeitzer hora overcomes him. Therefore, when the evil inclination is beaten down and the person says that he wants to do the mitzvah, we accept his declaration as if he willingly observed the halacha.
Everyone essentially wants to do teshuvah and return to Hashem’s embrace, but some find it difficult to overcome their habits and the yeitzer hora, which leads them astray. They feel removed from kedusha and Torah and fear that they can never rid themselves of their addictions and sins. If they would only call out, “Hashiveini! Hashem, help me. Bring me back,” then ve’ashuvah, they would be able to return. No one should ever give up on themselves, and we should never give up on anyone.
“Zeh hayom techilas ma’asecha.” Rosh Hashanah is not just the commemoration of the first day of creation, but an opportunity to experience creation anew, and in the process renew our own personal circumstances.
Rav Yisroel Salanter questioned why Rosh Hashanah precedes Yom Kippur. Would it not be better, he asked, for us to first cleanse ourselves through teshuvah and then celebrate Hashem’s dominion over the universe? Would it not be more glorious for our King if His subjects, who join in His coronation, are pure of sin and able to indicate that they are fully devoted to His will?
Perhaps the answer lies in the essence of Rosh Hashanah. This day proclaims that nothing can be counted on to remain in the coming year as it was in the previous year. Just because it was that way in the past does not mean that it will continue that way in the future.
On Rosh Hashanah, we daven for a good new year, with new beginnings that will improve our standing over the past year. We seek to merit a year of positive developments for ourselves and our families, keeping sadness and failure in the past.
We examine ourselves and, instead of being upset that we are not as good as we would like to be and were not able to realize all of our goals, we recognize that just because last year didn’t turn out as perfect as we would have wanted, that doesn’t mean that we are doomed to remain in a lesser state.
Hayom haras olam. Today is the day of creation. Not just back when the world was created 5,778 years ago, but also today and now. Hayom yaamid bamishpot kol yetzurei olamim. Today, the forces of creation are strongly present, as Hashem judges all His creatures and decides what type of year they will have. The day of Rosh Hashanah marks a new start for everyone.
Thus, the teshuvah process begins with the days of Rosh Hashanah, reminding us that we can walk a new path. Rosh Hashanah precedes Yom Kippur because it is the day when we begin anew. The realization of the new beginning provides us with the confidence that we can undertake teshuvah and make ourselves whole once again.
Rosh Hashanah is the gift that launches us onto the path culminating with Ne’ilah on Yom Kippur. It is this awareness that allows us to believe that we can change. Everything can change. We can do it over.
In the shofar’s plaintive wail, we hear echoes of the blasts that were sounded at Har Sinai, when Klal Yisroel was formed into the nation of Hakadosh Boruch Hu. The shofar then proclaimed a new beginning. The world had reached its destiny. Ahead was much hope and promise.
The shofar was also blown at Yovel. When we blow it on Rosh Hashanah, it hints at the independence of the Yovel year, the collective song of freedom chanted by so many released slaves going home to begin life anew. The earth, as well, joins in the process, as land returns to its original owners in Yovel. We are reminded that we can all start again. We can get a fresh start, a new lease on life.
Teshuvah is how we climb back to where we belong.
We slip. We make mistakes. We commit sins. We don’t do mitzvos properly.
Hakadosh Boruch Hu gives us Rosh Hashanah, when everything starts over. We are given the ability to make a new beginning and to start from scratch.
To be happy, even if we were sad.
To be upbeat, even if we were depressed.
To learn well, even if we didn’t last year.
To scrub ourselves clean from sin and muck, from the dirt and silliness we got involved in.
To press reset on our lives, so that we can begin anew.
May we merit new beginnings and hearing the blasts of the great shofar announcing the arrival of Moshiach.
Leshanah tovah tikoseivu veseichoseimu.