By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
The emotional high point of the tefillos of the Yomim Noraim follows the gripping prayer of Unesaneh Tokef, when the entire shul cries out “U’seshuva, u’sefilla, u’tzedoka maavirim es roah hagezeirah!” Teshuva, tefilla and tzedoka have the power to overturn a ruinous judgment on Rosh Hashanah. But how exactly does this work? What is so unique about these three activities that they can reverse a Divine verdict?
Last week I had the opportunity to speak to Rav Zvi Schvartz from Rechovot in Eretz Yisroel, as he visited here for two days on behalf of Lev L’Achim.
He asked me what the difference is between a person who is a kofer, and one who is a ma’amin,. The answer, he said is gratitude. A kofer at the core is a kofui tov, whereas a ma’amin is a makir tov.
The conversation prompted me to gain an insight into the manner in which teshuva, tefilla and tzedaka are intrinsically related, and how they are able to neutralize an evil decree.
His comment is packed with profound insight. Think about it; a kofer won’t acknowledge a supreme Ruler of the world because that would imply indebtedness to a force other than his own intelligence and strength. In his arrogance, he is convinced that he is totally self-sufficient. He worships his own image.
Hakoras Hatov: Teshuva’s ‘Generator’
The Jews who sin are contrasted with animals, as the posuk states, “Yuda shor koneihu v’chamor eivus b’alav, yisroel lo yuda, ami lo hisbonan.” Even an animal recognizes its master who feeds it and cares for it, the posuk states, but Am Yisroel when it sins, doesn’t recognize the G-d who cares for them.
A ma’amin knows that he was placed in this world by Hashem, who cares for him and sustains him. He knows that his life and his livelihood are gifts; that every aspect of his existence, including his environment, social standing and day-to-day accomplishments, all come from Hashem. The awareness that he owes all of life’s blessings to the One Above stimulates constant gratefulness and appreciation.
A ma’amin wakes up in the morning and says Modeh Ani, thank You, Hashem, for giving me another day of life. He davens and says Modim, “I thank You for all Your miracles, wonders and favors that sustain me.” He sits down to breakfast, thanking Hashem both before and after he eats. Gratitude to Hashem for another 24 hours of life, and hope for His continued munificence, set the tone for the rest of his day.
He doesn’t permit his ego to block his awareness of his dependence on his Creator. He doesn’t feel diminished as a human being when he expresses appreciation to Hashem for His guiding hand in every facet of life.
He is not too conceited to recognize that there is someone above him who watches over him and cares for him. It doesn’t hurt his ego to be thankful every waking moment. And since he knows that Hashem sustains him, he knows that Hashem created the world and he knows that he must follow the commandments Hashem laid out in the Torah in order for him to thrive in this world.
Both as appreciation to Hashem for all of the kindness he extends towards us and because he recognizes that the Creator has placed us here for a purpose, the believer engages in teshuva in order to bring himself closer to his Maker. Hakoras hatov is an integral part of his personality and he understands that, if for no other reason than hakoras hatov he has to keep the mitzvos.
For a ma’amin, hakoras hatov sparks a readiness to reciprocate in some small measure by upholding the Torah, and clinging to His laws. But just as important, hakoras hatov inspires teshuva. It generates the desire to purify oneself, strengthen one’s faith and come closer to the One who protects and nurtures.
Thus, as Rosh Hashanah approaches, the maamin intensifies his efforts to do teshuva in order to please his Maker to the greatest extent possible. He does this out of a sense of appreciation for the good he has, and the recognition that the one who nourishes him has set a code for him to live by.
How is teshuva achieved? It requires a serious cheshbon hanefesh, it requires a person to subjugate his deepest self to intense scrutiny, to seriously review every aspect of his conduct. Yet that is only half the battle.
Once we’ve achieved that painstaking self-assessment, we have to implement our new insights. We have to set about correcting our character flaws, and rectifying all the mistakes and errors of judgments we’ve made.
The process, when performed correctly, can be excruciating. After going through it, we emerge changed people. It is not enough to klop ahl cheit; we have to actually affect our psyches and adopt different behavior. The teshuva process has to humble every being as it reminds him of his proper place in creation, and prompts a greater appreciation of Hashem’s role in his life.
Teshuva brings us back to where we were before we sinned. It sets us straight on the path we should have been on all along and it gives us the energy we need to do it right this time.
Teshuva Triggers Tefillah
Teshuva triggers an outpouring of sincere tefillah. Tefillah is a natural outgrowth of teshuvah. With a fresh awareness of and how small and helpless we really in the face of life’s frightening precariousness, comes a spontaneous outpouring of tefilla, on three levels. We proclaim Hashem’s supremacy over all of existence, thank Him for His daily kindness; and beg that we merit His continuing generosity.
We pray for His salvation for all our troubles, individually and collectively, and for a year of health, happiness and success.
Middos tovos and proper ethics is a pre-requisite for teshuva, for if a person is conceited he will never come to recognize that it is not his “koach v’otzem yodo,” which supports his lifestyle, it is not his superior intelligence which earns him his living, but he is totally dependent upon a higher power for all he has. Tikun hamiddos and proper ethics are pre-requisites to teshuva.
A man once arrived in the yeshiva of Kelm. The person sitting next to him by davening noticed that at the portions which called for the return of the shechinah to Zion, the distinguished-looking visitor lingered and uttered the words with great devotion. However person rushed through the prayers requesting personal sustenance. The talmid who observed this conduct discussed it with the Alter.
The Alter of Kelm explained that the person, despite his impressive outer appearance, was in fact not really a great ma’amin. When it comes to himself, he believes that he controls his life and arranges his own success, and doesn’t require G-d’s help. When it comes to other areas, he prays that Hashem affect the change everyone is awaiting.
As long as a person is conceited and continues to believe in “kochi v’otzem yodi,” that his success is due to his superior intelligence, his ga’avah will render him incapable of repenting. He will be unable to reach the level of understanding required to draw himself closer to his master and will wallow in sin and self indulgence even as he goes through the motions of religiosity.
A person with an untamed ego will not be able to thoroughly examine himself and his actions in order to repent; his ego will blind him from recognizing that he is not in charge, that he has to subjugate himself to his Creator’s will.
How often does it happen that you try to show someone the truth about something and despite the absolute clarity, the person refuses to listen? You can patiently work through an issue, take it apart piece by piece and reconstruct it to forcefully drive home the truth. All to no avail because the person you are trying to reason with can’t sidestep his ego and view the matter objectively.
Ga’avah is one of yeitzer horah’s favorite tools. It prevents a person from comprehending what is obvious to everyone else. It derails a person from properly preparing for Rosh Hashana and from becoming a special person.
Enlisting Chochmah In The Battle
In the face of the yeitzer horah’s constant maneuvers, we have to throw our energies into seeking strategies to offset the many challenges that prevent us from becoming better people. One of the most effective strategies, the Gemorah tells us, is chochmah.
The posuk in Mishlei states, “emor lechochmah achosi aht.” The Gemorah in Brachos, 17a, explains that the ultimate goal of chochmah is teshuva and maasim tovim.
In order to overcome the roadblocks put in place by the yeitzer horah, we have to strengthen our ability to use chochmah. Only with chochmah can we subdue the yeitzer, as the posuk states, Betachbulos ta’aseh milchomoh, in order to fight your enemy – the yeitzer horah – you have to use chochmah to outwit him.
The route to chochma is through learning sifrei mussar which touch our inner core and put us back on course, following the literal translation of the word teshuva -to return.
A Day of Redemption
Another powerful weapon available to us is embedded in the Yom HaDin itself. The Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 11a) states that Rosh Hashanah is the day on which Yosef was freed from the Mitzri jail, as well as the day that marked the end of crushing slavery for the Jews in Miztrayim. 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 horah and to the web of desires that ensnare us. The avodas hayom and its built in redemptive power can return us to an earlier, more ennobled state before we strayed.
Once a person reaches that higher level of spiritual awareness brought on by teshuva, 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 teshuva and tefillah, he has a growing awareness that it is not enough to care for himself and satisfy his own indulgences, but he must share his blessings with others.
Become A Giver
Ga’avah prevents a person from helping others; he looks down upon them and views them askance from a distance with a measure of scorn and hate. His bad middah keeps him from using his gifts to help others; he looks down upon them and views them as somehow deficient, inferior to himself.
But once the baal teshuvah repents he becomes a moikir tov to the Ribono Shel Olam and thus proves that his convictions have been corrected and his priorities straightened out. He has come to recognize that he is not all-powerful, and that he is dependant upon the grace of Hashem for his wisdom, wealth, health and happiness. He has attained a new level of contentment reserved for those who are humble and walk in the path of Hashem.
This thought echoes the oft-repeated comment of Rav Yisroel of Salant that the way to prevail on the Yom Hadin is to behave selflessly, helping and giving to others, and becoming involved in improving the klal. A communal-minded person indicates by his altruism and benevolence that he recognizes his mission; to emulate Hashem by being a giver. A baal tzedakah who conducts himself l’shem shomayim, is, in essence, the truest manifestation of a makir tov.
When teshuva, tefillah, and tzedokah flow naturally, it indicates that a person 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 teshuva, tefillah, utzedokah maavirim es roah hagezeirah.
May we all reach that lofty level, and may we find favor in Hashem’s eyes so that He bless us all with a Kesiva Vachsimah Tova.