By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
The Mishnah in Maseches Yoma (85b) says, “Ha’omer echtah v’oshuv, echtah v’oshuv, ein maspikin beyado la’asos teshuvah, echtah v’Yom Hakippurim mechaper, ein Yom Hakippurim mechaper – A person who says, ‘I will sin and I will do teshuvah, I will sin and I will do teshuvah,’ does not merit that Hashem helps him to do teshuvah. If a person says, ‘I will sin and Yom Kippur will forgive my aveiros anyway,’ Yom Kippur doesn’t atone for him.”
Contemplating the words of this Gemara, we see a wonderful thing.
The person who says he will sin and then repents for his sin and then reverts to sinning again and says that he will repent for his misdeeds is admonished by Chazal. Though essentially a sinner, held captive by his desires and too weak to achieve teshuvah, he does have a positive attribute through which he can move forward if he so desires. He has the will to do teshuvah.
The other person the Mishnah refers to sins and doesn’t engage in any acts of repentance. He expects the holiness of Yom Kippur itself to cleanse him without him doing anything. He, the Mishnah says, has nothing. He merits no atonement at all.
The first person is weak. He is misguided. However, he appreciates the need for teshuvah and acts of repentance follow his sinning. Tragically, his weakness and inability to maintain the new and proper path he has adopted leaves him lacking and he reverts to his improper behavior.
He wants to improve. He wishes to become closer to Hashem. But he is weak. He isn’t strong enough to overcome his yeitzer hara. He thinks that he can both enjoy the sin and the teshuvah. Such a person cannot receive any help from Shomayim to do teshuvah.
But the second person the Gemara refers to is even worse. He refuses to be shaken from his complacency. He doesn’t even make an attempt to repent and mend his ways.
The omer echtah v’oshuv knows how to do teshuvah and is confident in its power, but he lacks the willpower and the ability to shift his perspective and realize that his act of teshuvah can be lasting, and that through his teshuvah the gates of heaven will open for him. He is so close to the path that leads all the way to the Kisei Hakavod, yet he is far from arriving at his salvation.
The one who says, “Echtah v’ashuv,” is too complacent and apathetic to realize his mistaken notion that he can enjoy the best of both worlds. Complacency and apathy are the strongest factors holding a person back from change. The lazy person’s attitude that everything is fine and can continue as it is holds him back from achievement. To engage in proper teshuvah, a person must have the awareness that it is demanded of him to do better and achieve more.
If we set our minds and hearts to use the kochos that Hashem blessed us with to behave properly and to accomplish His will, we will receive the support we need – maspikin beyado la’asos teshuvah.
The Torah addresses this condition in Parshas Nitzovim (Devorim 29:18): “Pen yeish bochem… shoresh poreh rosh velana, vehisboreich belevavo leimor shalom yihiye li – Perhaps there is among you a bad person… and he will bless himself saying, ‘I will have peace, though I do as my heart sees fit.'” The Torah warns a person who is apathetic, deluding himself into thinking that his blessings will continue, that his life will be pleasant and peaceful, and that he doesn’t have to engage in teshuvah and correct his behavior. Such a person is promised that his end will be bitter.
The words that the Torah uses to refer to this symptom of complacency, “shoresh poreh rosh velana,” begin with the letters that spell out shofar. This hints to the fact that the mitzvah of sounding the shofar is designed to shake man out of his complacency and shatter his smug sense of self-satisfaction. To repent, one must shout out to Hashem, “Hashiveini v’ashuvah! Help me. Bring me back. Korveini la’avodosecha. Assist me so that I can serve You.”
This is what the Rambam means when he writes in Hilchos Teshuvah (2:4) that “the way of teshuvah is for the ‘shov‘ to be tzo’eik tomid lifnei Hashem. The person doing teshuvah is constantly crying out from the depths of his heart to Hashem.” He cries out and proclaims that he wants to return holiness to his life. He knows that his sins have created separation between him and Hashem, and he wants help to break that mechitzah hamavdeles and return to Hashem’s embrace.
He now knows that the climb is impossible. Without Hashem’s assistance, he will never get back to where he has to be. He makes the effort. “Pischu li pesach kepischo shel machat,” says the Ribono Shel Olam. One opens the door a crack and thus taps into the tremendous reservoir of assistance available to him. “Va’ani eftach lochem pesach kepischo shel ulam.” The wellsprings of chizuk and siyata dishmaya are availed to the baal teshuvah, enabling him to walk through the door of redemption.
Chazal praise the baal teshuvah (Brachos 34), stating that he merits reaching higher levels than even true tzaddikim. The language of the Gemara is, “Bemakom shebaalei teshuvah omdim ein taddikim gemurim yecholim la’amod.” Perhaps we can explain that concept as such. The baal teshuvah has traveled a path that called for crying out for Hashem’s help and grasping His outstretched hand. He has established a special relationship with his Maker.
The baal teshuvah, who was rachok, far removed, from Hashem is now karov, and in order to get there, he required the assistance of the Ribbono Shel Olam at every juncture of his development. The tzaddik who was always karov never required that supernatural Divine assistance to rescue him from the depths of richuk.
This concept is similar to the message we are taught in the posuk (Bereishis 6:9) which states, “Es ha’Elokim hishalech Noach – Noach walked with Hashem.” Chazal, quoted by Rashi (ibid.), differentiate Noach from Avrohom Avinu and say that Noach required Hashem to walk with him, while Avrohom was able to walk by himself.
The baal teshuvah walks with Hakadosh Boruch Hu, Who, kevayachol, waited patiently for him to return. This is much like a parent who helps his child take his first baby steps, leading him by the hand, and then looking on, always close by, hovering, watching, and encouraging.
The Gemara in Maseches Nedorim (40a) states, “Omar Rav: Minayin shehaShechinah sheruyoh lemaaloh mimitaso shel choleh – Rav says: From where do we know that the Shechinah rests above the bed of a sick person?” The Gemara brings a proof from a baraisa which states that one who visits a sick person must be careful about where he sits, because the Shechinah rests above the head of a choleh.
With this, we may be able to further understand the aforementioned Gemara in Maseches Brachos, which states that tzaddikim cannot stand in the company of baalei teshuvah. Although the Gemara is commonly understood as meaning that the baal teshuvah is on a higher level than the tzaddik, it is difficult to comprehend that a person who never sinned is not as worthy as one who sinned but repented.
However, if we understand that the baal teshuvah is like Noach, who merited for Hashem to walk alongside him coaxing him, then we can understand the lashon of the Gemara of “bemakom shebaalei teshuvah omdim.” This is akin to the baraisa which states that one must be careful about how he sits when visiting the sick because of the Shechinah being present there.
In the place where baalei teshuvah stand, tzaddikim cannot stand, to signify that Hashem is there helping the baal teshuvah. The baal teshuvah reached out and cried out, “Hashiveinu Hashem eilecha venoshuvah,” and Hashem responded to him, “Shuvu eilay v’ashuvah aleichem.” The baal teshuvah doesn’t walk alone. Hashem walks alongside him, supporting him, holding him up, and keeping him straight and on the proper path.
The story is told about a prominent family of marbitzei Torah who have their roots in a Russian shtetel. The hamlet their parents lived in had no cheder. When their father passed away at an early age, their mother, wanting to ensure that her beloved young son Yankel would have an opportunity to learn Torah, felt that she had no choice but to send him to a neighboring city which boasted a cheder of its own.
The boy was very young, and tears flowed as he and his mother parted ways at the train station. She assured Yankel that as soon as she would be able to visit him, she would.
Little Yankel went on the train and made his way to the bigger town and joined the cheder there. He acclimated to the city and succeeded in learning. The Second World War broke out and the widowed mother, weighed down by her usual duties and trying to stay alive, worried constantly about her son. But the war made travel extremely difficult and dangerous, and the much-anticipated trip to her son was regularly delayed.
Five years passed from the day Yankel had departed. Finally, the mother set out for the big city to reconnect with her son.
As the train approached the city, her anticipation to see her beloved child mounted with each clickety-clack of the wheels rolling along the tracks. Finally, with a creak and a hiss, the train pulled into the ramshackle station and she descended from the train. Her son, Yankel, was standing there, waiting to greet her.
She embraced the young boy, who had clearly thrived and flourished during the years that passed. She asked Yankel how he knew that she was coming. How did he know to be waiting for her at the train station?
Yankel told her his secret.
“I didn’t just come today, Mama,” he said. “Every time the train from our town came to this city, I was here at the station waiting for you. And when you weren’t on it, I went back and checked the schedule for when the next train would come. I was here at the station each time waiting for you. That is what I did for five years. I never gave up.”
“But Yankel,” the emotional mother asked, “how did you do it for five years? You never gave up?”
“No, Mama,” said the young man. “No. Veil oib ah mama zokt az zi vet kumen, vet zi kumen. I knew you were coming, Mama. If a mother tells her child that she will be coming, then she will come!”
Just as Yankel was confident back then in war-ravaged Russia, so are we confident today wherever we are. Hashem promised us, “Shuvu eilay v’ashuvah aleichem. Return to Me and I will return to you. Do teshuvah. Follow what I have told you to do. Seek to approach me and I will return to you. I will be there for you.”
Hashiveinu Hashem eilecha venoshuvah.
That is where we stand now, during the forty days between Rosh Chodesh Elul and Yom Kippur. Hakadosh Boruch Hu is waiting for us to appear. He is waiting for us to do teshuvah and break down the mechitzah that separates us from him. And when Hakadosh Boruch Hu tells us, “Shuvu eilay v’ashuvah aleichem,” we can trust Him that He will be there for us.
How, it is often asked, do the two days of Rosh Hashanah fit into the theme of Aseres Yemei Teshuvah? After all, there is no mention of teshuvah in the tefillos of these two days. In fact, according to the Arizal, one should not even say “Avinu Malkeinu chotonu lefanecha,” for on the Yom Hadin, the Day of Judgment, we do not hint at sin.
Perhaps we can understand this along the lines of what we have discussed. The beginning of the path of teshuvah is realizing that there is a partnership between us and Hashem. He wishes for us to reach out and cry for help, and then He will be there to help us along. Ki anu amecha v’ata Elokeinu. We work together. Shuvu alei v’ashuvah aleichem.
The two days of Rosh Hashanah aren’t about a particular sin, but about realizing our unique bond with Hashem and seeking to reconnect. Once we have brought ourselves to the understanding of that vital bond and we recognize that the connection has frayed and we have grown distant because of our sins, we can set out during the remaining days to return to Hashem through teshuvah.
When the Alter of Slabodka left Europe to join the branch the yeshiva had established in Chevron, the talmidim who remained behind were distraught at having to bid farewell to their rebbi. When the carriage came to take him to the train station, the students ran alongside it, hoping to hear one more word or one more thought from their master.
Even as the carriage began to move, the Alter spoke to the talmidim, opening the window so they could hear him clearly. Then, as the carriage picked up speed, he left them with one final thought:
“Men vil em machen grois, ubber ehr lust nisht – We want to make him great, but he resists.”
The talmidim understood the message. The Alter’s focus in Slabodka had been on gadlus ha’odom, on helping his students realize the greatness inherent in man, and how much potential and ability they each possessed. But they made it hard. They resisted. Thus, the great mussar personality, who molded the figures who would brilliantly create a post-war Torah renaissance, shared the secret to a life of mussar one last time, on his final voyage from Slabodka. He reminded his talmidim to be cognizant of what man is, and what is expected of him. Gadlus.
Rosh Hashanah is about epitomizing that awareness. If we commit to our mission, Hashem helps us.
The days of Rosh Hashanah play an integral part of the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, because they grant us the strength to become baalei teshuvah. Once we know who we are, what is expected of us, and how much He wants to help us, we can march together – anu tzonecha ve’Atah Ro’einu – on the path leading to the mechilas avonos of Yom Kippur.
Hashem knows that come tekias shofar, we will be there as one, longing to return. We know that He will be there too, waiting to lead us along.
Because as Yankel said long ago on that train platform, “Oib ah mama zokt az zi vet kumen, vet zi kumen.” She will come. The Shechinah has promised us “v’ashuvah Aleichem.” We know that the Shechinah will be there for us.
There was once an important gathering of askonim and rabbonim taking place in the home of the Chazon Ish. The gadol wasn’t there, however, and everyone was waiting for him to come out of the adjoining room to lead the meeting, which was convened in order to reach a fateful decision impacting all the chareidishe Yidden of Eretz Yisroel.
One of the people went to the room and stood behind the door to see what was keeping the Chazon Ish from entering the meeting.
The man was astounded to witness the scene unfolding before him as all the important people waited in the dining room. He saw a middle-aged couple – a man and his wife, he assumed – sitting there, showing sundry items to the gadol hador and asking his opinion about them.
“Should we buy this button?” they asked. “What does the rebbe hold of this spool of thread? Should we buy it?”
After observing this going on for a couple of minutes, the rov who was watching couldn’t contain himself and allowed himself to be seen by the Chazon Ish. When they made eye contact, he motioned that everyone was on shpilkes in the other room. “Why are you paskening on buttons and threads while all of Klal Yisroel is waiting for you?” mouthed the rov very respectfully.
The Chazon Ish went to the door and told the rov that the man and woman were Holocaust survivors who landed in Eretz Yisroel with nothing. He convinced them to put together some money and open a small store selling sewing supplies.
“They are afraid to spend any money on their own,” explained the Chazon Ish, “so every week they come to me and show me various items they are considering buying for the store. I help them decide which items they should purchase.”
“But rebbe,” the rov protested, “the whole world is waiting in the other room for the decision we have to make. What is more important, der gantzer velt or buttons?”
The Chazon Ish looked the man in the eye and responded, “Dos iz der gantzer velt!”
Every Yid is ah gantzer velt. Every Yid‘s problems are a gantzer velt. The success of every Yid is der gantzer velt. And if that’s the way the Chazon Ish viewed Yidden, we can be certain that that is the way Hakadosh Boruch Hu views Yidden. He waits for us to come to him, and when we come, He has all the time in the world for us.
We proclaim in the Yomim Noraim davening, “Vechol maaminim shehu pesucha yado.” We all believe that Hashem’s Hand is open to sustain us if we only come to Him. He calls out to us, “Shuvu bonim shovevim. Come back to Me, My dear children. Show Me your buttons. Show Me your yarn. Tell Me what ails you and what I can do to help, and I will be there for you, for you are My world. You are what is most important, especially on Rosh Hashanah, when you all pass Me by kevnei maron.”
In the Rosh Hashanah davening, we praise Hashem as the One who is “posei’ach shaar ledofkei b’seshuvah – opens the gate for those who knock on it seeking to do teshuvah.”
The mussar greats of old would, with great emotion, repeat pesukim, maamorei Chazal, and other words of inspiration to bring them to teshuvah. Rav Yaakov Galinsky recounts that in Novardok, they would say that the Alter of Kelm once conducted such a mussar session for seven hours. For the entire duration, with tears flowing, he repeated the words, “Pischu li shaarei tzedek, avo vom odeh Koh.” Then, suddenly, he jumped up from his place and screamed out, “Es iz doch offen! Farvos geit men nit arein? – The door is open! Why don’t we go in?”
Pischu li. The door is open. Let us all rush in.
Kesivah vachasimah tovah. A gut gebentcht yohr.