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Parshas Shoftim (5776)

Do You Believe in Teshuvah?

One of the greatest gifts that G-d gave us is the gift of Teshuvah (“repentance”, or “return” to G-d).

I mean, think about it! A person can commit the worst sins – but if he sincerely regrets his actions (and, in the case of sins between man and his fellow man, asks forgiveness from the person he wronged), makes a solid commitment not to return to his previous behavior, and verbally confess his misdeeds, G-d will accept his Teshuvah and he will be completely forgiven!! Is that not a great gift or what?!

This explains why the Talmud in Ta’anis 28b calls the fast of Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement) “one of the happiest holidays” on the Jewish calendar. After all, it is the day upon which G-d promises to wipe our slate clean if we return to Him and do a proper Teshuvah, just as He did for our ancestors after they sinned with the Golden Calf!

This raises a serious question: If indeed Teshuvah is such an amazing gift, why do so few people do it? After all, it’s not rocket science. Pretty soon we are going to be standing before G-d on Rosh Hashanah to be judged for our actions of the previous year, and He has given us a relatively easy way to retroactively wipe away all our bad deeds. So why aren’t more people ‘taking G-d up’ on this incredible offer, especially at this time of year just before Rosh Hashanah??

I would like to suggest that part of the reason why doing Teshuvah is not as popular as it should be is because many of us don’t truly believe that it works. To our minds, Teshuvah doesn’t work, indeed, it can’t work. We think to ourselves, can this Teshuvah process actually rid us of our sins? After all, we did some really bad stuff. And all G-d asks of us is to say we’re truly sorry and then we go back to the way things were before we messed up? It seems so hard to believe!

Hard or not, we must believe in the gift of Teshuvah for us to start doing it and for it to actually work. And to help us appreciate this gift – and to see just how much power it has to wipe our slate clean – I would like to share with you an excerpt from the commentary of the great Jewish scholar and philosopher Maimonides (1135-1204) in his Mishneh Torah, The Laws of Repentance, Chapter Seven (translation into English courtesy of Chabad.org):

“A Baal-Teshuvah [one who sins and repents] should not consider himself distant from the level of the righteous because of the sins and transgressions that he committed. This is not true. He is beloved and desirable before the Creator as if he never sinned.

Furthermore, he has a great reward, for he has tasted sin and yet separated himself from it, conquering his [evil] inclination. Our Sages declared: "In the place where Baalei Teshuvah stand, even the completely righteous are not able to stand." The level of Baalei Teshuvah transcends the level of those who never sinned at all, for they overcome their [evil] inclination more….

Teshuvah brings near those who were far removed. Previously, this person was hated by G-d, disgusting, far removed, and abominable. Now, he is beloved and desirable, close, and dear….

How exalted is the level of Teshuvah! Previously, the [transgressor] was separate from G-d, the L-ord of Israel, as [Isaiah 59:2] states: "Your sins separate between you and your G-d." He would call out [to G-d] without being answered, as [Isaiah 1:15] states: "Even if you pray many times, I will not hear." He would fulfill mitzvos, only to have them crushed before him, as [Isaiah 1:12] states: "Who asked this from you, to trample in My courts," and [Malachi 1:10] states: "`O were there one among you who would shut the doors that you might not kindle fire on My altar for no reason! I have no pleasure in you,' says the G-d of Hosts, `nor will I accept an offering from your hand.'”

Now [after doing Teshuvah], he is clinging to the Shechinah [the Divine Presence], as [Deuteronomy 4:4] states: "And you who cling to G-d, your L-ord.” He calls out [to G-d] and is answered immediately, as [Isaiah 65:24] states: "Before you will call out, I will answer." He fulfills mitzvos and they are accepted with pleasure and joy, as [Ecclesiastes 9:7] states, "G-d has already accepted your works," and [Malachi 3:4] states: "Then, shall the offering of Judah and Jerusalem be pleasing to G-d as in days of old and as in the former years."

These beautiful words of Maimonides should help us realize just how fortunate we are to have been given this gift of Teshuvah – which can take us from being ‘despised’ by G-d because of our sins to being ‘beloved’ and ‘dear’ to Him. The fact that the Teshuvah process works the amazing way that it does is a testament to G-d’s immense love for us and how much He wants us to return to Him.

These few weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah let us make sure to use the gift of Teshuvah that G-d lovingly gave us – and wipe away all our sins and transgressions once and for all!

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