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Parshas Shoftim (5777)

Ten Things You May Not Know About Teshuvah (Repentance)

The Hebrew month of Elul has just begun. Elul is traditionally a time for reflection, introspection - and teshuvah – in preparation for Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment. This is a serious time of year – as our very lives are hanging in the balance - and should not be taken lightly.

To help us all get into an “Elul state of mind” so that we can repent properly, I would like to share with you a list of 10 things you may not know about Teshuvah:

1) Teshuvah is one of the greatest gifts that G-d has ever given to Man. I mean, think about it for a second. A person sins against G-d or his fellow man and then he repents and G-d accepts his repentance and erases his sin! Amazing! How fortunate we are that G-d is so full of mercy and love that even after we mess up He gives us a chance to repent!

2) Although most people translate the word teshuvah as “repentance”, the term literally means “return”. And they are not the same. Repentance denotes “changing oneself” and becoming different, while teshuvah/return implies “coming back to oneself”. The essence of teshuvah is the realization that the real me is my pure, untainted neshamah (soul) and that the sins that I committed don’t define who I am. Teshuvah is thus “returning” to my true self.

3) There are many steps to the teshuvah process. [In fact, Rabbeinu Yonah, the great medieval Torah scholar who literally wrote the book on teshuvah called Shaarei Teshuvah (“Gateways of Teshuvah”), lists 20 levels of teshuvah that one can achieve. However, lucky for us, the main components of teshuvah are only three, and they are: charatah, sincerely regretting the sin; azivas ha’cheit, resolving not to sin again and taking active steps to ensure that the sin is not repeated; and viduy, verbally confessing the sin before G-d. These three steps are the minimum requirements necessary for one’s teshuvah to be accepted by G-d.

4) Through proper teshuvah, one can restore his purity and regain closeness with G-d as if he never sinned. In fact, he can reach even greater heights than before. A person who completes all twenty steps of teshuvah attains the most complete atonement and reaches the greatest level of attachment to G-d. Thus the Sages taught: “In the place where Baalei Teshuvah (“Masters of Repentance”) stand, even complete Tzaddikim (righteous people who never sinned) cannot stand” (Talmud Sanhedrin 99a).

5) According to many Halachic authorities, doing teshuvah for our sins is actually a Biblical commandment and is counted as one of the 613 commandments in the Torah. In fact, we have been urged about the need to repent in many places in the Torah (see, for example, Numbers 5:7; Deuteronomy 4:29-30). This means that teshuvah is not an “option”, it is an obligation.

6) Although one can always do teshuvah, G-d has set aside the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur inclusively as the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah (the “Ten Days of Repentance”). During these ten days, G-d makes Himself “closer” to us, and this makes it easier for us to repent and do teshuvah for our sins at this critical time of the year.

7) There are many motivations that can inspire a person to do teshuvah for his sins and to return to G-d. Sometimes it’s a sickness that befalls a person and that makes him stop and take a good hard look at his life and in what areas he might need some improvement. Or maybe when a person is old and frail and he senses that his end is near, he might then be motivated to do teshuvah for his sins to “come clean” before he returns his soul to his Maker. But one doesn’t have to wait until that point. As Rabbeinu Yonah points out in Shaarei Teshuvah (2:14), the knowledge that on Rosh Hashanah he will judged for life or death in the coming year and the decree will be sealed on Yom Kippur should make any G-d-fearing Jew tremble with fear and do teshuvah right away.

8) Three times a day we pray to G-d to help us do teshuvah for our sins. In the fifth blessing of the Shemoneh Esrei (“Silent Prayer”) we beseech G-d: “Bring us back, our Father, to Your Torah, and bring us near, our King, to Your service, and help us return in perfect repentance before You. Blessed are You, G-d, Who desires repentance.” Doing proper teshuvah isn’t easy, and we certainly can use G-d’s help.

9) As with everything else in Judaism, doing teshuvah is not all-or-nothing. You may not be able to recall all the people you have wronged over the years. Or you may have forgotten about many of the sins you committed between you and G-d. Or maybe you just don’t know how to stop a particular bad behavior of yours. And that’s okay. You just have to try. This much you can do. This coming week, resolve to sit down with a paper and pen (remember those?) and think of at least one “sin” or otherwise negative behavior on which you can do teshuvah. Recognize that you have been wrong, sincerely regret your actions, and take active steps to ensure that this behavior will stop. And don’t forget to verbally confess your sin to G-d the next time you speak to Him.

10) There is a tradition that if every Jew would do teshuvah and turn to G-d even for a single day, the redemption would immediately come. As the Torah promises us in Deuteronomy 30:2-3: “If you return to G-d your L-ord, and listen to His voice, doing everything that I am commanding you today … G-d will then bring back your remnants and have mercy on you. G-d your L-ord will once again gather you from among all the nations where He has scattered you.” Let’s hope we all live to see that day!

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