By Mordechai Lewis
Rabbi Avraham Danzig states, “Although teshuvah is accepted at any time, the month of Elul is a time when teshuvah is more readily accepted because it has been designated as days of favor ever since we were chosen to be His nation.”
(1) What does teshuvah mean?
Most people translate it as repentance. However, the word teshuvah is derived from “Sashuv el Hashem,” [you shall] return to G-d. In other words, returning to the path G-d set for us when we were born, the path that our souls recognize as homebound, the path of goodness of becoming a better person, a different person, not a perfect person.
(2) Where does teshuvah come from?
Teshuvah is listed as one of seven things created before the universe because without it, the universe could not endure.
(3) How powerful is teshuvah?
It’s equal to all other mitzvos and reaches unto the Divine Throne of Glory. It eradicates a person’s transgressions so that no blemishes remain on his soul. The gates of teshuvah are forever open. There is nothing that stands in the way of teshuvah. Even if one has sunk to the very depths of the swamp of evil, everything can be turned around, for no one is permanently banished from G-d. It hastens the unfolding of the ultimate redemption!
4) What type of teshuvah does Yom Kippur not atone for?
Transgressions committed against our fellow man. Carl W. Buehner once said, “They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.” Therefore, if you have done your fellow man a slight wrong, let it be a serious matter in your eyes. In fact, Rav Shlomo Ganzfried, zt’l, tells us that on erev Rosh Hashanah a person should do teshuvah regarding transgressions committed against his fellow man. You shouldn’t wait until erev Yom Kippur to ask forgiveness of your friends, neighbors and family. Rather, do it right away. As the Gemara states, “The zealous are early to [perform] mitzvos.”
When asking one for forgiveness, one is obligated to ask his friend for forgiveness privately. Furthermore, if you transgressed against your fellow man, even if only with words, you must ask for forgiveness. Also, you are obligated to go personally to ask him for forgiveness. However, if it is difficult for you to do so or if you understand that he will be reconciled more easily through an intermediary, you should appease him through an intermediary.
Rav Moshe ben Maimon says that when the offender asks you for forgiveness, you should forgive him with a sincere mind and a willing spirit. Conversely, when asking someone for forgiveness, you must acknowledge that your actions hurt the other person. One should ask the victim for forgiveness on one’s own (i.e., privately). If that fails, one is obligated to approach him three times with three of his friends.
To what extent should you forgive the offender? Even if he tormented you a great deal, you should not take revenge or bear a grudge.
However, you are permitted to tell someone that you do not forgive him if you do so for his welfare. Rav Yisrael Meir HaKohen Kagan adds that this is only to ensure that he will not repeat his wrong. Still, you should forgive him in your heart.
If you feel certain that the person who is asking you for forgiveness is insincere, you are not obligated to forgive him.
If someone slandered you, you are not obligated to forgive him. Nevertheless, it is praiseworthy for you to do so anyway, even if you find it very difficult.
We are forbidden to be cruel toward someone who sincerely seeks our forgiveness; rather, we must forgive him wholeheartedly.
How praiseworthy is forgiving someone? The Gemara says, “One who overcomes his natural inclination to be offended or hurt merits forgiveness for all of his transgressions.” Rashi explains that a person who “does not stand on principle” is someone who is not exacting with people who cause him grief, overcomes his impulses [for vengeance], and just continues on his way. We also find that whoever is compassionate to people, Heaven will be compassionate to him.
Rav Shlomo Ganzfried, zt’l, concludes, “If the offender does not take the initiative to come to you asking for forgiveness, you should present yourself to the offender in order that [the offender] should ask your forgiveness. If a person does not banish hatred [from his heart] on Yom Kippur, his tefillos will not be heard, G-d forbid, but if you are tolerant and forgiving, all your transgressions will be forgiven.” Nevertheless, if someone did something to you that you feel is unforgivable, consult with your rebbe or your rav on how to deal with the situation.
(5) Regarding teshuvah
(a) How does one begin?
First, one needs to desire the will to do teshuvah and then Hashem will assist him. Rav Yisrael Salanter says, “It is known that effectively changing one’s nature can only come about through significant learning and conditioning. Therefore, the primary foundation and correct pillar with which to prepare oneself to be guarded from transgression and to perform mitzvos is the comprehensive study of that particular law or mitzvah. Specifically, it is learning with detailed analysis [that will be effective], since it is this type of study that makes a strong acquisition in the soul and that will thus result in distancing the transgression from one’s nature.”
(b) What book should one read?
As the saying goes: “Different strokes for different folks.” Here are a few books:
The Power of Teshuvah by Rabbi Heshy Kleinman; Reclaiming the Self by DovBer Pinson; Tal Chayim by Rav Shmuel Tal; Teshuvah, Restoring Life by Rabbi Reuven Leuchter.
How does an individual determine what he needs to rectify?
Rav Tzadok HaKohen Rabinowitz of Lublin tells us that in the area in which his yetzer hara pulls him the most, he is a most fitting receptacle to become exceptionally pure and innocent. In that area where he has transgressed many times, he can become totally cleansed and pure of heart.”
Rav Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, known as the Steipler Gaon, says that when one overcomes his yetzer hara and withstands the test, Hashem’s Name is sanctified greatly and the person’s merit is awesome and wondrous. Even in this world, the person will, in the long run, see gratification. For any pleasure from which a person refrains so as to honor Heaven will be repaid to him in another way, in a permissible manner, over the course of time.
Yet, understand, that no matter how low one sinks, no matter how deeply he is immersed in a web of immoral thought and behavior, he is still obligated in all the Torah’s mitzvos and will receive a reward in the Next World for performing them. However, the reward will be granted only after his soul has been purified of the transgressions he has committed.
Elsewhere, he states, “Through overcoming his desires, one brings great sanctification of Hashem … and merits incredible heavenly assistance in all matters, be it in studying Torah or improving one’s character and even in matters pertaining to this world.”
(6) What should one’s outlook on teshuvah be?
Strengthen yourself with teshuvah; do not slacken. Hope is not lost, and there is a reward for your efforts. We can never say to ourselves that we are so deeply entrenched in sin that nothing can help us. With courage and conviction, we can move forward in teshuvah, knowing that Hashem will help. A person who does teshuvah should not imagine that he is distant from being righteous on account of his past. It is not so. Rather, he is beloved and cherished before the Creator as if he never transgressed.
All Hashem requires of us is that we take the first step, as in, “Open for Me a tiny opening of teshuvah — return back to Me — and I will open for you openings through which wagons can pass.” The Creator is telling us, “Whatever you are capable of doing with your own strength, do it.” For the Gemara states, “G-d does not make matters difficult for His creatures. However, He does expect a person to perform according to his capacity.” Nevertheless, one who seeks to purify himself from his transgression, Heaven will assist him and, ultimately, he will gain the upper hand.
Rav Tzadok HaKohen Rabinowitz of Lublin says a fundamental concept:
“Just as one must believe in Hashem, so, too, one must believe in himself.” Meaning, Hashem wants us to believe in our strengths, capabilities, and ability to overcome evil and achieve greatness. In the words of Rav Scheinberg, “Serving the Almighty properly involves constant challenges, which takes consistency and persistence to succeed … only fools give up hope.”
With Hashem’s help, in the merit of returning to Him, may He bring us back to the Land that our forefathers possessed!
Dedicated in memory of Rivka bas Rav Eliyahu, Shlomo Avraham Moshe ben Yechezkeil Yosef, Rochel bas Menachem Mendel Boruch, Eliyahu ben Mordechai, Mashah Tzivyah bas R’ Shlomo Zalman, Altah Soshah Devorah bas Aryeh Leibush, Chaim ben Shmuel Efraim Zalman, Tuvyah Shlomo ben Naftali Tzvi HaKohein, Leah bas Leib Yehudah, Esther Perel bas R’ Shlomo, Miriam bas Zelig Shaul, Menachem ben Shimon, Menachem ben Zev, Sarah bas HaRav Yisroel, Zushe Yosef ben Shmuel Tzvi, Yosef ben Moshe HaLevi, and all the other departed souls of our nation.
For the complete recovery of Chayah Malka bas Bas-Sheva, among the other sick ones of our nation.
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