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13 Ellul 5760 - September 13, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Opinion & Comment
How to Do Teshuvah

by HaRav Yitzchok Yeruchom Bordiansky

During Elul, Maran the mashgiach of Yeshivas Ponevezh, HaRav Yechezkel Levenstein zt'l, would advise the students to designate certain topics to concentrate on primarily during the coming year. He would urge them to adopt the contemporary gedolim's guidance not only in matters affecting Klal Yisroel but in questions of how to conduct one's private life, too. The gedolei Torah have always instructed yeshiva talmidim to be mindful to daven consistently in the yeshiva's beis midrash, to fix times for studying mussar and halocho, to follow the yeshiva's study schedule carefully, to beware of the various sorts of gezel, including gezel sheinah, and to behave strictly according to the takonos of behavior established by the roshei yeshivos for their talmidim. Each ben Torah should cling to his rav and seek individual guidance from him. In this way he will fulfill "and you shall cling to Him" (Devorim 10:20), as the Rambam (Hilchos Dei'os 6:3) writes, and will come nearer to Hashem and His Torah.

@Big Let Body=If you see a talmid chochom committing an aveiro at night, do not think ill of him in the morning, for he surely did teshuvah" (Brochos 19a). Let us understand this better. Why should we be so confident that this talmid chochom who has sinned has done teshuvah? Is it so easy to do teshuvah?

To make the above Chazal more intelligible let us paraphrase its wording as follows: If you saw a talmid chochom committing an aveiro this year, do not think ill of him during the next year, since Elul and the Yomim Noraim have passed and he has surely done teshuvah.

The Teshuvah of a Talmid Chochom

"An am ho'oretz cannot be a chossid" (Ovos 2:5). Rabbenu Yonah explains this as meaning that "an am ho'oretz is someone who gets along well with others, possesses virtuous attributes and some correct opinions, knows how to beware of aveiros, and can be a tzaddik by doing and fulfilling what he is told that he is commanded to do. However, only a godol beTorah can reach the level of chassidus, since this is a virtue requiring purity of heart and refinement of nefesh, and the am ho'oretz does not have the wisdom to turn himself from the middle course of behavior to its uttermost extreme and do more than the halocho requires."

A talmid chochom, with his power of Torah, being a person who boasts an awakened nefesh, pureness of heart, and elegance of nefesh, can do real teshuvah. Doing teshuvah is not like performing mitzvos, in which it is enough to do what one is told that he is commanded to do.

In the Novardok Yeshiva there was a popular concept called "the am ho'oretz of Rabbenu Yonah," taken from the beginning of Sha'arei Teshuvah (1:3). Rabbenu Yonah writes that "belated teshuvah can be found only in an am ho'oretz, who is sound asleep and does not take matters to heart. Such people possess no intelligence or power of discernment to rescue their souls promptly." The definition of a talmid chochom is therefore the opposite: his nefesh is alert and sensitive.

The Reason Not to Delay Doing Teshuvah

The Sha'arei Teshuvah (1:2) describes the feelings of a talmid chochom who has sinned: "He knows that anger has been aroused against him . . . [but] he can extricate himself from the ruins so that he will not have to be terrified of [Hashem's] anger and wrath." This "terror of anger and wrath" stems from what Moshe Rabbenu said (Devorim 9:19) when he ascended his second time to Mount Sinai after the cheit ho'eigel: "For I was terrified of the anger and wrath with which Hashem was incensed against you to destroy you." The Ramban (ibid.) explains that although this followed "Hashem relented of the evil which He thought to do to His people" (Shemos 32:14), Moshe was still worried about the previous anger and wrath that had resulted from the cheit. Even though the gezeira was retracted, the danger was still great as long as that anger and wrath remained. When Moshe Rabbenu ascended Mount Sinai for the third time, after all of the anger and wrath had lapsed, the period of goodwill began.

"Hashem hearkened to me at that time too, and Hashem would not destroy you" (Devorim 10:10). The Ramban (ibid.) explains that after the anger and wrath had lapsed and Hashem no longer wanted to destroy bnei Yisroel, the period of goodwill "added the presence of His great Name with the nation."

We start off Ma'ariv by saying "He, the Merciful One, is forgiving of iniquity and does not destroy," alluding to the stage of Hashem forgiving us for our aveiros. We continue: "Often He withdraws His anger, not arousing His entire rage," suggesting the stage of cancelling Hashem's anger and wrath. We end by asking, "Hashem, save! May the King answer us on the day we call," implying the last stage, when Hashem's great name is with us -- the full goodwill of Hashem.

A chotei should continually fear Hashem's anger and wrath. Postponement of Divine punishment abates man's fear of Hashem, as Shlomoh Hamelech writes (Koheles 8:11), "Because the sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set within them to do evil." Anger and wrath from Hashem, however, occurs quickly, immediately after the aveiro is committed. The gemora (Rosh Hashanah 16a) writes that a king is judged before the rest of Klal Yisroel, "so that [his judgment] will come before the wrath intensifies." We see that even before the gzar din there is Divine wrath. This has nothing to do with the fact that the final sentence for one's sins (even for tzaddikim gemurim!) comes on Yom Kippur, as the Vilna Gaon writes (Orach Chaim 582, s.v. venohagin). This point, the fear of Hashem's anger and wrath and a chotei's ability to escape it, is what awakens a talmid chochom to do teshuvah immediately.

Is Doing Teshuvah Easy or Difficult?

"Why did you not save your soul at once?" (Sha'arei Teshuvah 1:2). Is it really so easy to do teshuvah?

"But this thing is very near to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it" (Devorim 30:14). The Ramban (v. 11) explains that this posuk is referring to the teshuvah done in later generations -- meaning, among others, our generation. Nonetheless, we cannot ignore the fact that teshuvah done easily has less worth. True teshuvah demands much effort and tremendous kochos hanefesh. It is surely not easily done. The first step, however, is that "He taught them and warned them to return to Him when they sin against Him" (Sha'arei Teshuvah 1:1). This is, as the Mabit writes, that teshuvah is coming nearer to Hashem after the cheit has taken a person far from Him.

Maran the mashgiach, HaRav Yechezkel Levenstein zt'l, compared doing teshuvah to a person who was travelling to Yerushalayim, but in the middle of the way he found out that he was going in the wrong direction. The first step he should take is to change the direction he is facing, a step that is of course not difficult to do. This step, however, is only of value if afterwards he also changes the direction his vehicle is driving in. "Turn us to You, Hashem, and we shall turn" (Eichah 5:21) -- we must change our direction of approach to Hashem and His Torah. A person can do this immediately and continue doing so his whole life. Of course, right afterwards we must change our habitual behavior, so that our initial change of direction will be of worth.

If teshuvah demands enormous sacrifices and a fierce internal battle, extreme effort and persistent attempt to advance in ruchniyus, a lifelong endeavor, how can the Torah say, "But this thing is very near to you"?

Teshuvah is surely a demanding task. The Chovos Halevovos (Sha'ar HaTeshuvah, ch. 2) writes: "There are three types of teshuvah one can do. One [baal teshuvah] is someone who has repented because he did not have a [further] opportunity to do an aveiro. When, however, he once again has the means to sin and his yetzer overcomes his understanding, he will not refrain from sinning. After he finishes committing [the aveiro] he realizes the shamefulness of what he has done and regrets it. Such a person is someone who repents with his mouth and not with his heart, with his tongue and not his actions. Such a person merits the Creator's punishment.

"The second type is the person who repents with his heart and in his acts. He uses his intelligence against his yetzer, trains himself to coerce himself [to do good], and fights his desires until he is victorious over them. In that way he abstains from doing what the Creator detests. His yetzer is always inclined toward the opposite of serving the Creator and longs to do aveiros. He attempts to restrain [his yetzer], and sometimes he will win over it, but sometimes the [yetzer] will win over him. This person's teshuvah is imperfect. He will not have a kaporoh until he moves completely away from doing aveiros."

We must understand that doing teshuvah does not require more than what the Torah already requires from us. The Torah wants a person to progress gradually according to his ability. True, as far as concerns following the Torah's mitzvos there are no different levels of practical observance: everyone is obligated to fulfill the entire Torah, rectify his unsatisfactory middos, improve the way he speaks, and develop his chovos halevovos. This, however, should be done step by step. The Vilna Gaon says in his famous iggeres: "Proper speech and middos need much training, and through this training one can gain control over them."

Teshuvah only requires a person to go in the virtuous way of the Torah as the Torah Sages have explained. Everyone has the ability to advance gradually in spirituality. Rabbenu Yonah (Sha'arei Teshuvah 3:17) writes: "The lofty levels were given to us in the mitzvos aseih . . . and for each one of them there are several levels . . . What hope does a creature [of Hashem] have if he does not labor over his nefesh, and if his main concern is not about the things he was created for?"

Teshuvah requires a person to climb through the Torah's levels. A person's main objective in life is to proceed, to move -- not to remain in one place.

What is the chiddush in doing teshuvah? What is the immediate change a person must feel to be considered a baal teshuvah?

In Or Yisroel (Kochvei Or 6) HaRav Yitzchok Blazer zt'l, the rav of St. Petersburg, writes that there is actually no chiddush about the way teshuvah obligates a person to fulfill the Torah's mitzvos. What teshuvah does innovate is charotoh, vidui, and kabolo le'osid. Merely discontinuing sinning is, however, no chiddush at all.

R' Yitzchok explains that this is what the Torah means when it says "But this thing is very near to you." Proper observance of the Torah is difficult, but it is not the chidush of teshuvah. It is something a Jew must do anyway -- "Someone who has already eaten garlic and a bad odor emits from him should surely not continue eating it" (Brochos 51a) -- and charotoh and kabolo le'osid are not so difficult. The Torah therefore says that doing teshuvah is "very near to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it."

What R' Yitzchok has written is perplexing. There is surely a chidush in doing teshuvah, besides afterwards dutifully fulfilling the Torah. The real way of repenting is to investigate the reasons for sinning: is it our environment, habits, or circumstances that have motivated us to sin? We must attempt to rectify the very roots of sin so that we will not sin again. Furthermore, after a person sees that he does not have enough yiras Shomayim to withstand temptations he must constantly intensify and refresh his power of yirah. This should be done by studying Torah and seforim dealing with yirah, or by utilizing tefillah as a means of strengthening yiras Shomayim. The baal teshuvah must expand the ways he clings to mussar and avoda so that yirah will dominate his nature.

Rabbenu Yonah (1:26) writes: "The baal teshuvah is obligated to acquire the attribute of humility. He must remove from his soul the middos that caused him to sin." Moreover he writes (30) that since ta'avah provokes one to sin he must forego physical pleasures and follow the ways of abstinence.

Perishus (abstinence) -- disengaging oneself from permitted pleasures so as to better use his intelligence and concentrate more on avoda (Mesillas Yeshorim, ch. 10) -- belongs to the lofty level of chassidus. Not every Jew is obligated to follow this path, since not everyone can tolerate it (Mesillas Yeshorim, ch. 13), but a baal teshuvah is required to conform to this level.

Likewise, improving one's middos and refining his yiras Shomayim is surely necessary for a baal teshuvah, although he has not yet realized the need to work on this level of ruchniyus. He must study mussar seforim daily and work on understanding and improving his character traits. Although it is not included among the mitzvos of the Torah, someone who has sinned and wants to repent is required to occupy himself with this avoda. Teshuvah requires a person who has sinned to insure his future success in fulfilling the Torah. We see that new obligations have undoubtedly been added to a person in his avodas hateshuvah, more than what he is regularly obligated to do.

Rabbenu Yonah tells (1:2) of the jailer complaining, "The escape tunnel is dug for you; why did you not try to save yourself right away?" It is well known what R' Yisroel Salanter zt'l said, that it is easier to learn all of the Shas than to completely eradicate one bad character attribute. If so, how can going against our nature be considered an "escape tunnel that is dug for you"?

The way of teshuvah is as Rabbenu Yonah writes (2:10): "In one moment this person will emerge from darkness to great brightness. When he carefully listens and realizes what he must do, and repents and accepts upon himself to act as the guardians of the Torah guide him, he will have succeeded in doing teshuvah and have become another person. The moment he completely agrees to do this he has acquired a zechus for his nefesh and a reward for all the mitzvos and virtuous acts that he will do. How fortunate is he that in a brief moment he has made his soul righteous . . . Afterwards he should diligently frequent the doors of those who rebuke him, daily. He should learn from all his teachers and he will be rewarded for doing so. This is as is written, that Yisroel in Sinai said `We will do and we will hear' (Shemos 24:7). They accepted upon themselves to do the Torah before they had even heard what they must do."

Rabbenu the mashgiach commented that the baal teshuvah can add the seforim hakedoshim to the count of those who rebuke him.

We see that the "escape tunnel" is indeed "dug for us." It is easy for us to return to Him, take ourselves far from sin, and come nearer to Hashem. We must seriously accept upon ourselves what our spiritual mentors guide us to do in fulfilling the Torah. A chotei's turning point starts at that moment when he begins to carry out their instructions.

HaRav Yitzchok Yeruchom Bordiansky is the menahel ruchani of Yeshivas Kol Torah in Yerushalayim.

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