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The Art of Teshuvah

Yom Kippur is the holiest time in the Jewish calendar. This awesome moment represents, in time, what the Beit Hamikdash (the Holy Temple) signified, in space.
Rabbi Yosef kahanov

In connection with the Ten Days of Repentance and Yom Kippur

A self-proclaimed Jewish atheist had no qualms with sending his son to a Catholic day school. One evening during dinner as the son enthusiastically described the Christian theology of the Trinity – the father, the son and . . ., the man could hardly contain his anger. "Listen here son and remember it well," bellowed the atheist: "There's only one G-d and we don't believe in him."

Yom Kippur is the holiest time in the Jewish calendar. This awesome moment represents, in time, what the Beit Hamikdash (the Holy Temple) signified, in space. In fact, when the Temple stood in all its majesty and glory, the High Priest would enter its holiest chamber on this very day to perform a special service. It was the only time that anyone would ever enter this inner sanctum where the Holy Ark containing the Tablets was housed – known as the “Holy of Holies.”

Each of us has a personal Holy of Holies – a Divine spark (also known as the Pintele Yid). After we cut through all the psychological and sociological clutter – scars and bruises not withstanding – there is a part of our soul that remains fully intact and committed to G-d. On Yom Kippur, we are told, this core soul, known as "Yechidah" – the highest of the soul's five levels, as identified in Kabbalah – shines forth in an exceptionally brilliant and revealed manner. This level of soul is so intense that in its presence the righteous and the wicked are equal. It is beyond any form of contamination or devaluation by bodily indulgence or transgression.

A professor once stood before his philosophy class holding up a crisp $100.00 bill. He asked his 120 students: "Who would like this bill?" all of their hands immediately went up. He went on to say, "I am going to give this $100 to one of you, but first let me do this. He proceeded to crumple up the $100 dollar bill. He then asked, "Does anyone still want it?" still the hands stayed up in the air.

Well, he continued, "what if I do this?" he dropped it on the ground and started to grind it into the floor with his shoe. He picked up the dirty crumpled note. "Now, he asked, is there anyone who might still want it?" just as before, all 120 hands were raised. The teacher then said: "We have all just learned a very valuable lesson. No matter what I did to the money, you still wanted it because all my abuse did not decrease its value. It is still worth $100."

This is true of our soul as well. The essence of our soul has deep intrinsic value, no matter how wrinkled, no matter how soiled or abused, it does not, in the slightest bit, become devaluated.

This is one of the reasons we all dress in white on this day, since white represents purity and holiness. In the presence of this core soul we are all equally virtuous. This explains the opening statement of the holy Kol Nidrei service: "With the sanction of the Omnipresent and with the sanction of the congregation . . . we hereby grant permission to pray with those who have transgressed." On this day – in the presence of Yechidah – there are no transgressors.

As a result of the revelation of our souls’ root on this great and awesome day we are called to Teshuvah from above, hence the Talmudic opinion that this holiest day, in and of itself, brings about repentance. The Yechidah of our soul calls out to us beckoning us to return.

This is a truly powerful phenomenon. But it leaves us wondering where we fit in. If, as said, the day itself – even without our effort – brings about Teshuvah, what then is our duty? What is there for us to do during this awesome moment? Why do we spend most of the day in Synagogue, fasting and praying our hearts out? The answer is that it is dependent on us to seize the opportunity to affect permanent change in our life and the world at large – to stop, as it were, this powerful inspiration from slipping away.

The nature of inspiration is that it comes and goes. In order for a moment of inspiration to have an enduring affect it must be internalized. How often do we read an inspirational story or watch a stirring film and become emotionally stimulated – even to the point of tears – yet the next day it is business as usual? Not only do we fail to act upon the inspiration, we don't even give it another thought. The inspiration has been wasted – completely evaporated like it never was.

Our duty on Yom Kippur is not so much to stimulate or arouse ourselves to Teshuvah; we can leave that to our Yechidah-soul. What we need is to take advantage of the inspiration and build on it. We must turn it into tangible, concrete improvement. This however, requires some skill. Let us try to examine some of the skills that are necessary in the art of Teshuvah. A good place to start is the Talmud.

There is somewhat of a mysterious statement in the Talmud regarding the posture one should adopt while engaging in prayer. It suggests that the parishioner should direct his heart upward and his eyes downward. While this Mishnah is talking about a physical posture (one's body should be fully erect, while his face should point downward), it is no doubt alluding to a mental posture as well.

In order for our prayers to be productive – for our inspiration to have an enduring effect on our lives, yes, our heart needs to climb the heavenly ladder – it must soar to the highest of worlds. But that's only half the job. While the heart is floating in the heavens above absorbing all the inspiration and spirituality it can grasp, the eyes must be focused downward. In the midst of the most intense spiritual experience we must take a moment to think about what's next – what happens when we finish praying and our soul descends back into the dog-eat-dog world? How are we going to put the inspiration to use in changing the way we do business – the way the world does business? For this our eyes must be focused downward. We need to think practically. In fact, we must make very real and tangible resolutions.

The latter is true of Yom Kippur as well. While inspiration may come easy on this day, it can just as quickly disappear. To harness the inspiration requires a strategy. The first step is to keep our eyes on the target while our heart floats adrift – to identify and commit to practical resolutions while we are in the state of spiritual elation. Still, there are some pitfalls to be leery of. The following are a few of the more common ones.

Pitfall number one is the desire for an extreme makeover. Change comes in small increments. One has to be suspicious when one gets the idea of a radical and sudden transformation. While our society is captivated by Hollywood's various Extreme Makeover series, from one's looks to one's home, let's not forget that Hollywood is Hollywood and real life is real life. When it comes to character, there are no extreme makeovers. The attempt at radical transformation may well end in failure and disappointment. It is hence much wiser to take small deliberate steps. One successful resolution followed by another.

The second obstacle is the act of becoming weighed down by the task ahead. The thought of how far one has drifted and how laborious is the path of return can be paralyzing. One may worry how he will be able to achieve the necessary level of self-control in order to avoid sinful behavior – how can he resist the powerful urges and temptations of the forbidden that seem unrelenting. He may feel that he can do this for a day or a week but not indefinitely. Now, since he knows that he will sooner or later succumb to temptation, what point is there in entering the battle in the first place – why deprive himself now?

This person must realize that this too is nothing but the conniving tactics of the Yetzer Hara (evil inclination). The way to deal with fear is not to consider the prospect of future temptation. One must only worry about the temptation at hand.


It is precisely with regards to this syndrome that the Mishnah states: He [Rabbi Tarfon] used to say: It is not your obligation to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it. . . – Avot 2:16

What did David do when he faced the giant Goliath? He didn't say "G-d, why do I always have these huge problems?" no, he changed his atmosphere through decisive action – small as it may be. He didn't dwell on the fact the Goliath was three times his size, or that Goliath was a skilled warrior, no, he didn't focus on the magnitude of the challenge before him. He chose instead to focus on the task at hand, the rest is history.

Pitfall number three is the hypocrisy argument. The logic of this contention goes as follows: "How can you think of taking on the Mitzvah of Teffilin or keeping Kosher or Shabbos, you know who you really are. You know the things in your life that are not so kosher, you know the sins you have committed yesterday and the one's you are likely to commit tomorrow, and, most importantly you know that G-d knows, so who are you kidding? You're just a weak person who is not able to live by G-d's rules, so why pretend? If you are going to follow G-d's rules than follow them completely, if you are not going to follow all of them, then stop acting like a saint. To embrace one mitzvah, is not only meaningless it is actually hypocritical!"

This too is the working of the Yetzer Hara. A person must start somewhere, and has got to crawl before he can walk or run. The evil inclination is well aware that it's not what step on the ladder you're on that counts, but the direction in which you are heading. If you are on the first wrung heading up, you are more advanced than the person on the sixth wrung heading down. Our mischievous inclination will, however, do anything to keep us from getting on the right path, it will even use high moral ideals to stop us. If we recognize from where such arguments stem, we might be able to contend with them better.

Another trap to lookout for, is the "when I will get a chance I will do for G-d" syndrome. This theory espouses that "now is a busy time in my life. Now I am engaged in earning my fortunes. It makes no sense for me to give charity now, after all, how much could I give now? Plus, now I need to reinvest every penny, but you wait G-d, just have some patience and you'll see. I'm not just going to contribute towards the Synagogue building fund, I'm going to build the entire Synagogue single handedly."

The same argument is made with regards to the study of Torah and other Mitzvos: "At this juncture in my life I'm preoccupied raising a family, earning my degree, building a business, conquering the world, my time is better used for other things, which will, of course, all help with my resources to better serve you at a later point in life". This is another trap of the evil inclination.

The reality is that, 99% of the time, one who doesn't give charity when he has less, doesn't give when he has more, because there is never enough. One who doesn't make time to study Torah when he is busy, does not make the time to study when his time is free, so on and so forth. Our sages summarized this phenomenon in a single potent statement: "Do not say, 'When I will have free time I will study,' for perhaps you will never have free time." – Avot 2:4.

On this awesome day, when the Yechidah of our soul beckons us to Teshuvah, we must not squander the moment on rosy dreams and flaky temptations to undergo extreme makeovers without a specific tangible commitment and plan. Nor should we be discouraged by feelings of inadequateness and hypocrisy. We must remain focused on the process and skills that are most conducive to tangible and enduring change – a single, small, but specific, resolution – one that is immutable and unbreakable. And yes, as is evident from the following true story, small things do count:

A group of Shochtim (ritual slaughterers) had come to Brazil for an assignment with a local slaughterhouse that was to last for several weeks.

One day, as they returned to their hotel after a long day's work, the doorman at the hotel ran after them mumbling in a language they could hardly understand.

As it turned out, he wanted to know where the missing fellow was. Having met each other for the first time on this assignment, they were not aware that anyone was actually absent, and who it might be. But after taking a headcount, it became clear that someone was indeed missing.

Inasmuch as they were instructed to always travel together, they all turned around and headed back to the plant, exhausted as they were. They searched the facility from front to back, shouting and banging, but it was to no avail. No one could be found. Not knowing what more they could do, they prepared to leave.

Suddenly, one of the Shochtim thought he heard a faint noise coming from the freezer area. Hoping it wasn't a stray cow; he immediately went to checkout the noise. As he got closer, it became apparent that the noise was coming from inside the freezer.

Anxiously he unlocked and opened the freezer door. To his amazement, gazing him in the eye was the missing Shochet. Somehow he got locked in the freezer and was forgotten. He quickly grabbed the dazed and shivering man and pulled him out.

After helping him warm up and come back to himself, they all headed back to the hotel. When they met the doorman outside the hotel, they thanked him profusely for saving the man's life. "But how did you know that the man was missing?" they inquired eagerly.

The gentleman smiled and explained: "You see, every time you men would walk through these doors, only one of you would greet me 'good day.' So this time, when I did not receive any greeting, I became curious and looked for that familiar face. I then realized that he was missing." The men were awestricken by the realization that it was a simple good morning that saved the man's life.

May we all experience on this Yom Kippur a sincere and complete Teshuvah.



4 Tishrey 5769
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1. Pleased reader
Rabbi, thank you for an excellent piece. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
6 Tishrey 5769