The Torah tells us that the terrible curses that we will undergo, will bring us to do teshuva. This is easy to comprehend: Travails such as sickness and poverty often cause a person to introspect and to change their ways. However, the verse does not restrict this prediction to curses, it also says that the blessings will cause the people to do teshuva. In what way do blessings bring a person to teshuva?
Rav Yissachar Frand notes that some commentaries explain the Torah is referring to someone who first was blessed and then things deteriorated for him and it is the change from blessings to curses that prompts him to repent. However, he cites a different interpretation from the Shemen HaTov that more closely adheres to the simple meaning of the verse: He posits that the Torah means that the blessings themselves can and indeed, should, be the catalyst for teshuva.
If a person is doing well in life, he should ask himself why things are going so well? He should not answer that it is because of his own righteousness, intellect or talent – there are plenty of righteous, intelligent and talented people who endure various types of suffering. Rather, he should recognize that it is because of HaShem’s kindness to him. Once he internalizes how much HaShem does for him, he should be motivated to ‘pay HaShem back’ so to speak, by doing what He asks of him. This can cause him to correct his ways, and he can avoid having to suffer any ‘curses’ in order to motivate him to repent.
Of course, the reality is that when things are going well, there is a temptation to think it is in one’s own merits, and to think to oneself, ‘kochi v’otsem yadi asah li es hachayil hazeh’ – ‘my power and the strength of my hand caused this success’. Accordingly, reacting to good times with teshuva is something that does not come naturally and requires significant work.
The Gedolim lived with this approach: The Chofetz Chaim zt”l was once overheard speaking to G-d: “Master of the Universe, You have done so much for me already. I have written the Sefer Shemiras HaLashon. I have written the Mishneh Berurah. You have done so much for me already, what can I do for you already?”
Rav Frand points out, “If we ever wrote the Mishneh Berurah, most likely our attitude would be, ‘Look, G-d, I wrote the Mishneh Berurah. I made Orach Chaim learnable! You owe me! I resuscitated the Mitzva of Guarding One’s Tongue. Now it’s my turn!’ The Chofetz Chaim looked at it from a totally different perspective. I had the merit to write Shemiras HaLashon and Mishneh Berurah. This was only because of G-d’s kindness to me to allow this to happen. What can I now do for G-d?”
It seems that this idea is highly relevant to the avodah of Elul. One aspect of Elul that stands out from the rest of the year is the twice daily recitation of Tehillim Chapter 27, LeDavid HaShem Ori. The opening verse has references to Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, but the rest of the chapter does not discuss teshuva at all – what does it have to do with Elul?
Rav Immanuel Bernstein shlit’a explains that it focuses on our reliance on HaShem’s protection in all situations. A prerequisite of teshuva is G-d awareness, and an effective way of developing this awareness is to focus on HaShem’s ongoing help and protection. We recite this chapter twice daily to remind ourselves that HaShem is “there for us” constantly, and that the time has come to come back to him. It is easier to develop this appreciation when things are going well than when they are difficult. This avodah provides a foundation on which the process of teshuvah can be built.
Rav Bernstein suggests that the Selichos that we say leading up to Rosh HaShana serve a similar purpose. There is very little actual mention of teshuva, regret for sins or resolve not to repeat them. Selichos is essentially a prayer establishing our connection with HaShem. As Rav Bernstein points out, this is not instead of teshuva, rather it is a prerequisite for teshuva. It is possible to approach the process of teshuvah with the goal of simply not being punished, without having a goal of reconnecting with HaShem. However, this teshuvah leaves the person detached and isolated from the Divine, and does not bring about a genuine ‘return’ to HaShem.”
The Leket Yosher develops the idea that Selichos plays a role in the process of teshuvah from a place of joy as opposed to fear. The first day of Selichos is always a Sunday, immediately following Shabbos. He explains the reason for this: “On Shabbos, people are free of work and are able to set aside time for learning Torah. That is why it is good to start Selichos on Sunday, for people are happy due to the Mitzva of learning Torah that they have performed on Shabbos.”
These words teach us that, while teshuvah is serious business and may require us to confront some uncomfortable truths, the predominant tone is one of joy, and the goal is not just cleansing, but of returning to a state of closeness to HaShem.
This optimistic mood will hopefully ensure that the difficult moments within teshuvah do not lead us to despair or depression, rather will launch us to a new and close connection to HaShem, through the joy of gratitude to HaShem for all He does for us.