Rabbi Avraham Danzig in his book Chayei Adam (238:1) states: “Although teshuva (repentance) is accepted (by G-d) at any time, the month of Elul is a time when teshuva is more readily accepted as it was G-d designated it as ‘days of favor’ ever since he chose us to be His nation.”
1) What does teshuva mean?
Most people translate it as repentance. However, the word teshuva is derived from “Toshuv El Hashem, [You shall] return to G-d” (Deuteronomy 30:10).
2) Where does teshuva come from?
Teshuva is listed as one of seven things created before the universe because without it the universe could not endure (see Tractate Nedarim 39b, Genesis Rabbah 1:4 and Medrash to Psalms 90:7).
3) How powerful is teshuva?
It reaches unto the Divine Thrown of Glory (see Yuma 86a) It’s so powerful that it eradicates one’s sins so that no blemishes remain on his soul (Tanchuma, Parshat Vayeira 16:1). The gates of teshuva are forever open (Deuteronomy Rabbah 2:12). There is nothing that stands in the way of teshuva. 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. Teshuva is equal to all other mitzvot!
4) What type of teshuva does Yom Kippur not atone for?
Sins committed against our fellow man. A wise woman once said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” As Avot D’ Rabbi Natan says, “If you have done your fellow man a slight wrong, let it be a serious matter in your eyes…” (41:11)
In fact, the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (128:14) tells us, “On the eve of Rosh Hashanah one should do teshuva for sins committed against his fellow man. He shouldn’t wait until the eve of Yom Kippur to ask forgiveness of his friends, neighbors and family; those married must approach their spouse and children right away” As the Talmud (Pesachim 4a) says, “The zealous are early to perform mitzvoth”.
Nevertheless, when asking one for forgiveness, one is obligated to ask their friend for forgiveness privately (see Maimonides, Laws of Human Dispositions 6:7).Furthermore, “If you sinned 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… (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 131:4)
Maimonides says, “When the offender asks you for forgiveness, you should forgive him with a sincere mind and a willing spirit (Laws of returning 2:10). The Mishnah says, “Peace is the vessel for blessing” (Uktzin 3:12). Conversely, “When asking someone for forgiveness, you must acknowledge that you hurt the other person”. Secondly, “One should ask the victim for forgiveness privately. If that fails, one is obligated to approach him three times with three of his friends” (Ibid. 2:9).
To what extent should you forgive the offender? The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (131:4) says, “…Even if he tormented you a great deal you should not take revenge or bear a grudge…”
a) You can tell someone you don’t forgive him if it’s for his welfare, to ensure that he will not repeat his wrong; still, you should forgive him in your heart” (606:9).
b) If you’re certain that the person asking forgiveness is insincere, you’re not obligated to forgive him. Yet, we are forbidden to be cruel toward someone who sincerely seeks our forgiveness; rather we must forgive him wholeheartedly (Talmud, Bava Kama 92a).
c) If someone slandered you, you’re not obligated to forgive him. Nevertheless, it is meritorious for you to do so anyway, even if you find it very difficult. As the Talmud says, “When a person ignores insults, Heaven ignores his or her sins” (Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 17a). That decision is up to you.
The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (131:4) concludes, “…If the offender does not initiate coming to you to ask for forgiveness, you should go to him so he can ask your forgiveness. If a person does not banish hatred [from his heart] on Yom Kippur, his prayers will not be heard, G-d forbid; but if you are tolerant and forgiving, all your sins will be forgiven”.
5a) How does one begin to do teshuva?
First, one needs to desire to do teshuva and then Hashem will assist him (see Talmud, Yuma 38b – 39a). Rabbi Israel Salanter says, “It is known that effectively changing one’s nature can only come about through significant learning and conditioning as the Sefer HaChinuch says: “A person is fashioned by his deeds” (Parshat Bo, Mitzvah #16). Therefore, the primary foundation and correct pillar to prepare to be guarded from sin and perform mitzvoth is to comprehensively study that particular law or mitzvah. specifically learning it with detailed analysis since this type of study helps your soul strongly acquire the mitzvah and that will bring you distance the sin from your nature” (see The Wisdom in the Hebrew Alphabet by Michael L. Munk , page 202).
b) What book should one read?
As the saying goes, “Different strokes for different folks.”
Here are a few books:
The Practical Guide to Teshuva by Rabbi Shaul Wagschal, The Power of Teshuva by Rabbi Heshy Kleinman, Song of Teshuva by Yaakov Dovid Shulman and Rav Moshe Weinberger, Reclaiming the Self by DovBer Pinson, Tal Chayim by Rav Shmuel Tal, Teshuva, Restoring Life by Rabbi Reuven Leuchter and Remove Anger From Your Heart by Rabbi Zev Reichman.
As an individual, how does one determine what he should rectify?
Rabbi Tzadok HaKohein Rabinowitz of Lublin tells us:
“In the area a person’s evil inclination pulls him the most, he can become exceptionally pure and innocent. Where he has sinned many times, he can become totally cleansed and pure of heart” (Tzidkat HaTzaddik #49).
Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky says, “When one overcomes his evil inclination and withstands the test, G-d’s Name is greatly sanctified and the person’s merit is awesome and wondrous. Even in this world, the person will be rewarded. For any pleasure a person refrains from to honor Heaven will be repaid in a permissible manner, over time.
“Yet, understand that “No matter how low one sinks and is deeply immersed in immoral thought and behavior, he’s still obligated to keep all the Torah’s mitzvot and will be rewarded in the Next World for performing them. However, he can only get the reward after his soul is purified of the sins he did.”
Elsewhere, he states, “Through overcoming his desires, one brings great sanctification of G-d’s… and merits incredible heavenly assistance in all matters; be it in studying Torah or improving one’s character and even in worldly matters.”
6) What should one’s outlook on teshuva be?
Rabbi Jacob Emden says, “Strengthen yourself with teshuva; do not slacken. Hope is not lost and there is a reward for your efforts” (Zos Brisi by Rabbi Shimon Finkelman, page 119). Maimonides states, “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 teshuva, knowing that G-d will help” (Mishnah Torah, Hilchot Teshuva 3:14). Furthermore, he states, “A person who does teshuva 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 sinned” (Maimonides, Laws of Returning 7:4).
All G-d requires of us is that we take the first step, as in, “Open for Me a tiny opening of teshuva, the size of a needle – come back to Me – and I will open for you openings through which wagons can pass” (Song of Songs Rabbah 5:2). The Creator tells us: “Whatever you are capable of doing with your own strength do it” (Kohelet 9:10). For the Talmud states, “G-d does not make matters difficult for His creatures. However, He does expect a person to do what he can,” (Tractate Avodah Zarah 3a). One who seeks to purify himself from his sin, Heaven will assist him and ultimately, he will gain the upper hand (Tractate Mo’ed Katan 5a).
Rabbi Tzadok HaKohein Rabinowitz of Lublin says a fundamental concept:
“Just as one must believe in G-d, so too, one must believe in himself” (Tzidkat HaTzaddik #154). Meaning, G-d wants us to believe in our strengths, capabilities and ability to overcome evil to achieve greatness. In the words of Rabbi Scheinberg, “Serving the Almighty properly involves constant challenges, which takes consistency and persistence to succeed… only fools give up hope” (Rav Scheinberg by Rabbi Yechiel Spero, page 261).
With G-d’s help, in the merit of returning to Him, may He bring us back to the Land of our Forefathers.
Dedicated in memory Sarah bas Henoch Avraham and as a merit for a complete recovery of Chayah Malka bas Bashevah, Yeshayah Simcha ben Devorah Chayah and Shlomo Avraham Moshe ben Rivkah Shaindel.