Baal Shem Tov TeachingsTeshuvah (Repentance)

Teachings of Rav Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Apt

Where the Baal Teshuvah Stands

Our Sages taught, “In the place where ba’alei teshuvah stand, even the righteous cannot stand” (Berachos 34b). This is because the stature of someone who has repented is much loftier than that of the Tzaddik.
How can someone who never tasted sin, who never transgressed the Torah or its mitzvos, stand in the same place as the ba’al teshuvah? The Tzaddik is attached to the divine force that gives life to all of creation. But the penitent, who is seeking the way back to Hashem, must attach himself to the primordial will that even preceded Creation, to the spiritual realm of teshuvah, also known as the “realm of thought.” (It is said that teshuvah was created before the world existed, so teshuvah exists in the realm of thought, where the world existed only in potential.)
Ohev Yisrael, Bereishis
 

Teshuvah Before Learning Torah and Prayer

The Apta Rav taught that we can say that the verse “Speak to Bnei Yisrael that they should settle down and camp before Pi HaChiros…” (Shemos 14:2) is issuing us a directive for all generations. In this pasuk, the Torah is guiding us on the proper path of how to conduct ourselves when we sit down to study Torah or prepare for prayer.
First the verse says that he “should settle down and camp” — he should relax his mind so that it is clear and prepared for study or prayer.
The next word of the verse, “before,” can be understood to mean that he must prepare himself before his Maker, to realize before Whom he is standing, as it is taught, “Know before Whom you are standing [in prayer]” (Berachos 28b). Similarly, the Sages taught (ibid. 30b) that the pious people of the generation would spend an hour before praying to prepare their minds and direct their thoughts and hearts toward Hashem.
This is how we interpret “They should settle down and camp” — they should settle their minds and thoughts — “before Pi HaChiros.” The final words of the verse can be understood to mean “before pi cheirus — before they achieve freedom,” before they free their mouths for prayer and study before Hashem.
The pasuk can also be translated, “V’yashuvu… — They should turn back and camp before Pi HaChiros.” This implies that they should do teshuvah before they achieve “freedom for their mouths.”
Ohev Yisrael, Beshalach
 

The Chief of Forgetfulness

The Apta Rav taught that the realm of teshuvah is so lofty it is beyond the reach of many individuals. How then do we open the gates of teshuvah? Through the righteous Tzaddik.
If the Tzaddik is constantly attached to avodas Hashem with no interruptions whatsoever, then his very self and his very existence could be nullified because He is attached to Hashem with such fierce love and devotion. In order to keep him alive, Hashem causes the Tzaddik to sometimes falter and fall from this lofty level. This occurs by some foreign or inappropriate thought that clashes with his lofty spiritual level.
But immediately the Tzaddik picks himself back up and repents. He bangs and hammers on the gates of repentance to pry them open so that his teshuvah will be accepted on High, so that his mistake will be forgiven and he will be absolved of the sin of transgressing “Be careful lest you forget Hashem…” (Devarim 6:12).
Through his teshuvah, the Tzaddik also elevates all the mistakes and blemishes the wicked have done and injects the desire for repentance into all the hearts of even those who have fallen into the deepest pits of despair. In this way the gates of repentance are opened for everyone through the Tzaddik’s forgetfulness.
Such a Tzaddik is nicknamed Menasheh, which connotes “forgetfulness.” Since the entire world is elevated through the Tzaddik’s forgetfulness and his subsequent teshuvah, he is also called “nasi” — the uplifted one. This is the implication of the verse “The nasi of Bnei Menasheh… Gamliel ben Pedahtzur” (Bamidbar 7:54). The Tzaddik realizes that this forgetfulness occurs because he has fallen from his lofty level, and he recognizes that as a result, even those who have fallen into the darkest, deepest pits of despair are able to repent and find salvation. In their hearts they can still say, “Gamliel”; that is, “Gam li E-l — I, too, still believe in G-d!”
Why is he called “Ben Pedahtzur — the Son of Hashem, the Rock and Redeemer”? It is because he knows that he has fallen in order to elevate others back up with him — that because of him, Hashem, who is the “Tzur,” Rock of Israel, redeems (“podeh”) them and the sparks of holiness that have fallen into the pits.
Ohev Yisrael, Naso
 

For Some Sinners Hashem Opens the Gates

A heavenly voice rang out and proclaimed, “Return, My wayward children — all except for Acher [Elisha ben Avuyah]” (Chagigah 15a). This is astonishing. How can this be? We are taught that nothing stands in the way of repentance (see Talmud Yerushalmi, Pe’ah 1:5), and even someone as wicked as Menasheh, a king of Yehudah who greatly angered the Creator, was forgiven when he repented (see Melachim II 21:1–18; Divrei HaYamim II 33:1–9).
It seems to me that if Acher had done teshuvah, Hashem would have accepted his repentance as well. Hashem has compassion over all His creatures, even sinners, and no one is forsaken. Therefore, Hashem sends them pangs of remorse and thoughts of teshuvah through the heavenly voice that rings out daily, asking them to repent and return, as we know from the holy writings (the teachings of the Ba’al Shem Tov and his talmidim). This awakens them to fully and sincerely repent. Then Hashem Himself opens the gates of teshuvah and pleads for each and every individual to repent and return.
For a great sinner, however, Hashem does not lower Himself thus. The sinner is required to awaken himself to repent and take it to heart that he must return without an awakening from on High. He must of his own volition confess before Hashem wholeheartedly and pour out his anguish, begging for heavenly aid to complete his teshuvah. Then surely even his teshuvah will be accepted, so long as he leaves his wicked ways behind.
Ohev Yisrael, Yemei HaRatzon V’Hateshuvah
 

Teshuvah Even for the Three Cardinal Sins

The Apta Rav once told a sinner who had transgressed in a grievous way that we see that Hashem never forsakes anyone from a verse in Eichah. The verse hints to us that everyone has it in his power to fully repent and start anew. The verse he was referring to is “Return us to You, Hashem, and we will return; renew our days as of old” (Eichah 5:21–22).
The word for “old” in the verse is kedem, which can be read as an acrostic for the names of three biblical figures: Kayin, David, and Menasheh. Each personality is a symbol of teshuvah for one of the three cardinal sins: murder, immorality, and idolatry. Kayin was the first murderer in history; he regretted spilling his brother’s blood and repented. David repented his relationship with Batsheva. Menasheh, king of Yehudah, did teshuvah for his acts of idolatry.
From their example, we see that even someone who sinned against Hashem to such a degree as they did should not give up hope. He should repent and his days will be “renewed as of old” — that is, like “KeDeM”: Kayin, David, and Menasheh.
Yalkut Ohev Yisrael
 

Mirrored Teshuvah

Our Sages teach that a person has difficulty seeing his own faults and shortcomings (Mishnah, Nega’im 2:5). The Apta Rav concludes that therefore a person should pay attention to the misdeeds and improper actions of other people. He should then ask himself, “Why did Hashem orchestrate events so that I should witness those misdeeds? It must be that Hashem wanted me to see this so that I will realize that I have the same shortcomings, but I am blinded from seeing them by my own evil inclination.” Then he can return to Hashem by doing teshuvah over these misdeeds, and Hashem will have mercy on him.
Ohev Yisrael, Likutim Chadashim
 

The Taste of Teshuvah

The Apta Rav taught that a Tzaddik who was born righteous and never tasted sin cannot possibly condemn evil. How can a person testify regarding something he himself has never experienced?
Someone who was once a sinner and repented can testify that good is truly good and that it is correct to choose the path of good and attach oneself to goodness. Only he can give testimony to the nature of evil and its negative affects, only he can convey how disgusted we should be by its loathsome qualities, because he once tasted all the pleasure that the side of evil offers and rejected it. Now his mind is clear and he can see how all the pleasures of this world are nothing; they are false vanities, disgusting, loathsome, and empty.
Our commentators note that only Shlomo HaMelech could truly reject the empty vanities and pleasures of this world and sincerely declare that “hevel havalim hakol hevel — falsehood and emptiness, everything is vanity!” (Koheles 1:1; see Ramban there). This is because he ruled over the entire world and lacked none of the physical pleasures available therein, but nonetheless, with his holy, pure, refined mind he was able to recognize that the pleasures of this world are nothing but false vanities. He alone was capable of testifying to the truth: that this world and its pleasures are empty.
Ohev Yisrael, Haggadah
 

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