Why the first ten days of the new year, and not the last ten days of the old year? After all, the point of Aseret Yemei Teshuva (The Ten Days of Repentance) is to repent for the sins that we have done over the course of the past year, isn’t it? So, if that’s the case, then wouldn’t it have made more sense for Aseret Yemei Teshuva to be the last ten days of the old year?
What is Hashem conveying to us by the surprising placement of Aseret Yemei Teshuva as the first ten days of the new year?
The answer to this question, I believe, can be found in the words of Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter (d. 1866), the first Rebbeh of the Gur dynasty, better known as the Chiddushei Ha’Rim. As we know, teshuva is comprised of three primary components: regret, verbal confession, and forsaking the sin.
One year, just before Yom Kippur, the Chiddushei Ha’Rim expounded on the nature of these components and put forth a novel approach that is as compelling as it is fascinating. The derasha was originally recorded in Yiddish in the sefer “Siach Sarfei Kodesh”, and subsequently in lashon ha’kodesh in the sefer “Chiddushei Ha’Rim al ha’Torah, Moadim v’Likutim” which was compiled by the Rebbeh’s grandson, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Levin, and appears there on page 261.
“If a person stumbles in a severe sin,” says the Chiddushei Ha’Rim, “and makes it his first priority to ‘turn away from the evil’, then his thoughts are occupied with recalling the sin. A person is where his thoughts are. So, if one’s thoughts are occupied with recalling the sin, that means that one is immersed in the evil.
One certainly cannot do teshuva in such a state, for when the thoughts are occupied with recalling the sin it causes the mind to be overtaken by gross physicality, the spiritual arteries of the heart to become blocked, and one is prone to becoming depressed. Even if the sin one stumbled in was not of a severe nature – and thinking about it will therefore not cause the mind to be overcome by gross physicality or the spiritual arteries of the heart to be blocked – nevertheless, if he will occupy his mind with ‘turning away from the evil’ and think about the mud of sin, so then he is turning over mud. That is what he is doing, and he will simply remain in the mud. ‘He did sin, he didn’t sin’ – what does Hashem get from such ruminations?
While the person is busy thinking about such things, he could have been ‘stringing pearls’! He could have done something that will benefit the Kingship of Heaven. Therefore, it must be that ‘turn away from evil’ means, pivot yourself away from the evil. Don’t think about the evil. ‘Do good’. You committed bundles of sins? Go do an equal number of mitzvot!
Today, before Yom Kippur, we need to feel the abandoning of sin with a settled mind and from the depths of the heart – without excitement – but just through a straightforward acceptance of the heart for the future, and to be in a happy frame of mind. Recite the confessions of the ‘al cheit’ quickly and don’t sink in them. Rather, what we need to immerse ourselves in is proclamations such as ‘and you Hashem will reign alone’.”
Teshuva is meant to be a forward-moving process. It’s not about “crying over spilled milk”. Yes, we have to repent and correct our misdeeds, and that can certainly come along with tears, but if the endeavor results in a person feeling disheartened or pulled down, then he is missing the whole point.
It’s about growth. It’s about the inestimable opportunity to be cleansed and start off anew on a fresh, clean page.
And perhaps that is what we are meant to realize from the fact that the Aseret Yemei Teshuva were strategically ensconced as the first ten days of the new year, and not the last ten days of the old year. Had they been the last ten days of the year, we may have been inclined to sink into the mud of wallowing in misery over all the mistakes and wrongdoings we committed over the course of the year. But now it’s too late for that type of brooding.
We’ve already begun a new start! And who isn’t excited about the endless opportunities for improvement, growth, and great achievement when we are right at the fresh beginning of a brand new year?! Like this, Hashem has given us the way to frame our teshuva process. It should be not with a look back, but with a look forward.
We engage in correcting our mistakes of the past as a way of stepping forward towards wonderful growth and improvement in the future. It’s a process in which tears and joy can fuse in perfect harmony.