The Ten Days of Teshuva
The ten days beginning with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur are called עשרת ימי תשובה The Ten Days of Teshuva (Repentance). These special days are a gift from Hashem to help us secure a good judgement for the new year. To reap the greatest benefit and take full advantage of these most important days, we need to understand the nature of their specialness.
Let us begin by explaining the meaning of Teshuva. תשובה (teshuva) comes from the Hebrew wordשב , which means return. When we sin, the sin’s negative effect drives a wedge between us and Hashem, distancing us from him. The more we sin, the farther away from Hashem we go. Teshuva – returning – is the process whereby we remove all the barriers and obstacles (sins) between us and Hashem so that we may re-connect and once again be close to Him.
The Prophet Isaiah says:
ספר ישעיה פרק נט
(א) הֵן לֹא קָצְרָה יַד יְדֹוָד מֵהוֹשִׁיעַ וְלֹא כָבְדָה אָזְנוֹ מִשְּׁמוֹעַ:
(ב) כִּי אִם עֲוֹנֹתֵיכֶם הָיוּ מַבְדִּלִים בֵּינֵכֶם לְבֵין אֱלֹהֵיכֶם וְחַטֹּאותֵיכֶם הִסְתִּירוּ פָנִים מִכֶּם מִשְּׁמוֹעַ
1) Hashem’s hand is not too short to save you, His ears have not become deaf to hear, 2) Rather, your sins separate you from Him, and, as a result of your sins, Hashem has hidden His face from listening to your prayers.
This verse provides the source of the concept that our sins create a barrier between us and Hashem and prevent us from enjoying the benefits of a close relationship with Him.
The Talmud teaches us, that during the Ten Days of Teshuva Hashem is closer to the Jewish People and easier to forgive their sins.
תלמוד בבלי מסכת ראש השנה דף יח/א
אמר רב שמואל בר איניא משמיה דרב מניין לגזר דין של צבור שאינו נחתם אינו נחתם והכתיב נכתם עונך לפני אלא אף על גב שנחתם נקרע שנאמר כה’ אלהינו בכל קראנו אליו והכתיב דרשו ה’ בהמצאו התם ביחיד הכא בצבור ביחיד אימת אמר רבה בר אבוה אלו עשרה ימים שבין ראש השנה ליום הכפורים ויהי כעשרת
Rabbi Shmuel the son of Inia said in Rav’s name: “How do we know that even if a negative judgment was decreed against a congregation that the judgment can be repealed? From the verse, ‘Who is like Hashem our G-d who answers us every time we call out to him.’ Every time means every time.”
The Talmud asks, “How could that be? There is a different verse that implies that Hashem answers us only when He is close to us. For it says, ‘Seek Hashem where He is found; call out to Him when He is close.’”
The Talmud answers: “That verse refers to an individual. An individual will only be answered when Hashem is close and may be found. A congregation, however, will always be answered.”
“When is it that Hashem is found and close that even an individual is always answered?” Asks the Talmud. “On the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.” Comes the answer.
During this time, even an individual who has had a negative judgment can have it repealed, for Hashem is very close and eager to forgive us.
To better understand this concept, our Sages use the following metaphor:
If a commoner wishes to speak with the king of his country to make a request, he must go through much bureaucracy before even being granted an audience with the king. And even if he does get the audience, it is doubtful that his wish will be granted. When, however, the king is out of the palace and in the town square meeting the common folk, listening to their concerns the chances of speaking with the king and having a request granted are very possible.
In the same way, during the Ten Days of Teshuva, Hashem makes Himself accessible to the Jewish people to provide us with forgiveness for our sins, so as to bring back the closeness between us.
Because of this special closeness of Hashem during these ten days, our Sages teach us that we should be more careful with our deeds as well as increase the number and quality of mitzvot that we do.
Maimonides writes: (The Laws of Teshuva 3:4)
רמב”ם יד החזקה הלכות תשובה פרק ג
נהגו כל בית ישראל להרבות בצדקה ובמעשים טובים ולעסוק במצות מראש השנה ועד יום הכפורים יתר מכל השנה
The entire Jewish Nation keeps the custom of increasing charity and good deeds and involves itself in mitzvot between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, more than the rest of the year.
It is also brought in the שלחן ערוך ,the Code of Jewish Law, that during the Ten Days of Teshuva, even where the accepted custom is to be lenient in a particular matter, a person should adopt the stricter approach for himself, despite his uncertainty whether he will be able to continue it after Yom Kippur.
This idea poses a thoughtful question: Isn’t that hypocritical–putting on an “act” during the Ten Days of Teshuva even though we don’t intend to keep it afterwards? Who exactly are we fooling anyway? Do you think that Hashem doesn’t know that our conduct is only temporary?
Our Sages provide a marvelous parable to explain this seeming problem.
A king once wanted to understand how his subjects lived so that he could enact laws that would make life easier for them. To accomplish this, he took a random sampling of each type of person who lived in his kingdom, from the great lords all the way down to the lowest job in the kingdom. He sent all of them letters telling them that he, the King, was coming to visit them in their homes, on a certain date, to see how they live, so he could better understand their needs.
One of the recipients was an old woodchopper who lived with his wife in a tumbledown shack in the forest. After reading the letter, he ran to his wife and read her the letter. Once the message sunk in, the woodchopper exclaimed.
“The King is coming to visit us here, in this very shack! How can we let the king into a broken-down shack like this? The place hasn’t been painted in years. The windows have holes in them, stuffed with rags so the wind doesn’t get in! The chairs that we balance ourselves on wobble, and the king will fall off and hurt himself! We have to fix this place up before he comes!”
His wife said to him. “What? I have been telling you that for years! And you have always told me that we can’t afford to paint and fix up the place. Now that the king is coming, all of a sudden we have the money to do the renovations?”
The woodchopper replied, “We don’t have the money! And I don’t know where it is going to come from. Maybe I will have to chop wood day and night for a while to scrape together a few extra dollars. Maybe I will have to borrow some money. But all I know is that is that we cannot let the king into a place like this!”
So, his wife tries another angle. “Read the letter again. It says that the king wants to see how we live. This is how we live! What, are you going to build him a throne? Put up velvet curtains? That’s not what the king wants! “
Now, this old woodchopper was no fool, and, after thinking for a moment, he said to his wife, “If the king wanted only to see how we live, he would not have sent a letter telling us when he is coming to visit us. He would have paid us a surprise visit and seen how we live in its full glory. It is clear from his sending us a letter telling us that he is coming that there is something else that he also wants to see. He wants to see whether we consider it the greatest privilege in the world that he has chosen to come and visit us and if we have prepared according to our meager means for his visit. Of course, we can’t build him a throne worthy of him. Of course, we can’t decorate with velvet curtains. The king doesn’t expect that at all. But what he does expect to see is, if we have made, according to our abilities, some modest improvements in honor of his visit.”
The descriptions of all judgments in scripture describe Hashem as coming to judge us, which is especially the case during the Ten Days of Teshuva, when Hashem is closest to us to forgive our sins. In honor of this special closeness that Hashem offers us during these ten days, it is appropriate that we show Him, in some way, that we recognize and appreciate this golden opportunity. The way we could do this is to spruce up our deeds and strain ourselves to do the best we can, according to our means.
We can thus easily understand how if the woodchopper, for example, had done nothing to prepare for the king’s visit, how that would have been considered a terrible insult and tremendous disrespect to the king. “I told you that I was coming, and you didn’t do one thing to prepare for my arrival? You obviously have no respect for me!”
In the very same way, our Sages teach us that our failure to make any improvements over the Ten Days of Teshuva would constitute a very big insult to Hashem.
But in the case of the Ten days of Teshuva, there is an added degree of insult. That stems from despite our having distanced ourselves from Hashem through our sins, Hashem has come personally to forgive them and to restore the relationship. All that we have to do is ask, and it will be done. So why aren’t we asking? What are we waiting for? There is only one possible answer. We couldn’t care less that we have sins and that we are far away from Hashem. It is of no interest to me to repair my relationship with Hashem and to restore the closeness. I am perfectly happy with the way things are.
What could be more offensive? And especially so during the Ten Days of Teshuva. Is this the time that you want to be insolent to the judge?
With this very concept our Sages resolve a major difficulty in a teaching of Maimonides, who writes: (Laws of Teshuva 3:3)
רמב”ם יד החזקה הלכות תשובה פרק ג
בכל שנה ושנה שוקלין עונות כל אחד ואחד מבאי העולם עם זכיותיו ביום טוב של ראש השנה מי שנמצא צדיק נחתם לחיים ומי שנמצא רשע נחתם למיתה והבינוני תולין אותו עד יום הכפורים אם עשה תשובה נחתם לחיים ואם לאו נחתם למיתה:
Every year, on the holiday of Rosh Hashana, the sins of every person are weighed. One who is found to be a tzadik righteous, is sealed for life, and one who is found to be evil is sealed for death. Those in between hang in the balance until Yom Kippur. If they did teshuva, they are sealed for life, but if they did not do teshuva, they are sealed for death. (This is not to be taken literally, since we know that many evil people live long lives, and even righteous people die. There are various explanations.)
Maimonides previously explained that a tzadik is someone who has more good deeds than bad, and an evil person is someone who has more transgressions than mitzvot. An in-betweener is someone who has the same number of each. That being the case, why isn’t it sufficient for the in-betweener to just do another mitzvah to tip the scale in favor of the good? Why does the Rambam say that only if a person does teshuva will he be sealed in the book of life?
Our Sages answer that the sin of not doing teshuva during the Ten Days of Teshuva would alone constitute such a grievous sin that it would outweigh any extra mitzvot that would be done and tip the scale to the side of the sins. One who is sullied with sin and doesn’t care to clean himself up indicates that having sins is unobjectionable to him. “So what? if I have done something You told me not to do? I don’t care!” That is akin to a slap in the face of Hashem.
Now, upon understanding the special opportunity that Hashem gives us during these ten days to erase our sins through teshuva, let’s explain exactly how it’s done.
There are three steps to the teshuva process. They are simple, and you need all three, but they must be sincere. If a person’s heart is not in it, it won’t work.
- ודוי – Verbally, privately, admit the sin – acknowledge that we have disobeyed Hashem’s commandment and own up to it.
- חרטה – Remorse for having done the sin, to the point where you wish that you could go back in time and have a “redo.”
- עזיבת החטא – Accept upon oneself never to do it again. This follows logically from #2 because if a person would be ready to do it again at the next opportunity, or even at some future time, he obviously doesn’t really regret ever having done it.
Our Sages teach us that when a person performs the process of teshuva properly, it is as if the act has been erased from existence. He will never have to face that action and give judgment for it, ever again.
The following true story illustrates this point. (I heard this very story from two different, unrelated people, therefore, I believe that it is credible.)
The wedding was beautiful; the bride and groom looked so good and made such a handsome couple. Everyone was saying how it was a match made in heaven. After the last dance, the father of the bride went to his jacket, which he had draped over the back of his chair during the dancing, to retrieve the envelope of cash he had prepared to pay the caterer. To his horror, the envelope was missing. There were thousands of dollars in that envelope. He had been saving for years to be able to afford a nice wedding for his lovely daughter.
It probably fell out during the dancing, he figured. They unsuccessfully searched the entire hall from top to bottom. Perhaps it was folded up in the table cloth when the table was cleaned. They searched every tablecloth, again, with no success.
Oh well. What could he do? He would have to put together a new payment for the caterer. Where it would come from, he did not know.
Fast forward a few months later. The bride’s parents finally receive the wedding video. They sit down to watch it, and lo and behold, they see, in the video, the groom’s father removing the envelope from the pocket of the jacket, as it hung over the chair.
Now they knew where the money went, but how were they going to get it back? If they were to accuse the groom’s father of stealing it, he would, of course, deny it, and the accusation would only cause very hard feelings.
They came up with the following idea. They invited the parents of the groom to join them to watch the wedding video! This way, the father of the groom would see himself stealing the money.
Everything started out jovial and festive as the video began. But, as it progressed, the father of the groom started getting more and more fidgety. He was thinking, “Oh no! what if I was caught on video stealing the money!” As the video played on, he started sweating profusely. Just as they reached the part which would show him stealing the money, he just couldn’t watch it and passed out on the floor.
Our Sages teach us that on the day of judgment, at the end of our lives, we are going to watch a video of our lives. In it we will see all the sins and transgressions that we performed in our lifetime. Watching with us will be Hashem and a court of holy rabbis from our generation, who did their utmost to influence us to be better. It is going to get very embarrassing as we watch ourselves doing things that we shouldn’t have done.
But when we do teshuva, it is like editing the video just before the deed, as if it never happened. The piece of tape of that sin falls on the floor and is swept out with the garbage. It never hits the screen and we will not have to see it again. Teshuva has removed it forever.
What an amazing gift from Hashem! He allows us to totally remove our misdeeds from reality.
A word of caution is in order. When we have wronged another human being, as in the story above, teshuva cannot be achieved until the person asks for, and receives, forgiveness from the one he wronged. So, in the story, the groom’s father would have to ask, and receive, forgiveness for all the pain and anguish caused by the theft, and pay back every penny, before he could begin to ask Hashem forgiveness for stealing.
Seeing how easy it is to do teshuva, there is really no excuse not to do so during these special days. Additionally, being that it is so easy, it would be a very strong critique against a person who ignores this amazing opportunity to seek to clean his slate.
Now is the perfect time to think about something or some things that we can do better during the Ten Days of Teshuva. Let us show Hashem that we understand that He is close to us, and that we are preparing for His visit.