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. These special days are a gift from Hashem to help us secure a good judgement for the new year. In order to reap the greatest benefit and take full advantage of these most important days, it is essential that we understand the nature of their specialness.
Let us begin by explaining the meaning of Teshuva. תשובה (teshuva) comes from the word שב which means return. When we sin, the negative effect of the sin drives a wedge between us and Hashem, distancing us from him. The more we sin, the further away we go. Teshuva – returning – is the process whereby we remove all the barriers and obstacles (sins) between us and Hashem so that we may reconnect, and once again be close to Him.
:The Prophet Isaiah says
(1) 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, nor have His ears become to deaf to hear, 2) Rather it is your sins that separate you from Him, and as a result of your sins, Hashem has hidden His face from listening to your prayers.
This verse is 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.
(1) 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 the name of Rav:“How do we know that even if a negative judgment was decreed against a congregation, the judgment can be repealed? For the verse says, ‘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 only when He is close to us. For it says, ‘Seek out Hashem when He is about, 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 about. However, a congregation, will always be answered.”
“When is it that Hashem is about 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 his judgment 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 red tape and bureaucracy before even being granted an audience with the king. If he does get the audience, it is doubtful that his wish will be granted. However, when the king is out of the palace, and in the town square meeting the common folk, and 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 is about and making Himself accessible to the Jewish people in order to provide us with forgiveness for our sins, so as to bring back the closeness between us.
It is because of this special closeness of Hashem during these ten days, that our sages teach us that we should be more careful with our deeds, and also increase the number and quality of mitzvot that we do.
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 involve themselves in good deeds 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, a person should adopt the stricter opinion for himself, even though he doesn’t know if he will be able to continue it after Yom Kippur.
This idea poses a 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? And who exactly are we fooling anyway? Do you think Hashem doesn’t know that we are only doing this temporarily?
Our Sages provide a marvelous parable to explain this seeming problem.
There was once a king who wanted to understand how his subjects lived in order to 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, the judges, the lawyers, doctors, white collar workers, blue collar workers, etc. all the way down to the lowest job in the kingdom. He sent each person selected a letter 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 can better understand their needs.
One of the people to receive a letter from the king 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, tumbledown 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 the king comes!”
His wife said to him. “I don’t understand! 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 one. “Read the letter again. It says 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 told his wife, “If the king wanted only to see how we live, he would not have sent a letter telling us that 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 the fact that he sent us a letter telling us that he is coming, that there is something else that he also wants to see. He wants to see if 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.”
It is interesting to note, that in the descriptions of all judgments in scripture, it describes Hashem as coming to judge us. And, especially during the Ten Days of Teshuva, when Hashem is closest to us to forgive our sins. In honor of this special closeness that Hashem gives us during these ten days, it is very appropriate that we show Hashem in some way, that we recognize and appreciate the golden opportunity that He is giving us. The way we could do this would be to spruce up our deeds and strain ourselves to do the best we can, according to our means.
We can easily understand, based on what we have explained, that if the woodchopper for example, had done nothing to prepare for the king’s visit, that would have been considered a terrible insult and tremendous disrespect to the king. “I told you I was coming, and you didn’t do one thing to prepare for my arrival? You obviously don’t have any respect for me!”
In the very same way, our Sages teach us that if we fail to make any improvements over the Ten Days of Teshuva, it is considered a very big insult to Hashem.
But in the case of the Ten days of Teshuva, there is an added degree of insult. This stems from the fact that we have distanced ourselves from Hashem through our sins, and Hashem has come personally to forgive them to restore the relationship. All 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 the way things are.
What could be more offensive? And especially during the Ten Days of Teshuva. Is this the time you want to be insolent to the judge?
It is with this very concept that our Sages resolve a major difficulty in a teaching of Maimonides.
(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:
Each and every year, the sins of each and every person are weighed, on the holiday of Rosh Hashana. One who is found to be a Tzadik, is sealed for life, and one who is found to be evil, is sealed for death. Those in between, are hanging 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.
Maimonides previously explained that a Tzadik is someone who has more good deeds than bad, and an evil person is someone who has more evil deeds than good ones. 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 only if a person does teshuva will he be sealed in the book of life?
The answer our Sages give is that the sin of not doing teshuva during the Ten Days of Teshuva would in and of itself be considered such a grievous sin, 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 not objectionable 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 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 process of teshuva. They are simple, 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 – regret having done the sin, to the point where you wish you could go back in time and pull it out of existence
- 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 reality. He will never have to face that action and give judgment for it ever again.
I like to use the following true story to illustrate this point. (I heard this very story from two different, unrelated people, therefore, I believe it is true.)
It was a beautiful wedding; the bride and groom looked so beautiful and made such a handsome couple. Everyone was saying how it was a match made in heaven. After the last dance was over, 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 for the wedding. To his horror, the envelope was not there. 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 searched the entire hall from top to bottom, with no success. Perhaps it got 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 parents of the bride finally receive the wedding video. They sit down to watch, and lo and behold, they see in the video, the father of the groom taking 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 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. As the video 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. As they got to the part which would show him stealing the money, he couldn’t watch it, and just 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. 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 splicing the video just before the deed, and just after it, as if it never happened. The piece of tape falls on the floor, and is swept out with the garbage. It never hits the screen and we will not have to see it ever 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: When we have wronged another human being, as in the story above, teshuva cannot be done until the person asks for and receives forgiveness from the one he wronged. So, in the story, for example, he would have to ask forgiveness and pay back every penny before he could begin to ask Hashem for forgiveness for stealing.
Seeing how easy it is to do teshuva, there is really no excuse not to do teshuva 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 clean his slate.
Now would be 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.