Rabbi David Etengoff
Dedicated to the sacred memories of my mother, Miriam Tovah bat Aharon Hakohen, father-in-law, Levi ben Yitzhak, sister, Shulamit bat Menachem, sister-in-law, Ruchama Rivka Sondra bat Yechiel, Chana bat Shmuel, Yehonatan Binyamin ben Mordechai Meir Halevi, Shoshana Elka bat Avraham, Tikvah bat Rivka Perel, Peretz ben Chaim, Chaya Sarah bat Reb Yechezkel Shraga, Shmuel Yosef ben Reuven, Shayndel bat Mordechai Yehudah, the Kedoshim of Har Nof, Pittsburgh, and Jersey City, and the refuah shlaimah of Mordechai HaLevi ben Miriam Tovah, Moshe ben Itta Golda, Yocheved Dafneh bat Dinah Zehavah, Reuven Shmuel ben Leah, Chana bat Sarah, and the health and safety of our brothers and sisters in Israel and around the world.
This Shabbat is primarily known as “Shabbat Shuvah,” named after the stirring words of Hoshea the prophet that are found in our haftarah: “Return, O Israel (Shuvah Yisrael), to the L-rd your G-d, for you have stumbled in your iniquity. Take words with yourselves and return to the L-rd (v’shuvu el Hashem, 14:2-3, this and all Tanach translations, The Judaica Press Complete Tanach) Moreover, given its calendrical placement between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, this Shabbat is focused upon teshuvah, so much so that most Chasidic groups label it, “Shabbat Teshuvah.”
As many of us have been actively engaged in the teshuvah process since the beginning of Elul, and Yom Kippur is the day upon which it reaches its crescendo, this is the ideal time to analyze the constitutive elements of teshuvah. Fortunately, the Rambam’s (1135-1204) Hilchot Teshuvah is laser-focused upon this task:
And what is teshuvah? This is when the sinner rejects his sin, removes it from his thoughts and concludes in his mind that he will not undertake [this forbidden act] again. Moreover, he regrets what he has done in the past… [to the extent of which] that He Who Knows All Mysteries will attest that he [the sinner] will never return to this sin again…and he must confess with his lips and speak of all these matters that he has concluded in his mind. (II:2, this and all Rambam translations my own)
In sum, in the Rambam’s view, teshuvah is comprised of three clearly differentiated cognitive and emotional aspects: recognition and rejection of the sin (azivat hachate), the sinner’s heartfelt resolution not to perform this forbidden act again (kabbalah al he’atid) and profound remorse for that which has been done (nechama al he’avar). In addition, these new-found feelings of spiritual awareness must be given literal voice in the form of vidui (verbal confession).
Fascinatingly, the Rambam emphasizes the obligation for all members of the Jewish people to engage in teshuvah on Yom Kippur:
Yom HaKippurim is the time of teshuvah for every individual and for the community at large. Moreover, it is the end [of the period of] forgiveness and pardon (mechilah v’slicha) for the Jewish people. Therefore, everyone is obligated (chayavim hakol) to do teshuvah and confess on Yom HaKippurim. (Hilchot Teshuvah II:7)
My rebbe and mentor, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zatzal (1903-1993), suggests a novel interpretation of this passage in his celebrated work, Al HaTeshuvah:
From here we can learn that the Rambam maintains that in addition to the mitzvah of teshuvah that is obligatory throughout the entire year, there is a unique mitzvah of teshuvah and vidui during the Ten Days of Repentance. Consequently, it is logical that [the Rambam asserts] that the teshuvah of Yom HaKippurim is, in fact, a new and unique mitzvah, that is relevant to Yom HaKippurim alone. (Page 39, translation my own)
The Rav’s conclusion that “the teshuvah of Yom HaKippurim is, in fact, a new and unique mitzvah, that is relevant to Yom HaKippurim alone,” parallels a statement in Rabbeinu Yonah’s (1200-1263) seminal work, Sha’arei Teshuvah: “And there is a positive Torah commandment (mitzvat aseh min HaTorah) for a person to bestir his spirit and return [to Hashem] in teshuvah on Yom HaKippurim.” Yet, what differentiates the teshuvah of Yom Kippur from the teshuvah of the rest of the year? We are fortunate that Rav Yehudah Amital zatzal (1924-2010), former co-Rosh HaYeshivah of Yeshivat Har Etzion, asks and answers this precisely this question:
To explain the words of the Rambam, we need to distinguish between the general mitzvah of teshuvah and the teshuvah of Yom Kippur. In general, making a resolution for the future is an integral part of teshuvah… it seems [, however,] that there is a distinction between the teshuvah of Yom Kippur and the teshuvah of the rest of the year. During the year, we need to repent “by the book,” which includes resolving not to sin again. However, on Yom Kippur, anyone who says, “we have sinned,” is considered a ba’al teshuvah. It is true that this form of teshuvah lacks a true resolution for the future; however, the great power of Yom Kippur is that even this teshuvah is effective… the teshuvah of Yom Kippur, though lacking a resolution not to sin again, is nonetheless accepted by G-d… Ba’alei teshuvah are accepted and purified, as long as they speak sincerely. (When G-d is Near: On the High Holidays, translation, Kaeren Fish, page 202, brackets, and ellipses my own)
In my estimation, Rav Amital’s inspiring exposition is reminiscent of Dovid HaMelech’s well-known statement in Ashrei: “Hashem is near to all who call Him, to all who call Him with sincerity.” (Sefer Tehillim 145:18) As such, Yom Kippur emerges as the most barrier-breaking and joyous day of the Jewish calendar, for on this day, Hashem is nearest to us, and longingly accepts our teshuvah — even if it is imperfect and incomplete. No wonder that in his description of Yom Kippur, Rabbi Akiva declared so long ago: “Happy are you, O’ Israel! Before Whom are you purified, and Who purifies you? Your Father in heaven.” (Mishnah Yoma VIII:9, translation my own)
Shabbat Shalom, Gamar Chatimah Tovah, and may Hashem in His infinite mercy remove the pandemic from klal Yisrael and all the nations of the world.
Past drashot may be found at my blog-website: http://reparashathashavuah.org
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*** My audio shiurim on the topics of Tefilah and Tanach may be found at: http://tinyurl.com/8hsdpyd
*** I have posted 164 of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s English language audio shiurim (MP3 format) spanning the years 1958-1984. Please click on the highlighted link: The Rav zatzal
Talmid of Rabbi Soloveitchik zatzal