Rosh Hashanah, 5774, 2013
Teshuvah: Using Our Minds for What Matters
Rabbi David Etengoff
Dedicated to the sacred memories of my mother, Miriam Tovah bat Aharon Hakohen, father-in-law, Levi ben Yitzhak, sister-in-law, Ruchama Rivka Sondra, sister, Shulamit bat Menachem, Shifra bat Chaim Alter, and Yehonatan Binyamin ben Mordechai Meir Halevi, and the refuah shlaimah of Yosef Shmuel ben Miriam.
This is the time of year when our friends ask us: “How are you? Are you ready for another Rosh Hashanah? Can you believe its Rosh Hashanah again?” These, and similar kinds of questions, are “on the mark” and exactly where our thoughts should be. Please allow me to explain. “How are you?” can be taken as just another blasé social pleasantry - or something far more. In fact, I believe we can view it as a modern day restatement of Hashem’s question to Adam after he violated the one mitzvah that G-d had given him:
Now the L-rd G-d took the man, and He placed him in the Garden of Eden to work it and to guard it. And the L-rd G-d commanded man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat. But of the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat of it, for on the day that you eat thereof, you shall surely die.” (Sefer Bereishit 2:15-17, this, and all Bible translations, The Judaica Press Complete Tanach)
Unfortunately, Adam and Eve violated this lone commandment: “And the woman saw that the tree was good for food and that it was a delight to the eyes, and the tree was desirable to make one wise; so she took of its fruit, and she ate, and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate.” (Ibid. , 3:6) This, in turn, led the Almighty to ask: “Where are you?” (Ibid. , 3:9) Of course, G-d knew full well where Adam and Eve were physically located. Therefore, what was the Holy One Blessed be He, so to speak, really asking?
In my view, G-d put forth an existential question, or perhaps, the existential question: “Now that you have sinned against Me, what is your place within the great scheme of Creation? What is your value to the world, now that you have torn our covenant asunder?” In short, Hashem was asking some of the very same questions we should be asking ourselves as we approach Rosh Hashanah.
These types of questions should motivate us to pause and reflect upon our past actions. In addition, they should radically disturb our complacency, and thereby spur us on to substantive and depth-level change. In sum, they should lead us to the only logical conclusion for a spiritually sensitive person – it is time to do teshuvah (the act of returning to G-d). What is teshuvah? The Rambam (1135-1204) devoted an entire section of his halachic magnum opus, Mishneh Torah, to answering this question. His response forms the conceptual basis of this cathartic and spiritually cleansing process until our own time:
What exactly is teshuvah? [It is the act that demands] the sinner to reject his sin, remove it from his thoughts, and determine in his mind that he will never do it again...So, too, he must feel badly for what he has done in the past...and he must bear testimony to He who knows all secret matters that he will never repeat this sin again... In addition, he must verbally confess [his sin] and speak aloud of those things he has determined in his mind. (Hilchot Teshuvah 2:2)
Let us summarize the teshuvah process as delineated by Maimonides:
While the Hebrew months of Elul and Tishrei (the two months that precede and incorporate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) are the times wherein the obligation of doing teshuvah comes to the fore, it is actually an essential part of our daily prayer experience. Regrettably, it is often difficult for many of us to fully focus on what we are saying when we are praying. We are filled with concerns about many different matters and obligations that prevent us from concentrating upon the content and meaning of our prayers. Quite often, we do not even remember that the fifth bracha (blessing) of the Shemoneh Esrei (Amidah or Silent Prayer) focuses upon, and is entitled, “Teshuvah.”
Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, translates the aforementioned blessing in the following manner: “Bring us back, our Father, to your Torah. Draw us near, our King, to Your service. Lead us back to You in perfect repentance. Blessed are You, L-rd, who desires repentance.” (The Koren Siddur: Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks Edition, page 114) A brief analysis of this bracha reveals the following:
Fascinatingly, “Knowledge,” the blessing wherein we beg G-d to bestow knowledge (da’at) upon us, and teach us understanding (binah), precedes the bracha of teshuvah:
You grace humanity with knowledge. And teach mortals understanding. Grace us with the knowledge, understanding, and discernment that come from You. Blessed are You, L-rd, who graciously grants knowledge. (Ibid.)
The blessing of “Forgiveness” (“slicha”) follows the bracha of teshuvah. This is a natural progression, since the ultimate goal of teshuvah is the attainment of complete forgiveness:
Forgive us, our Father, for we have sinned. Pardon us, our King, for we have transgressed; for You pardon and forgive. Blessed are You, L-rd, the gracious One who repeatedly forgives. (Ibid.)
The first three berachot of the bakasha (request) section of the Shemoneh Esrei may now be seen as comprising a tightly interwoven conceptual unit: Knowledge leads to teshuvah which, in turn, leads to forgiveness. Clearly, the intellectual gesture is the fundamental component of the teshuvah-forgiveness nexus. It enables us to ascertain where we have gone wrong, and serves as a guidepost for our future actions. As Rabbeinu Shimshon Rafael Hirsch zatzal (1808-1888) pointed out in his Commentary on the Siddur, understanding (binah) “is the insight into the interrelationships of things, to be gained by logical judgment.” This is precisely what we need in order to become fully engaged in the teshuvah process. Binah, however, is not naturally acquired. It requires a single-minded dedication and drive to perfect the human condition. It is for this reason that Rav Hirsch stated: “The acquisition of binah requires strenuous effort to which man may not be equal and for which he may well lack the strength; for this reason he cannot attain binah without the help of G-d.”
Teshuvah may now be viewed as a process and act that demands mindfulness and total intellectual engagement. As such, let us pray to Hashem that He will partner with us in the acquisition of binah, so that we may join with Him to become new and better individuals. After all, this is precisely the intent of Jeremiah’s famous and stirring words in Megilat Eichah 5:21, wherein we implore our Creator to help us return unto Him: Hashiveinu Hashem alecha v’nashuvah chadash yemeinu k’kedem (Restore us to You, O L-rd, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old.). With G-d’s help, may we have the knowledge, understanding, desire, and intent to fulfill this prayer. V’chane yihi ratzon.
Kativa v’chatimah tovah and tizku l’shanim rabot.
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