Towards the end of our weekday morning service and towards the beginning of the afternoon services of Shabbos and the Festivals, there is a long prayer called, Uva L’Tzion, and it begins with the following quote:
“A redeemer shall come to Zion and to those in Jacob who turn back from defection, says Hashem.” (Isaiah 59:20)
The above verse connects the coming of the redeemer to Zion with those among our people who engage in a process of teshuvah – returning to Hashem, the Compassionate and Life-Giving One. The Talmud therefore states in the name of Rabbi Yonasan: “Great is teshuvah, for it brings the redemption closer” (Yoma 86b).
The long prayer, Uva L’Tzion, also includes the following verse where King David prays:
“For You, Master of All, are good and forgiving, and rich in loving-kindness to all who call upon You.” (Psalm 86:5).
In his commentary on the above prayer, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that King David is saying to the Creator:
“To grant forgiveness is Your nature. You have love in store for every human being.”
We are now in the midst of “The Ten Days of Teshuvah” which conclude with Yom Kippur. Some individuals, however, encounter a major obstacle in this process of teshuvah. They feel overwhelmed by their faults, and they do not realize that Hashem is the Forgiving One. They therefore feel that their initial steps on the road of return will be rejected, and their hearts become full of despair. One factor that can cause this despair regarding the possibility of teshuvah is a lack of Torah education regarding the Divine compassion, love, and forgiveness.
A second factor which can cause despair about the possibility of teshuvah is a person’s troubled relationship with one or both parents in early childhood – a relationship which can also affect one’s relationship with Hashem, the Parent of us all. For example, someone who was raised by an overly stern, overly critical, and unforgiving parent may have initial difficulty realizing that Hashem is our loving, encouraging, and forgiving Parent. Without this realization, a person can become despondent.
A third factor which can cause despair regarding the possibility of teshuvah is suffering. Each person goes through some suffering in life, and without a Torah perspective on the deeper meaning of suffering, one may mistakenly conclude that one’s suffering is a sign of Divine rejection. They therefore feel that any efforts at self-improvement and spiritual growth are futile.
A fourth factor which can cause despair regarding the possibility of teshuvah is the desire to accomplish too much, too soon. A person who tries to accomplish too much at once may experiences failure and thereby feel that teshuvah is an impossible goal. This person needs to realize that the process of teshuvah can be compared to climbing a ladder, step-by-step. If one tries to jump to a much higher step before one climbs the preceding steps, one can fall off the ladder! The following teachings can therefore serve as guidelines as how to avoid the despair that results from an obsessive desire to accomplish too much at once:
The haftorah that we chanted on the Shabbos after Rosh Hashanah opens with the following proclamation: “Return Israel to Hashem, your God” (Hosea 14:2). The commentator, Ibn Ezra, explains that we are to return to Hashem, “little by little” – step by step.
It is written in the Book of Proverbs: “One who hurries on his feet is a sinner” (Proverbs 19:2). The Vilna Gaon explains that this teaching refers to one who attempts to improve his character traits in a very rapid manner. With regard to improving character traits, writes the Vilna Gaon, one should patiently go “from level to level, like climbing a ladder, and one should not jump to a level that one is not ready for” (commentary on the Book of Proverbs). The Vilna Gaon adds that one who attempts to jump to a high level that one is not ready for is “sinning and stands to lose everything, for one will fall from it.”
Yes, “despair” can be a major obstacle on the road of return. The haftorah which we chant on Yom Kippur addresses this problem through the following Divine message:
“For thus said the Exalted and Uplifted One, Who abides forever and Whose Name is holy: I abide in exaltedness and holiness, but I am with the despondent and lowly of spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the despondent.” (57:15).
According to the commentator, Rashi, Hashem is saying, “I am with the despondent and lowly of spirit upon whom I lower My Shechinah (Divine Presence).”
The Loving Shechinah descends in order “to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the despondent.” In this spirit, we refer to Hashem in our daily prayers as, “The Healer of the brokenhearted” (Psalm 147:3). And on Yom Kippur, we chant the following words from the Aramaic prayer, Rachmana D’Anei La’aniyei:
“O Loving One Who answers the brokenhearted, answer us!”
Gmar Chasimah Tovah – Have a Good Sealing,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen
1. The Mishnah – Tractate Yoma – discusses Yom Kippur, and Tractate Yoma concludes with the following teaching of Rabbi Akiva:
“Fortunate are you, O Israel. Before Whom are you purified and Who purifies you? Your Father in Heaven!” (Yoma 8:9)
Rabbi Akiva then quotes the following Divine statement: “I will sprinkle pure water upon you, and you will be purified” (Ezekiel 36:25).
Rabbi Akiva also cites the following biblical phrase where Hashem is referred to as “the Mikveh of Israel” (Jeremiah 14:8).
The term mikveh has two possible meanings. It can refer to hope, and it can also refer to a body of purifying natural waters. Rabbi Akiva follows the second interpretation, and he concludes his teaching with the following message to our people:
“Just as a mikveh purifies the impure, so too, the Holy One, Blessed is He, purifies Israel.”
The commentator, Tiferes Yisrael, discusses Rabbi Akiva’s teaching in his commentary on the Mishnah (Yoma 8:9), and he writes:
“There is no need for any intermediary whatsoever between the children and their Father, the Compassionate One, since it is His compassion itself that serves as Israel's mikveh and purification.”
The Tiferes Yisrael adds:
“His hands are always open to receive them through their teshuvah, and to embrace them with great love and eternal love.”
2. Any human being can be close to the Compassionate One without an intermediary, as it is written:
“Hashem is close to all who call upon Him, to all who call upon Him sincerely.” (Psalm 145:18)
The classical commentator, Radak, explains that this verse is revealing that the Compassionate One is close to “all” who call upon Him, “regardless of nationality.”
3. In the future age of enlightenment, all human beings will engage in the process of teshuvah, as King David proclaimed:
“All the ends of the earth will remember and return to Hashem” (Psalm 22:28).
In his commentary on the words “will remember,” Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes:
“Defection from God was never an inborn trait with individuals or with humankind as a whole. The unspoiled hearts of children are close to God, and the same was true of humankind in its pristine state. Alienation from Him came much later. Therefore, through the stimulus emanating from Israel, they will all ‘remember’; their original consciousness of God will come alive again, and they will ‘return’ to Him.” (The Psalms - Translation and Commentary by Rabbi S.R. Hirsch)
4. I studied the above commentaries of the Ibn Ezra and the Vilna Gaon in their original sources; however, I became familiar with these sources through an article on teshuvah by Rabbi Moshe Gylak, the Editor-in-Chief of Mishpacha Magazine (27 Ellul, 5770 – September 6, 2010). His article cited quotes from a pamphlet on teshuvah by Rav Yonasan Aber. This pamphlet cites the commentaries of Ibn Ezra and the Vilna Gaon.
5. Yom Kippur this year falls on Shabbos, and it begins on Friday evening, September 17th. The fast begins before sunset, and we also light the candles or oil lamps before sunset. (Check your Jewish calendar for the times of lighting in your region.)