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Repentance from Joy

Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20 )


Devarim, 30:1-2: “And it will be when all these things come upon you – the blessing and the curse that I have presented before you – then you will take it to your heart among all the nations where Hashem, your God has dispersed you; and you will return unto Hashem, your God and listen to His voice, according to everything that I commanded you today, you and your children, with all your heart and with all your soul.”

The Torah tells us that the terrible curses that we will undergo, will bring us to repentance. This is easy to comprehend: Travails such as sickness and poverty often cause a person to introspect and to change their ways. However, the verse does not restrict this prediction to curses, it also says that the blessings will cause the people to do teshuva. In what way do blessings bring a person to teshuva?

Rabbi Yissachar Frand notes that some commentaries explain the Torah is referring to someone who first was blessed and then things deteriorated for him and it is the change from blessings to curses that prompts him to repent. However, he cites a different interpretation from the Shemen HaTov that more closely adheres to the simple meaning of the verse: He posits that the Torah means that the blessings themselves can and indeed, should, be the catalyst for teshuva. If a person is doing well in life, he should ask himself why things are going so well? He should not answer that it is because of his own righteousness, intellect or talent – there are plenty of righteous, intelligent and talented people who endure various types of suffering. Rather, he should recognize that it is because of God’s kindness to him. Once he internalizes how much God does for him, he should be motivated to ‘pay God back’ so to speak, by doing what He asks of him. This can cause him to correct his ways, and he can avoid having to suffer any ‘curses’ in order to motivate him to repent.

Of course, the reality is that when things are going well, there is a temptation to think it is in one’s own merits, and to think to oneself, in the words of the Torah: “my power and the strength of my hand caused this success”. Accordingly, reacting to good times with teshuva is something that does not come naturally and requires significant work.

The great Torah Sages lived with this approach: The Chofetz Chaim was once overheard speaking to God: “Master of the Universe, You have done so much for me already. I have written the Sefer, (book) Shemirat HaLashon (Guard your Tongue)1. I have written the Mishneh Berurah2. You have done so much for me already, what can I do for you already3?” Rav Frand points out, “If we ever wrote the Mishneh Berurah, most likely our attitude would be, ‘Look, God, I wrote the Mishneh Berurah. I made Orach Chaim (the section about daily living) learnable! You owe me! I resuscitated the Mitzva of Guarding One’s Tongue. Now it’s my turn!’ The Chofetz Chaim looked at it from a totally different perspective. I had the merit to write Shemirat HaLashon and Mishneh Berurah. This was only because of God’s kindness to me to allow this to happen. What can I now do for God?”

It seems that this idea is highly relevant to the work of Elul. One aspect of Elul that stands out from the rest of the year is the twice daily recitation of Psalm 27: The opening verse has references to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but the rest of the chapter does not discuss teshuva at all – what does it have to do with Elul? Rabbi Immanuel Bernstein4 explains that it focuses on our reliance on God’s protection in all situations. A prerequisite of teshuva is God awareness, and an effective way of developing this awareness is to focus on God’s ongoing help and protection. We recite this chapter twice daily to remind ourselves that God is “there for us” constantly, and that the time has come to come back to him. It is easier to develop this appreciation when things are going well than when they are difficult. This provides a foundation on which the process of repentance can be built.

Rabbi Bernstein suggests that the Selichot prayers that we say leading up to Rosh Hashanah serve a similar purpose. There is very little actual mention of teshuva, regret for sins or resolve not to repeat them. Selichot is essentially a prayer establishing our connection with God. As Rabbi Bernstein5 points out, this is not instead of repentance, rather it is a prerequisite for repentance. It is possible to approach the process of repentance with the goal of simply not being punished, without having a goal of reconnecting with God. However, this repentance leaves the person detached and isolated from the Divine, and does not bring about a genuine ‘return’ to God.”

The Leket Yosher6 develops the idea that Selichot plays a role in the process of repentance from a place of joy as opposed to fear. The first day of Selichot is always a Sunday, immediately following Shabbos. He explains the reason for this: “On Shabbat, people are free of work and are able to set aside time for learning Torah. That is why it is good to start Selichot on Sunday, for people are happy due to the Mitzva of learning Torah that they have performed on Shabbat.” These words teach us that, while repentance is serious business and may require us to confront some uncomfortable truths, the predominant tone is one of joy, and the goal is not just cleansing, but of returning to a state of closeness to God.

This optimistic mood will hopefully ensure that the difficult moments within repentance do not lead us to despair or depression, rather will launch us to a new and close connection to God, through the joy of gratitude to God for all He does for us.

  1. His seminal work on forbidden speech.
  2. His seminal work on Jewish law.
  3. Cited by Rav Yissachar Frand, shlit’a.
  4. Teshuvah, p.24.
  5. Ibid, p.33.
  6. Leket Yosher, Vol 1, p.118.

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