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Torah Attitude: Haazinu/Shabbat Shuvah: Taking the first step towards repentance
In the special Haftorah on Shabbat Shuvah, the Prophet Hosea very explicitly admonishes the Jewish people, and instructs them to repent for their sins. When we repent we can reach right up to G'd's Heavenly Throne, irrelevant of how far away we were before. Any repentance at any time is accepted by G'd, and a person can repent till his last moment. It is difficult to change since we are comfortable in our ways and we do not see any immediate consequences of our daily conduct. In addition, our love for life and our desire to stay young distracts us from thinking about what will happen to us after we leave this world. The Mishnah reminds us of the day when we will have to stand in judgment for our conduct and says, "Be aware … in front of Who you will have to give account in the future." When a person starts to reflect upon what is the source of these blessings, or what is the cause of these curses, and takes it to heart, only then will it have an affect on him and bring him back closer to G'd. The first step towards repentance is reflecting on the blessings and curses of the world, and to realize that these are all Divine decrees. The Torah teaches us that we should not think that we need to travel far or go up to Heaven to make a change in our lifestyle. Although no one is expected to reach the Heavenly Throne in one instant, we are all obligated to take the first step in the right direction.
Hosea instructs us to repent
The Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is called "Shabbat Shuvah". On this Shabbat we read a special Haftorah starting with the words of the Prophet Hosea (Hosea 14:2): "Shuvah Yisrael." The Prophet instructs the Jewish people to return to G'd and repent for their sins. I vividly remember how every year on this Shabbat my late father would point out that Hosea does not cautiously ask us "maybe you have done something wrong that you must repent for"; instead, he very explicitly admonishes the Jewish people, and instructs us to repent for our sins. We all have what to repent for, as King Solomon says (Koheles 7:20): "There is no person so righteous on earth who only does good and does not sin." Every human being can make a mistake. As the saying goes "to err is human". Even our greatest prophet, Moses, was not above making mistakes. More than once he got angry and suffered the consequences (see Bamidbar 20:10-18 and 31:14 and 21 with Rashi). However, Moses was not disqualified to be the leader of the Jewish people because of his mistakes. No doubt, he repented and G'd accepted his repentance. This is what Hosea tells us, "Do not despair because of your sins. Do no think that everything is lost because of your transgressions. Do Teshuva and repent, and everything will be fine."
Reach up to G'd's throne
Nobody is too great and nobody is too small to admit their shortcomings to G'd. No one is so close to G'd that they do not need to repent, and no one is so far away from Him that they are not able to return to Him. The Talmud (Yuma 86a) comments on the words of Hosea that everyone who repents can reach right up to G'd's Heavenly Throne, irrelevant of how far away they were before. The Talmud (Berachot 34b) further says that the Baal Teshuva who sincerely repents can even reach a higher level than a regular righteous person (see also Zohar Bereishis 39a).
Repent till last moment
Sometimes people feel that they have drifted too far away and are too set in their ways to change their lifestyle. They admire people who take upon themselves the observance of the mitzvot and even encourage their grown-up children to do so. But for them, they feel it is too late. Rabbeinu Yonah (Gates of Repentance 1:9) addresses this and says that although the preferred timing for repentance is when a person is still young and full of strength, nevertheless every repentance is accepted at any time by G'd. As our sages say (Jerusalem Talmud Chagigah 2:1) a person can repent till his last moment. Rabbeinu Yonah further says (ibid 2:7) that as a person gets older and see the signs of age, one should realize that the end is getting closer and be aware of the destination towards which one is headed. This is in itself should arouse the person to repent.
Difficult to change
The reason why so many of us find it difficult to take the practical steps to change is first of all due to the fact that we are comfortable in our ways and we do not see any immediate consequences of our daily conduct. In addition, our love for life and our desire to stay young distracts us from thinking about what will happen to us after we leave this world.
Repent one day before death
The Mishnah (Pirkei Avos 3:1) reminds us of the day when we will have to stand in judgment for our conduct and says, ""Be aware … in front of Who you will have to give account in the future." The Mishnah further advises us to start the Teshuva process immediately, for no one knows how long we have in this world. The Mishnah therefore says (ibid 2:15): "Repent one day before you die." Only when we are ready to internalize these messages of the Mishnah will they have any affect on our daily conduct. If we choose to ignore them, we may go through life without making any changes.
Blessings and curses
This is what Moses says to the Jewish people in his final speech: (Devarim 31:1-2) "And it will be when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse … and you will take it to your heart … and you will return to HASHEM your G'd, and you will listen to His voice … you and your children." A person can go through life seeing blessings or curses, and neither will affect him to return to G'd. When a person starts to reflect upon what is the source of these blessings, or what is the cause of these curses, and takes it to heart, only then will it have an affect on the person and bring him back closer to G'd. A little later Moses says (ibid 31:11-15) "For this commandment that I command you today is not beyond you and it is not far away. It is not in the Heaven … and it is not across the ocean … for this matter is very close to you. It is in your mouth and in your heart to perform it." The Ramban and the Sforno explain that "this commandment" is referring to the obligation to repent and return to HASHEM that was mentioned just a few verses previously.
When a person is reflecting on the blessings and curses of the world, and realizes that these are all Divine decrees, he is taking the first step towards repentance. As it says in this week's Torah portion (Devarim 32:7-12) "Remember the days of yore, understand the years of the generations … for G'd's portion is His people … G'd guided them on His own and no other power was with Him." When we start analyzing the history of the Jewish people from Biblical times up to our own age, we see a pattern of blessings and curses, all dependent on the level of Torah observance of the Jewish people. This is what Moses informs us. Sooner or later, the time will come when we will reflect upon all of this; we will take it to heart and return to G'd. Not only will we return ourselves, but we will make sure that our children do the same.
Not travel far
The Torah teaches us that we should not feel that this is beyond us. Neither should we think that we need to travel far or go up to Heaven to make a change in our lifestyle. Once we go to Heaven it is too late to make any changes. Not only do we not have to go up to Heaven, the Sforno explains that we do not even need prophets, who see what is happening in Heaven, to guide us. Nor do we need to travel to seek out sages in distant countries who can teach us. It is within the reach of every one of us to make this personal commitment on our own and take the first step on the journey to return and get closer to G'd.
Obligated to take first step
No one is expected to finish the job and reach the Heavenly Throne in one instant. However, we are all obligated to take the first step in that direction. We can all commit ourselves to change or improve one or two items as our first step for this year. Every individual is unique and every personal situation is different. But we all have one thing in common: we are obligated to utilize these Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to get closer to G'd. For one person it may be to undertake to start and observe the Shabbat; for another to be more careful and make sure that his dealings are made in honesty; and for a third person, to be more careful not to gossip and speak evil about others. Moses instructs us and says, "It is in your mouth and in your heart" to do it. The teshuva process has to affect our deeds, our speech, and our hearts. G'd is ready to listen to us as we come and say viduy (confessional prayers), but it has to be with a pure heart of regret for the past and a firm resolve to change the deeds for the future. In His great mercy, G'd has given us these ten days of repentance to change our ways and thereby bring about that the new year should be a year filled with blessing for everyone. It is up to each of us to take our personal first step.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network