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Torah Attitude: Yom Kippur: "Repentance, Prayer and Charity push aside the evil decree."
"Repentance, Prayer and Charity push aside the evil decree." We make this declaration pursuant to the "Unesaneh Tokef" prayer where we describe the awesome holiness of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The Ten Days from Rosh Hashanah till Yom Kippur are especially suited for returning to G'd. The Rambam explains that teshuvah itself has four components. It is important for every Baal Teshuvah to have a mentor. The Baal Teshuvah should ask for Divine assistance that G'd shall help him to keep growing in his teshuvah process. We are not like robots that can be programmed to act one way and then be switched to act differently according to another program. It is not sufficient to just change our acts but we must involve our mouths and hearts as well. A most important part of the teshuvah process is to be subservient to G'd and to do acts of kindness and give charity to others. Many sins stem from a person being self-centred and not caring about anybody else, even G'd. As the Ten Days of Repentance are coming to a close on Yom Kippur, we must utilize this special opportunity to return to G'd and accept upon ourselves to follow His instructions.
Importance of prayer
The last two weeks we have been discussing the importance of prayer. We also mentioned how to maximize the power of our prayers by making sure that we do not contaminate our mouth with prohibited talk.
Repentance, Prayer and Charity
Prayer is one of the three things that we mention in the Mussaf prayer on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur during the repetition of Shemoneh Esrei. The whole congregation declares in unison: "Repentance, Prayer and Charity push aside the evil decree."
"Unesaneh Tokef" prayer
We make this declaration pursuant to the "Unesaneh Tokef" prayer where we describe the awesome holiness of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In this prayer the author explains that the judgment of everyone is written down on Rosh Hashanah and signed on Yom Kippur (see also Talmud Rosh Hashanah 16a). The Ten Days from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur gives us the opportunity to push away an unfavourable judgment through repentance, prayer and charity. Rabbeinu Yaacov Mullin, better known as the Maharil, explains the significance of the order of these three things. First and foremost a person must repent, for repentance is a prerequisite for the power of both prayer and charity to take effect.
G'd more available
The Rambam (Laws of Repentance 2:4) takes it a step further and writes that prayer and charity is part of the actual process of repentance. Based on the teachings of the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 18a) the Rambam continues to explain that although teshuvah (repentance) is accepted by G'd all year round, the Ten Days from Rosh Hashanah till Yom Kippur are especially suited for returning to G'd and taking upon ourselves to change our ways in the areas where we have been negligent and transgressed any of the commandments. During these days, says the Rambam, G'd, so to say, makes Himself more available, and every individual who utilizes this opportunity can feel assured that his teshuvah is immediately accepted. This is what the Prophet Isaiah refers to when he says (55:6): "Seek G'd when he makes Himself available, call upon Him when He is close."
Four components of teshuvah
The Rambam (Laws of Repentance 2:2) explains that teshuvah itself has four components: (1) To discontinue what one has done wrong till now and not even think about doing it anymore; (2) To resolve and make a strong commitment never to do it again; (3) To sincerely regret what one has done wrong in the past; and (4) To verbally confess and express one's decision to change. Rabbeinu Yonah (Gates of Repentance 1) breaks the teshuvah process into twenty subdivisions. He explains that if a person has been transgressing a certain commandment on a regular basis, his first step is to stop his transgression and resolve never to do it again. After that, he should realize the evil of his past and regret what he did. But if someone slipped once and fell into sin, this person, says Rabbeinu Yonah, must first of all regret his sin, and then build up his fear of G'd to ensure that he will not sin again.
Guide and support of a mentor
Many Baalei Teshuvah sincerely want to change their lifestyle but find it difficult to totally disengage themselves from their past. Some cling to their social circle. Others try to stick to their previous mode of dress, etc. The Rambam (Laws of Repentance 2:4) addresses this and says that the Baal Teshuvah must remove himself as far as possible from whatever has connection to his transgressions. Says the Rambam, he must also make an effort to change his identity, as if to say "I am a different person, not the same one that used to do those transgressions." It is also important for every Baal Teshuvah to have a mentor. The job of the mentor is to support him and give guidance how to deal with the many issues, such as how to behave with close family and friends without offending anyone.
Rabbeinu Yonah (Gates of Repentance 1:41-43) explains that when the Baal Teshuvah prays as part of his teshuvah process, he should ask that G'd, in His great mercy, forgive him for all his transgressions, and that from now on he shall find favour in the eyes of G'd as if he never sinned. He should also ask for Divine assistance that G'd shall help him to keep growing in his teshuvah process.
We are not robots
However, a question arises with all of this. Why is it not sufficient just to stop whatever one is doing wrong and to resolve not to do it again? Why is it so important that one regrets the past and confesses verbally? To answer this we must remember that we are not like robots that can be programmed to act one way and then be switched to act differently according to another program. We are human beings with personalities that have been built up over many years. The lifestyles that we have chosen suit our personalities and are very hard to change. On top of that, we have our emotions that we cannot just switch overnight. For a secular person to turn his life around and become a Baal Teshuvah it takes a lot of work. And even a person, who has only transgressed certain commandments and does not need to make a complete u-turn in his life, also needs a tremendous amount of effort to make lasting changes to his lifestyle. Therefore, we need to internalize how wrong we have been, in order to make an effective change.
Involve our mouth and heart
All the components of the teshuvah process are based on verses from scripture as explained by our sages. In Parashas Nitzavim it says (Devarim 30:2): "And you will return to HASHEM your G'd and listen to His voice." A little later it says (Devarim 30:11-14): "For this commandment ... is not hidden from you and it is not distant ... For the matter is very close to you in your mouth and in your heart to perform it." The Ramban explains that "this commandment" refers to doing teshuvah when we decide to return to G'd and observe His commandments. The Torah clearly teaches us that it is not sufficient to just change our acts but we must involve our mouths and hearts as well. With our mouths we confess our wrongdoings and we regret them in our hearts. Psychologically, this will make the change much more effective, and ensure that it will be a sincere and lasting commitment. Our mouths and hearts are also the tools we use to pray to G'd as part of the teshuvah process, as we mentioned last week.
We still need to clarify how dispensing charity comes into the picture. What does charity have to do with doing teshuvah more than any other commandment? The Prophet Micah (6:6) describes how the Jewish people will eventually ask, "How shall I come forward to HASHEM and how can I show my subservience to G'd in the high." And the prophet answers (6:8): "He has already told you what is good, and what G'd expects of you, only to perform justice and love kindness ..." Rabbeinu Yonah (Gates of Repentance 1:25) explains that we learn from this that a most important part of the teshuvah process is to be subservient to G'd and to do acts of kindness and give charity to others. But the question remains, why is it so important?
Diminish egocentric feelings
The answer may be that many sins stem from a person being self-centred and not caring about anybody else, even G'd. When a person trains himself to do acts of kindness and dispense charity, he develops his interest in others and diminishes his egocentric feelings. With this accomplishment it will be easier for him to accept upon himself to observe all commandments, both between man and G'd and between man and his fellow beings.
As the Ten Days of Repentance are coming to a close on Yom Kippur, we must utilize this special opportunity to return to G'd and accept upon ourselves to follow His instructions. In this merit, may we soon see the fulfilment of what it says further in Parashas Nitzavim (Devarim 30:5): "And HASHEM your G'd will bring you to the land that your ancestors inherited and you will inherit it, and He will do good to You and make you more numerous than your forefathers." Amen.
Gemar Chatimah Tovah to you and your family.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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