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Parshas Nitzavim

Tefilla - The "Rite" of Return
by Rabbi Yosef Levinson

At this time of year when we are focussed on teshuva, repenting and improving our ways, we are more meticulous in our observance of the mitzvos. This is perhaps most noticeable in our tefillos, prayers, more so than any other area. We daven with much more sincerity than the rest of the year and we recite extra tefillos, selichos, beseeching the Ribbono Shel Olam , Master of the Universe to forgive us and grant us another year of life.

Rabbeinu Yona actually lists tefilla as one of the ikarei hateshuva - it is an integral component of the teshuva process (Sha'arei Teshuva 1:41). We also see the connection between tefilla and teshuva in the following passuk from this week's parsha. "For this mitzva that I command you today… is not distant ... rather the matter is very near to you, in your mouth and heart, to fulfil it." (Devarim 30:11-14). The Rambam explains that this passuk is referring to the mitzva of teshuva. Even if you are living in the farthest corners of the earth amongst the nations of the world, you can still repent. It is not too difficult or distant, rather it is very close whatever time or place. Teshuva is in your mouth and in your heart. All that is necessary is to verbally confess your sins and return in your heart to Hashem and to accept upon yourself to observe the Torah. This can also be understood as a reference to tefilla - it is in your mouth- through tefilla we are able to return to Hashem.

We all know that we should daven for all of our needs. Therefore, Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner z"tl states that it is obvious that we should also pray for forgiveness. Is forgiveness any less important than children, life and earning a livelihood? Rather, Rabbi Hutner writes, if Rabbeinu Yona included tefilla as one of the ikarei hateshuva he must mean that not only are we obligated to ask Hashem for forgiveness because of the mitzva to daven, but the mitzva to do teshuva also requires us to daven for forgiveness. How then does tefilla enhance our teshuva?

In order to repent properly before Hashem we must be fully aware of the severity of the aveira that was committed. Charata, regret is a requirement for teshuva. The more we realise the magnitude of our aveiros, the more remorse we will feel. Rabbeinu Yona writes that the degree of teshuva that we reach corresponds to the intensity of sorrow that we feel over our transgressions (See Sha'arei Teshuva 1:12 - 14). Therefore it behooves us to reflect on the magnitude of sinning against Hashem. However, if we were fully cognizant of the seriousness of rebelling against Hashem and if we were truly aware of His awesomeness and greatness we might say "How can we repent from such a terrible act? Hashem will not forgive us!" We will believe that it is impossible to repent. Rabbi Yitzchak Blazer z"tl (Reb Itzele Petersburger) writes that this actually occurred in the generation of Yechezkel. Yechezkel exhorted the people to repent. However they answered him, "Since our sins and our iniquities are upon us and we are wasting away because of them, how can we live?"(Yechezkel 33:10). Rashi explains that they believed their sins were unforgivable. Reb Itzele writes that this was because they lived in the times of the Beis Hamikdash and witnessed miracles on a daily basis. Therefore they understood the full extent of their transgressions.

But how can we ponder the severity of our aveiros yet still believe in Hashem's compassion and mercy for His children? This is where tefilla plays a role. When we daven to Hashem we realise His awe and might. Only the Ribbono Shel Olam can fulfil our requests. This in turn awakens the recognition of all the good that He has bestowed upon us. Yet we had the audacity to sin against Him! The full impact of our actions confronts us. At the same time though, we know that Hashem wants us to daven. "Selach lanu Avinu" - Forgive us our Father. We still are His children and He wants us to return to him.

There is also another benefit of praying for teshuva. Teshuva is more than asking Hashem to pardon us. Teshuva mei'ahava, out of love, is to return to Hashem, to seek a relationship with him. When we sin we are distant from him. If we truly want to be close with the Ribbono Shel Olam we must show Him that this is our desire. We can do this through tefilla. As we explained last week, while all other mitzvos bring us closer to Hashem through their fulfilment, the mitzva of tefilla is to actually be close to Him. We are having an audience with Hashem. When we daven to the Ribbono Shel Olam and we come before Him, we demonstrate that we are repenting out of love - we want to return to Him.

Let us fully utilize the gifts of tefilla and teshuva and may Hashem answer our tefillos and bring us back to him.

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