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How to Repent on the High Holy Days

What does it take to become a real ba'al teshuvah (a penitent person)? Rabbi Noach Weinberg shlita, founder and Dean of Aish HaTorah, was one of the first to herald the Teshuvah Movement of this generation. He often says, "In order to know the truth, you must connect with your neshama (soul). Because since the neshama is actually a part of Hashem, it knows the absolute truth. Therefore, when you connect with it, you become cognizant of it too."

I'm not sure that I really understand the practicality of the Rosh Yeshiva's words - how exactly does one connect with his neshama - but I believe that the hero in the following story did exactly that.

Rabbi Uri Zohar shlita was once one of the greatest actors in Israel and was the idol of all Israelis. His comedy skits were the talk of the town as his funny lines were quoted by all, over and over again. Israelis were shocked when he became a complete ba'al teshuvah and abandoned the theatre for a life totally dedicated to service of His Creator. Today, Rav Uri still attracts very large crowds when he speaks at seminars about true, authentic Judaism and he always makes a tremendous kiddush Hashem (sanctification of G-d's Name) whenever he does.

Invariably, someone in the audience always asks him. "Uri, what made you change your way of life so drastically?" His answer is as follows, "I know that you want to hear some dramatic story which made me realize the truth. But, in reality, my story is not that exciting. However, I will tell you about a close friend of mine who repented too, and his story is the one you want to hear.

"My friend was a doctor who believed that everything was natural and totally rejected any reference to the supernatural. He also was a letz (a joker) like I am. One day I met him and was shocked to see a kippah upon his head. I asked him what in the world had happened, and he told me the following story.

"He fell off of a very high mountain, and as he was rolling towards a sure death he passed a tree which was growing out of the side of the cliff. He grabbed a hold of a weak branch and it stopped his fall; but it didn't seem strong enough to hold him for long. The odds were that it would quickly snap and he would continue his plunge into the Valley of Death.

"My friend said a prayer to G-d and said, 'Hashem, if you save, me, I promise that I will become a totally observant Jew.' Miraculously, he was saved, somehow. And so, he said, he kept his word and became religious.

"Upon hearing this account, I began to laugh. 'I know you too well to believe this explanation,' I told him. 'Since when do you keep your word? You want to tell me that because you made a promise, you felt obligated to keep it? It just cannot be. That's not you.'

"My friend immediately agreed with me. "'You're right, Uri,' he said. 'It was not the promise itself which made me feel bound to fulfill it. What happened was that after I was saved, I began to think about what had actually occurred. You know me, I never in my life had anything to do with Hashem, nor did I even know His Name. On the other hand, you know how crazy I am about basketball. Like most Israelis, that is my life. And my hero is Berkowitz, the Israeli star whom everyone idolizes. He is the one I think about day and night and his name is always on my lips.

"' This being the case, I began to wonder. How did Hashem's Name come out of my mouth? Why didn't I say, "Berkowitz, save me?" That would have made much more sense. Why would I call upon someone I didn't know at all?

"'I began to think about this a lot. Finally, I came to the conclusion that although, consciously, I didn't know Hashem, apparently, subconsciously, some part within me does. And the prayer I had said had come from that part of me. Once I realized that, I began to think what part of me it could have been that knows Hashem. And I realized that it must be my neshama. After that, everything else just followed naturally. And so, you are right. It wasn't the vow I had made which obligated me, but the very fact that I had made the vow to a Being I had never known that made me realize the truth and become fully observant, Thank G-d.'"

Although I'm still not sure how we can get in touch with our neshamos, I have the feeling that on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, when we are more like angels than like human beings and our souls rule over our bodies, it just may be possible to make that connection and know the truth. Let's try it.

Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Jerusalem, Israel