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Teshuvah (Repentance) – the Long Way Back

The Alter of Navhardok zt"l (Rabbi Yosef Horowitz, founder of the branch of the Mussar Movement known as "Navhardok") describes a person who has to travel on a ship five hundred miles north. After traveling the allotted distance, he is surprised that he doesn't see anything familiar. Checking his maps he is horrified to discover that he has been traveling south the entire trip. That means that he is now one thousand miles away from his destination.

The first thing he must do, says the Alter, is STOP! Having realized his mistake, he should certainly stop traveling further in the wrong direction.

The next thing he should do is turn his ship around. It won't help to merely face the other way while the ship continues to travel further and further away from his goal.

Then begins the long, arduous trip back to where he wanted to go in the first place. It will take quite a while, for sure. The further he traveled in the wrong direction, the longer it will take him to get to where he wanted to be. But as long as he continues to go the right way now, he will eventually get there.

This, says the Alter, is what teshuvah is all about. The literal translation of the word is "to return." And it is a process which takes a very long time to do properly; relevant to how far one has gone astray. But Hashem is patient with us, and we must be patient with ourselves.

I once heard Reb Ya'akov Kaminetsky ztvk"l say that anyone who imagines on Yom Kippur that tomorrow he will be a complete tzaddik (righteous one) is a fool! His goal should be that from now on he will improve himself. And this improvement will get better and better until eventually he will become what he is supposed to be.

But doesn't this contradict the Rambam who writes (Hilchos Teshuvah 2:2), "And what is teshuvah? It is the sinner's abandoning his sin and removing it from his mind and positively deciding in his heart that he will not do it again…and He Who knows the mysteries (of one's heart – i.e. Hashem) will bear witness of him that he will never return to this sin again…?"

My Rebby, shlita, explained that, in any event, this Rambam seems to contradict a Rashi in Chumash. In Bereishis (Chapter 21) it is related that Avraham chased away his wife Hagar and her son Yishmael, as Sarah had suggested and Hashem agreed. "She departed, and strayed in the desert of Beer Sheva. When the water of the skin was consumed, she cast off the boy beneath one of the trees. She went and sat herself down at a distance, some bowshots away, for she said, ‘Let me not see the death of the child.' And she sat at a distance, lifted her voice, and wept. And Hashem heard the cry of the youth, and an angel of Hashem called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for Hashem has heeded the cry of the youth in his present state'" (Ibid 14-17).

Rashi brings an explanation from the Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 53:14) which explains what it means that Hashem heeded the youth's cry "in his present state."

"According to the actions he is now doing shall he be judged and not according to what he may do in the future. Because the ministering angels testified against him, saying, ‘Master of the Universe, for him whose descendants will at one time kill your children with thirst will You provide a well?' He asked them, ‘What is he now, righteous or wicked?' They replied to him, ‘Righteous.' He said to them, ‘According to his present deeds will I judge him.' This is the meaning of what is written; ‘For Hashem has heeded the cry of the youth in his present state.'"

Here we see the Sages concluding the exact opposite of the Rambam. Not only did Hashem not bear witness of Yishmael that he will never return to his sin again, but, quite to the contrary, His discussion with the Angels involved the fact that he will sin in the future. Yet Hashem declared that He only focuses on his present state and since now he is righteous He will heed his cry and save him. Indeed, in the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16b), Rabbi Yitzchak learned from this that "According to the actions he is now doing shall he be judged and not according to what he may do in the future."

My Rebby explained (perhaps in the name of his Mashgiach, Harav Hatzaddik Reb Shlomo Harkavi ztvk"l) that there is a major difference. When one is involved in teshuvah, either because it is the "season" or because he is experiencing a personal crisis which leads him to retrospect, he lifts himself to spiritual heights he doesn't usually attain. It is quite natural that after the moment passes, he will fall again. The Rambam demands that the criteria for a proper teshuvah include that Hashem bear witness that were he to remain in his present state he would never sin again. This is contrary to one whose repentance is total lip service and, even in his present state, has not reached the proper level of remorse. But one who seriously regrets his mistakes of the past and has turned his ship around and begun the long journey back, his teshuvah is accepted even if Hashem knows that he will not remain on this elated level in the future. As long as he is sincere in his present conviction, Hashem says, "According to his present deeds will I judge him and not according to what he may do in the future."

Therefore, we should never let our Yetzer Hara discourage us from doing teshuvah by telling us, "Whom are you trying to fool? You know very well that when this mood passes you'll be doing those sins again." For although it may be true, as long as his present conviction is sincere and he wants to be good and do what is right, then Hashem is patient with him as he begins the long journey to where he really wants to be.

May Hashem help us use this month of Elul properly, to return to Him with all of our hearts and souls, and may we all be blessed with a kesivah ve'chasimah tovah, a year of peace, health and prosperity, together with all of our brothers and sisters around the world, amen.

Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Jerusalem, Israel