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How to do Teshuvah Properly

The Rambam writes that any person who desires perfection can reach a high level similar to that of Moshe Rabbeinu; and he who desires evil can reach a low level similar to that of Yeravam ben Nevat. Rav Volbe zt"l explains that the decision to go one way or the other can be made in a few minutes; however, the actual process must span many years. It is not in a person's ability to change from a rasha to a tzaddik in one day. Although every person has free will, it is basically impossible to exercise it to the degree that will allow him to turn around 180 degrees in one moment.

The Mashgiach quotes Rav Dessler zt"l who ingeniously explains the concept of bechira - free will. When two countries wage war, the objective of each one is to conquer the entire territory that is presently under the dominion of its rival. However, the actual battle takes place only on one front. When the battle is over, one country has gained territory while the other has lost - and then the battle moves to a different location.

The war between the yetzer hatov (good inclination) and the yetzer hara (bad inclination) is no different. Most of our actions are not a product of our free will because they are not at the battlefront. There are many mitzvahs and good deeds that a person does without choosing at all; rather, they are dictated by the way he was brought up or his intrinsic nature. Likewise, there are many sins that one does without even realizing that they are wrong; it is simply the way he was educated. His nekudas habechira (point of bechira) is merely at one specific location. There, what he knows to be true clashes with what he imagines is true (but deep down really knows it's not). For example, many people speak lashon hara (slander) without even realizing that there is anything wrong with what they are doing. However, the yetzer hara will not come to these people and try to convince them to desecrate the Shabbos. Since they were little children they have been habituated to keep Shabbos and the yetzer hara knows that he has no chance of gaining a foothold in this area.

One's nekudas habechira is not stagnant. Every time he conditions himself to perform a mitzvah he gains ground on the yetzer hara and moves the battle to a point deeper in enemy territory. The yetzer hara no longer tries to get him to disregard this mitzvah because it is no longer a challenge to overcome this temptation. This mitzvah now enters the domain of the yetzer hatov. The yetzer hatov can now embark on conquering more territory by defeating the yetzer hara in a more difficult mitzvah. The opposite holds true for one who conditions himself to perform a sin.

It follows, that the level of one's upbringing merely determines his battlefront - his nekudas habechira. The nekudas habechira of one who grew up among sages will be regarding the finer aspects of each mitzvah; while the nekudas habechira of one who grew up among criminals will be at a much lower point. For him, stealing is a way of life and he doesn't even fathom that there is anything wrong with it. His bechira might come to light when he must decide if he will murder his victim or merely take his money and let him live.

We must approach Yom Kippur with this idea in mind. There might be many aspects of Torah and mitzvahs in which we feel that we are deficient. However, our repentance must begin with the sins that are within our nekudas habechira. One who, on a daily basis, prays without any concentration, cannot change this pattern in an instant. He must try to rectify this problem gradually. If he feels that it is in his ability to concentrate while he recites the blessings on the Torah, then he should start with that. This is why Rav Yisroel Salanter ztvk"l said that one should make a small, practical but ironclad kabbalah (resolution) before Rosh Hashana [or on Yom Kippur]. After finding one's nekudas habechira, a kabbalah will help him condition himself in a small aspect of his service of Hashem, thereby conquering territory from the yetzer hara. Then he will have won this battle and moved closer toward winning the entire war.

A gmar chasima tovah to all!

Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Jerusalem, Israel