As we stand on the eve of Yom Kippur and look back at the last forty days, it has been…an experience. We have gone through the month of Elul, Rosh Hashanah, and the Aseres Yimei Teshuvah, and we now have arrived at Yom Kippur, the most incredible, holy, and awesome day of the year. A day that represents our final chance to achieve repentance for our sins, our priority is to use these last hours to focus on doing Teshuvah. There is no better time than now to make sure we know exactly how Teshuvah works. Here are a few ideas about Teshuvah to keep in mind as we experience Yom Kippur.
Every year when Elul comes around, we do our best to improve ourselves. Whether we accept new stringencies on ourselves to improve our behavior and reinforce our commitment to Hashem, promise to dedicate ourselves more to the study of Torah and doing mitzvos and treating people better, we are all focused on becoming better people. And yet, it seems that every year, shortly after Yom Kippur ends, we go right back to the way we acted before, as if nothing ever changed.
The Gemarah in Moed Katan (27) says that a person who does the same sin over and over again, eventually begins to treat it as if it is not a sin at all! Rashi explains further that from that point on, he will never do Teshuvah for that sin. But perhaps this isn’t true, maybe that person will come to his senses and realize that what he is doing is wrong; will he no longer be able to do Teshuvah? Of course he will! Rather, explains R’ Shalom Schwadron ZT”L, the Maggid of Yerushalayim, what happens is that this person will continue to do Teshuvah year after year and then, following Yom Kippur, will go and do the same sin again. The end result is that this person does not just see that he keeps doing the same sin, he sees that his motivation to do Teshuvah and go back on his bad habits was not real! He’s still doing the same sins! Eventually, because he does not see any value in it, Teshuvah will become worthless to him and he won’t do it anymore! Can you imagine losing Teshuvah, such an important part of our lives! This is what the gemarah in Moed Katan meant when it said that he treats his sins as no big deal.
This is an idea we must keep in mind. We too see that no matter how much we try and change in Elul, eventually, the whole cycle repeats itself and once again we find ourselves at Yom Kippur asking forgiveness for the very same sins we did last year! Perhaps, chas v’shalom, our Teshuvah is worthless! This is of course not true, our Teshuvah matters very much. We must continue to motivate ourselves to do Teshuvah, let us tell ourselves that perhaps this is the year that we will overcome our Yetzer Hara and our commitments will stick!
The truth is, keeping to our commitments from this time of year would go a long way in making us feel good about ourselves, however, it is extremely hard to accept new projects and make sure to follow through on them for a year or even longer! An idea to help with this is to think of a commitment, then take half of it…then split it again and make that your new commitment. Besides for helping avoid the issue of taking on a huge commitment, it is more important that you stick to your commitment fully than try to impress by taking on more than you can handle. Therefore, it is better to take on a small commitment and be able to completely accomplish it, than to take on something big and only complete some of it.
There is a story told in the Gemarah (Avoda Zara 17) of a man named Elazar ben Durdaya who went out of his way to commit some of the worst sins imaginable. One day, he was told that he could no longer do Teshuvah for sins. He went and sat between two mountains and asked that their ministering angels should daven for him. When they refused, he realized, “the matter is entirely dependent on me.” He began crying and davening so hard that he passed away. Immediately a voice came out of heaven, declared him a tzaddik, and that he was going straight to Olam Haba.
This story has many different points we can discuss, however, the one I want to bring out is this idea of “the matter is entirely dependent on me”. During Elul, we constantly seek out different motivating sources to help us do Teshuvah. Whether it’s going to a shiur, reading inspirational stories, or looking for that person who can unlock for us the secrets of the universe, we have many different places from which to choose. However, there comes a time when we have to sit up and realize that at the end of the day, the only one who can change us into someone better is…us. No matter how many speeches I hear or stories I read, only I have the power to truly change myself.
We also see this idea by Yonah, whose story we read at Mincha of Yom Kippur. When a storm hits his boat, even though there were many people on the boat who served idols and were tremendous sinners, Yonah did not think for a second that this storm had anything to do with them. Rather, he knew right away that he was the source of this trouble since he did not listen to Hashem; he did not blame anyone else for one second! (See Yonah 1:12.) This is the most important lesson we can take from this story of Rabbi Elazar ben Durdaya, that when a person sins or something bad happens to him, he shouldn’t try to find other outside reasons why this might have happened. He must realize that no one else is responsible for what happens to him besides himself!
This is our thought process on Yom Kippur. On a day when we are alone with Hashem, there is no one else who can help us change besides for us. Our commitment to Hashem cannot be determined by how outside forces, good or bad, motivate us. A true commitment to change can only come from within.
Let us use these lessons of Teshuvah and be able to truly commit ourselves to a life as Ovdei Hashem, and be able to carry those commitments all the way until next Elul, thereby showing both Hashem and ourselves how much we really care.
Gmar Chasima Tova!
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