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Teshuvah that lasts


Needed: A New Paradigm

I have yet to meet my first person who says that by the time Chanukah or Passover rolls around, all the soul work that he or she did months earlier on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is still in place. It is no small thing if a small increment — a permanent, small improvement — remains in place, but is there a way to sustain all of the good intentions and earnest introspection on the High Holidays the whole year round?

An honest appraisal must exclude this answer: Just work harder. Just be more serious, more earnest, more disciplined, more focused, during the High Holiday season. Of course, because the inspiration eventually fades, the solution in part is to take the High Holiday season more seriously — to work harder. But this is still not the solution that sustains.

There must be a new paradigm.

There is, and it is a paradoxical paradigm. It says: Work less. Do teshuvah in pieces. Please pardon the comparison, but look at dieting. Often, a person loses a lot of weight, but can’t keep it off. It’s a paradox: To lose 70 pounds is doable, but to cut down just a bit on a regular basis is not doable. The person can muster the discipline to lose the proverbial “ton of weight,” but cannot exercise considerably less discipline to lose just a bit of weight regularly.

The High Holidays are like the initial weight loss. It’s a big job, but it’s doable. Then what? What I offer here is a way to exercise a little bit of “teshuvah discipline” on a regular basis in order to sustain the major spiritual gains of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Before I elaborate, and lest I be misunderstood, I hardly mean to suggest that the overwhelming demand and inspiration of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur should elicit less than our maximum effort. As Maimonides pointed out long ago, teshuvah — repentance, return — consists of four difficult steps:

1. Regret. One’s failings must sting. One must say, “I was wrong.”

2. Confession. To say “I was wrong” to myself is not enough. I must confess to G-d for my wrongs against G-d and to people for my wrongs against them.

3. Resolution: determination not to repeat the sin.

4. Change. Confronted with the same circumstance in which I erred before, I do not err again.

What I mean by teshuvah as “working less” is not to skirt these four steps of teshuvah, but to locate a logical and compelling time frame throughout the year to repair one’s failings periodically — to do teshuvah in pieces.

Based on Jewish sources as basic as the Torah and as esoteric as Jewish mysticism or Kabbalah, the short, periodic time frame that is tailor-made for teshuvah is a few minutes each Friday, erev Shabbos, and each Shabbos. Teshuvah is easier and quicker then, not least because teshuvah then is merely the thought of change.

Thus, the new paradigm begins with a question: How do a few moments of thought qualify as real teshuvah? If I don’t change, but only think about changing, how can I be said to repent, to return? What possible improvement in my relationship with G-d and people results merely from good intentions?

And why is erev Shabbos the logical time for this seemingly truncated teshuvah? Isn’t the timing counterintutive? After all, the mood of the approaching Shabbos is relief from worry, while teshuvah is difficult stock-taking. Teshuvah and Shabbos would seem to exclude each other.

All Year: 52 Periodic Moments

All these questions find their resolution within the first moments after erev Shabbos ends — at the time of kiddush on Friday night. Kiddush, seemingly a simple blessing over wine, is a wellspring of profundity. It is like a floating buoy, hiding depths of meaning.

The recitation of kiddush on Friday night, at the inception of Shabbos, is a twofold act. It is an act of testimony and an act of sanctification. The very words of the kiddush testify to G-d’s creation of the universe and its completion with G-d’s creation of tranquility (menuchah) on the seventh day. In Judaism, the testimony of a transgressor is disqualified, not kosher. The author of Pele Yoeetz writes that to qualify to testify on Friday night — to recite kiddush — one must be a kosher witness! One must have reevaluated his week, regretted and rebalanced what he has done wrong. One must have done teshuvah.

Likewise, writes Rabbi Abraham Grodzinski, to sanctify Shabbos at its inception — to recite kiddush — one must have entertained thoughts of regret and recommitment. There is no valid act of sanctification not preceded by teshuvah.

Now, Friday is a busy day. One is at work, plus there are the preparations for Shabbos. There is a lot to do, and there is a deadline.

Where is there time for the four, difficult, demanding steps of teshuvah set down by Maimonides? There is none. Teshuvah on Friday will just have to be a few minutes of earnest regret and rebalancing. Regularly. Weekly. It is this teshuvah on erev Shabbos — 52 times a year — that can carry the intentions and achievements of the High Holiday forward into the year, like clockwork. This is teshuvah in pieces, teshuvah  that lasts.

However, the question persists. In what sense do a few moments of stock-taking on Fridays qualify as teshuvah? Teshuvah is more than thought.

Kabbalah: Thought Alone Can Generate Action

Two insights of an early Biala Rebbe, when strung together, provide an answer. First, the Rebbe observed:

Pirkei Avot, “Ethics of the Fathers,” says that G-d created the world with “ten statements.” The point is that a Divine statement, unlike a human one, creates a physical reality. On a kabbalistic basis, the midrash says that teshuvah preceded the creation of the world. That is, teshuvah preceded words (“statements”). What precedes words? Thought. Teshuvah is thought.

This is more than a homiletical, theological doctrine. It is embedded in law, illustrated by a Talmudic case. The case is far-fetched, as some cases in the Talmud are, designed to illustrate a principle, not necessarily to be practical.

Say that a person betroths a woman on condition that he is a righteous person. If he is righteous, the betrothal is valid; if not, not.

So it would seem. But the Talmud says that if a person is, in fact, wicked, the betrothal is still valid. How so? “Perhaps the man had sincere thoughts of teshuvah, of transforming himself into a righteous person, when he made his condition.” As thought, teshuvah works.

Works for what?

Works for coming into Shabbos as a different person.

Works for being qualified to recite kiddush.

Works, in other words, up to a point. But by itself, teshuvah, merely as thought, does not and cannot work to extend one’s soul work on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur into the year. On this, the Biala Rebbe makes a second observation.

Shabbos observance is classified as twofold, as a mental state and a behavioral shift, based on the two formulations of Shabbos in the Ten Commandments, one in Exodus, one in Deuteronomy. In each book, Shabbos has a different title. In Exodus, we are bidden to “remember” Shabbos — the mental state. In Deuteronomy, we are bidden to “observe” Shabbos — the behavioral shift. The Sages ask: If the Ten Commandments were delivered by G-d, how could there be a discrepancy in the title of the fourth commandment? The Sages conclude: G-d, unlike human beings, can say two things at once. G-d stated “Remember” (Shabbos) and “Observe” (Shabbos) in a single utterance. The mental state and the behavioral shift  were commanded at once. They interpenetrated each other.

The Biala Rebbe comments on this classic, twofold characterization of Shabbos:On Shabbos, if one makes a mental commitment to change his life, it is tantamount to making a change in behavior! Because on Shabbos, “remember” and “observe” — mind and behavior — are unified, interwoven, having been uttered simultaneously. It is actually the case, says the Rebbe, that if, on Shabbos, one merely resolves to repent, makes a mental commitment to teshuvah, then he will actually change his behavior, he will carry out his resolution.

How so? Shabbos is sweet. Shabbos is soft. Shabbos is empty of tension. Teshuvah on Shabbos is easier, swifter, kinder. As thought alone, it is without the rigor of the High Holiday season. It yields the change in behavior that extends the spiritual victories of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur into the year.

No Unfinished Spiritual Business

<em>Teshuvah is also part and parcel of the underlying benefit of Shabbos itself. Rashi famously observes: How can the Torah say, “Six days you shall work and complete all of your work; and on the seventh day . . . you shall do no work” (Exodus 20:9-10). Who can complete all of his work in six days?

This verse means, says Rashi, that on Shabbos one must look back on his week as if all of his work were completed. There is nothing left to do.

No unfinished business. No untied strings.

This is why there is no tension on Shabbos.

For example, if one is involved in a tricky negotiation that does not get completed before Shabbos, the command not to work on Shabbos does not mean: “On Shabbos I’m not thinking about the negotiation.” It means: There is no negotiation!

For me, the command not to work on Shabbos does not mean: “On Shabbos I’m not thinking of the Intermountain Jewish News.”

It means: There is no newspaper!

If I am a lawyer, Shabbos means: There is no court case!

If I am a running for public office, Shabbos means: There is no election!

Shabbos means: I am totally removed from any cause of tension, worry, inadequacy, incompletion.

Including — writes the Slonimer Rebbe — spiritual incompletion.

To do teshuvah before Shabbos is just another form of putting out of my life any source of weekday concern, just another way of looking back at my week as if all my work, including my spiritual work, were done.

Through thoughts of teshuvah on erev Shabbos and Shabbos, one can sustain all of his soul work of the High Holiday season, but without all the effort. Moreover, weekly teshuvah must take into account one week’s worth — not one year’s worth — of failings. Teshuvah in small pieces is naturally less daunting.

Teshuvah that lasts must begin with sincere, serious soul work on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, whereupon it is sustained every week of the year, buoyed by Shabbos in its tranquility and fullness.

Summary: Potent Teshuvah

The Slonimer Rebbe summarizes: Teshuvah on Shabbos is a “higher, more potent form of teshuvah, which extends rectification and spiritual light deep into the recesses of one’s soul. . . . In harnessing the power of the [Shabbos] day through teshuvah, its pristine, spiritual light shines forth upon every aspect of the soul . . . even to its innermost core.”

Rabbi Hillel Goldberg can be reached at

Copyright © 2017 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Hillel Goldberg

IJN Executive Editor |

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