Bar Ilan University Milton scholar William Kolbrener has a profound meditation on Yom Kippur and teshuva (repentance) in his new collection of essays, Open Minded Torah. He begins by noting a profound distinction between the Jewish and Christian view of repentance. In the latter view, man's innate depravity is too great to be overcome by his own actions. Only the intervention of an intermediary, in the form of Jesus, can "expiate," in Milton's words, man's "Treason."
In the Jewish view, the possibility of teshuva was implanted in the Creation even before the beginning of time, for without the possibility of teshuva mankind could not exist. But man is not the passive recipient of a Divine dispensation. He is the key actor in the teshuva process. That is nicely captured in Rabbi Akiva's image of G-d as the Mikve (purifying waters) in which the penitent Israel immerses. G-d creates the conditions that make purification of sins possible, but it is man who is the active agent and must immerse himself.
Rosh Hashanah brings us back to the beginning of human history – to the Divine breath, the nishmat chayim (breath of life) that Hashem blew into Adam's nostrils. The blasts of the Shofar recall that moment of literal Divine inspiration. They also recall the unformulated cry of a baby that precedes words, the cry of a human soul first becoming aware of its own existence.
The holiday bids us to reconnect with the holy, the elevated, the spiritual within us. It reminds us that our essence is the breath of the Divine, with which human history begins. In that process of reconnection, we inevitably become aware, as well, of how far we have strayed from the path of holiness and the extent to which the yetzer hara (evil inclination), which entered into us when Adam ate of the forbidden fruit, has established itself as a false god inside and has caused that which is most essential – our connection to the Divine – to become hidden.
Thus the Ten Days of Repentance begin with striving to attain a vision of ourselves as spiritual beings connected through the element of the Divine within us to the source of all holiness. To the extent we are connected, we feel ourselves to be truly alive. In the blessing after the reading of the Torah, we thank G-d for "the eternal life He planted in us" – now, in this world. And to the extent that we have lost that connection we are dead, even if we still ambulate about: "The wicked are called dead even in their lifetimes," say our Sages.
Only with that vision in front of us can we begin the arduous path of teshuva culminating in Yom Kippur. First, we must determine what is essential about us, and what is extraneous; what is us, and what are just external cloaks that we happen to have donned. Only when we can identify our soiled garments can we begin the process of cleansing. That cleansing requires both rigorous stock-taking of our past actions, and a concrete plan for rectifying the behavioral patterns into which we have fallen. Ideally, that process should begin already in the month of Elul, preceding the Days of Awe, and culminates in the Ten Days of Repentance leading up to Yom Kippur.
The goal of that cleansing is to draw as close to G-d as possible. According to many of the earlier commentators, there is not even a mitzvah of teshuva, though the verse, "And you shall (alternatively, will) return unto the L-rd, your G-d . . . " (Deuteronomy 30:2) can be read to imply otherwise. One can respond positively to a command for many reasons – e.g., in the hope of reward, out of a fear of punishment. But the highest level of teshuva has nothing to do with such external incentives. Rather it is an expression of pain at the thought of being cut off G-d, and thereby alienated from that which is holy and spiritual within us, an expression of our desire for connection.
My friend Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman of Passaic, New Jersey relates a story from one of the shiva houses he visited after 9/11 that captures the difference between doing G-d's Will and fulfilling His commandment. The family was sitting together mourning their husband and father, when a young girl said to her mother. "Ima, do you remember how the night before Abba went to work for the last time. You came back late from a bar mitzvah, and I could see Abba was very tired. He sat down and said, 'I'm so thirsty. Who wants to bring me a glass of water, with a little ice in it.' I got up and ran to the kitchen, and brought back the water and ice. When I handed it to Abba, he said, 'Malky, you have no idea how happy you made me,' and smiled at me. Those were the last words he ever said to me."
The young girl found comfort in the fact that her last memory of her father was of giving him pleasure. Her father had not commanded her or any of her siblings to do anything. He had only asked who wanted to help. And out of a desire to do her father's will and a feeling of closeness to him, she had rushed to do so. That is what it means when we describe teshuva as doing the will of G-d, not as fulfilling a commandment.
Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, G-d draws close to us, say our Sages, quoting the verse, "Seek the L-rd when He is found, call Him when He is near" (Isaiah 45:6). He makes Himself available for a relationship to a greater degree than any time in the year. That once a year opportunity is filled with immense potential, but also with danger. For if we do not avail ourselves of the opportunity, we have not just missed an opportunity and remained in the same spiritual state as before. We have, as it were, spurned G-d.
That explains a problem in Maimonides' Laws of Repentance. Maimonides instructs us to always view ourselves as in a state of equipoise with our merits and transgressions, indeed the merits and transgressions of the entire world, evenly balanced, such that one more mitzvah can tip the balance of the entire world favorably. But during the Tens Days of Repentance, he writes, to be inscribed in the Book of Life an average person, whose judgment is not sealed until Yom Kippur, must do teshuva – one more mitzvah will not suffice. That is because the failure to seek a relationship with G-d, and to uncover the holiness within us, at this time of the year, constitutes an explicit rejection of G-d, and no amount of additional mitzvot can counterbalance that rejection.
But when one longs for that relationship, and makes the effort to reciprocate G-d's drawing close to us, he has the power to rewrite the past – at least with respect to sins between himself and G-d – and his past sins are accounted as if they were mitzvot.
Recently, one of the most elevated people I ever knew passed away in his fiftieth year, after a three-and-a-half year battle with leukemia. After his passing, his wife found his vidui (confessional) prayer. He did not grow up in a religious home, and only found his way to observance in his late teens. In his vidui, there is an enumeration of past sins, both before and after becoming observant, concluding with the words: "I wanted to do these things. I chose them. Now I don't want them. I'm choosing closeness to G-d; I'm choosing life."
That is an example of the teshuva from love that has the power to transform past sins into mitzvot, by using the regret over the past, expressed through confession in the present, to transform our behavior for the future.
Kolbrener describes the process beautifully, in words upon which I cannot hope to improve:
"The retrospective glance reveals that my undignified past and willful transgressions are not only consistent with, but they have actually propelled me toward, a future which I had not imagined. Actions I thought had most distanced me from G-d now bring me close to Him. Refined by the image of my ideal self, my past misdeeds, reclaimed as my own, shape my present so that they now have the power to help me realize an ideal future. I am no longer stuck with either obsessing about my past or abandoning it – both are choices of the nonintegrated self. Moving toward the future, the past recast in its light, my present is transformed. Through the power of teshuva transgressions become good deeds: they are the source of a new and altered life, and only through them, in the words of the prophet, do we live."