Dedicated in honor of R' Meir b"r Yechezkel Shraga Brachfeld
Repentance: Failure's Complete Course
Hosea the Prophet reveals an underlying motive of repentance: "Return...for you have stumbled in your iniquity" (Hosea 14:2). Superficial thinking causes one to imagine that sin brings in its wake liberation and freedom. The truth is, though, that the sin itself serves to awaken the sinner to repentance.
"There you will serve gods that men have made out of wood and stone... Then you will begin to seek God your Lord, and if you seek him with your heart and soul, you will eventually find him" (Deuteronomy 4:28,29). It is precisely via the contemptible act of worshipping gods of wood and stone that one manages to return to God. This can be compared to the drawing of a straight line from a point on the face of a ball. The line seems to distance itself from the original point. Yet, once the halfway point has been passed the line once again approaches its starting point.
"Wood and stone." These are two types of idolatry that continue to exist even today. Wood grows and expands; it represents the modern idolatry of labor-worship. Stone represents an idolatry whose aim it is to remove from the human heart all semblance of lovingkindness and benevolence. Our own Jewish brethren have, in this era, practiced these two forms of idolatry. That of wood, here in the Land of Israel; that of stone, in Soviet Russia. So much energy has been invested towards these false-god ideals; their followers have invested, and continue to invest, the best of the capacities of their youth. Today, though, an awakening is making itself felt even in Israel. This can be seen in those who lead the call for repentance, and in those who are returning from "foreign camps." It can be seen in Russia as well. After twenty years of attempting to erase all trace of the name of Israel, to destroy Jewish unity, and to dispose of all holy books, the wall has fallen. We can hear our fellow Jews crying out to us, and they cry out in the tongue of the Prophets: "I will not die but live." From where does their great vigor spring forth? Have not larger and stronger peoples been destroyed? And from where their adamant faith that justice is bound to triumph, if not from Judaism? Religious awakening, self-examination, "O Israel," "Return" - "for you have stumbled." The old ideologies proved to be misleading, and it therefore becomes necessary to abandon these precarious values.
Yet, to where does one return? All agree that there is a need to return, but where to? The failure, then, has not run its complete course.
More Dangerous than No Faith at All
And what about our own camp? We stand on a firm foundation of faith. Because we recognize the need for repentance, there is no question about where to return to. Yet, for us, the concept of repentance itself is not clear enough. One, unfortunately, does not find the sort of awakening among us that one ought to.
We possess a sickness that is particular to us alone. And this sickness, when it takes hold, can be even more dangerous than no faith at all. Isaiah the Prophet long ago cried out about this phenomena, saying: "And God said: Since this people draw near and honor me with their mouth and with their lips but have greatly distanced their heart from me, and their fear toward me is a commandment of men learned by rote, therefore, behold, I will proceed to do marvelous work among this people, even a marvelous work and a wonder, for the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid" (Isaiah 29:13-14). It was not toward the irreligious that Isaiah aimed all his bitter reprimand. We are not dealing here with people who have thrown off the yoke of Torah, but with those who stand in the House of God and offer up lengthy prayers. This is really unbelievable. Furthermore, we find here punishment that the Sages termed more "difficult than the ninety-eight curses" that appear in chapter twenty-seven of Deuteronomy. Yet what is so bad about a commandment "learned by rote?" Is it not necessary to learn to fear God? Is man born with a built-in fear of Heaven? Certainly one must learn. If so, what is wrong with learning "by rote?"
True, one finds in the Torah an obligation to learn to fear God: "In order that you learn to fear" (Deuteronomy 14:23); "... who will learn to fear" (Ibid. 4:10); even regarding the king: "In order that you learn to fear" (Ibid. 17:19). The difference is in the fact that the proper way to learn fear of God is: "This scroll must always be with him, and he shall read from it all the days of his life" (Ibid.), i.e., a course lasting an entire lifetime. "Learned by rote," though, implies completion and perfection. No longer "learning," but "learned." Fear of God becomes something that no longer evolves, which can not be added to - clear and known. It follows that there is no need to dedicate time to this pursuit, there is no need for further discussion or further study. In stead of study "all the days of his life," one suffices with a childish fear that was learned in grammar school. While a person continued to develop in all other areas of life, his religious world remained childish. What's more, this sort of person believes that this is all there is to it. The words, "for the wisdom of their wise men shall perish..." become that much more understandable. For, one who already knows all, will not be ready to receive any new knowledge. This sort of person will no longer be willing to receive criticism or guidance. This is a terrible situation because even repentance itself is not seen as an option. It, too, has been learned by rote. It is possible to pound away at the heart of such an individual all day and night without results. "Tear your hearts, not your clothing," says Joel the Prophet.
The Days of Repentance confront us with the challenge to "renew your actions in the first month" (VaYikra Rabba 29). Renewal, self-examination, and reestablishment of values. Sowing the seeds and sorting the grain anew. This is part of repentance. This is a necessary introduction to repentance. To shake of the "rote." To make a fresh start. To understand what one is reciting in prayer, to feel the words.
"No, it's yours"
In the Midrash, we find an interesting and difficult-to-understand argument between the People of Israel and the Almighty: "Bring us back to You, God, and we shall return, renew our days as of old" (Lamentations 5:25). The Assembly of Israel said to the Almighty: "Bring us back" is Yours (i.e., our repentance depends upon You). He said to them: No, its yours, for it is written: "Thus says God, Return to Me and I will return to you" (Zechariah 3:7). They replied: No, its Yours, for it is written: "Bring us back to You, God of our salvation" (Psalm 85:5). Therefore it is written, 'Bring us back to You, God, and we shall return."
The whole argument is truly puzzling. All the same, when we search for the factor that impedes us on the road to repentance, we find it in the Sages' explanation of the command, "There shall be no foreign god inside of you." What sort of foreign god, ask the Sages, is inside of man's body? The Evil Impulse. Take a look at a person in whom anger, pride, and other undesirable traits dwell. A "foreign god" has taken control of him to the point where he believes that it is he himself. What we are dealing with here is repentance from undesirable character traits. Rambam says that such repentance is much more important than repentance from corrupt deeds because it is more difficult; it is a war against a foreign god inside of man. Seeing all of man's ugliness, all of his corrupt thoughts all day long, one says: "Bring us back to You, God." We are not capable on our own. We are full of evil ambitions. We are base and degraded. Our repentance is in God's hands alone. God, though, reveals to us that in this we are mistaken. For not only is it in our hands, it is not in His hands at all - as the Sages of the Talmud teach: "All is in the hands of Heaven except for the fear of Heaven." This is what is meant by man's being created in God's image. Man is completely free to do as he pleases. After all that befalls an individual, after all rewards and punishments have been bestowed by the Almighty, the ultimate choice still rests in man's hand. "Evil people refuse to repent even at the gates of Hell." Therefore, God says: "Return to me." Yet even after hearing these words from God, even when man feels that everything is in his hands, we are all the same lacking some force to push - if not to force us to act. This, then is the request: "Return us, O God of our salvation." Yes, we will return, but we want the salvation of God, Heavenly assistance. We desire an "awakening from above" to rouse us down below. This is what we pray for, and this is what we request. "Bring us back" - "And we shall return." Bring us back to You so that we may return. Assist us.
For this reason, God gave us the Ten Days of Repentance.