The Structure of Repentence- Rabbi Yaakov Hillel on Rosh HaShanna
The month of Elul, which concludes the cycle of the Hebrew calendar, is the time for us to take stock and make a personal accounting of the year now drawing to a close. Hashem in His mercy has given us this month as an especially favorable time for repentance, when the Heavenly Gates of Mercy are open wide. In particular, we should take advantage of Elul to prepare ourselves for the upcoming Days of Judgment.
The holy month of Tishre provides a structured setting for repentance. First we have Rosh Hashanah, the Ten Days of Repentance, and Yom Kippur, days dedicated to “repentance through fear.” From there we go on to the higher stage of “repentance through love,” on Sukkot, Hoshana Rabba, and Shemini Atzeret.
However, repentance is not confined to Elul and Tishre alone; there are other times during the course of the year that are appropriate for repentance, as we find in the writings of our great Torah authorities.
For example, some have the custom of observing erev Rosh Hodesh as Yom Kippur Katan, reciting selihot and viduy, and fasting for all or part of the day (see Orah Hayyim 417:1, Mishnah Berurah). As the last day of the month, it is a good time to repent for the misdeeds of the previous month. Erev Shabbat, the last day of the week, is an opportune time to review the deeds of the week and repent. In fact, every night before retiring, we should assess the day’s events and repent for any wrongdoing during the day; this is why the Arizal instituted viduy as part of the Keriat Shema recited before sleep. The Mishnah Berurah writes, “It says in the sacred books that at night before retiring, it is proper for a person to reflect on his deeds of the day, and if he finds that he has transgressed, he should confess and accept upon himself not to commit that sin again” (Orah Hayyim 239:1, Mishnah Berurah 9).
What is more, our Sages teach that the process of Divine judgment is in effect every day, at any given moment. They cite the verse, “‘And You examine him in the mornings, You observe him every minute’ (Iyov 7:18). Rabbi Yosse says, man is judged every day: ‘and You examine him in the morning.’ Rabbi Natan says, man is judged at every hour, as it says, ‘You observe him every minute’” (Rosh Hashanah 16a).
As we see, every day, even every minute, bears an element of judgment. With this in mind, we should make an accounting of our deeds not only once a year, or even just once a month, but at all times, so that we are constantly engaged in repentance. Repentance is an ongoing process relevant to every step we take in life.
If we take this to heart, we are fortunate indeed: “Repentance is great because it reaches the Heavenly Throne” (Yoma 86a). Through repentance, we constantly cleave
to the Creator (see Tomer Devorah, Chapter 4).
A Guide to Repentance
The text of our daily prayers was formulated by the Men of the Great Assembly (Anshe Knesset HaGedolah). In Shemoneh Esre, also known as the Amidah, their Divinely inspired words provide us with a succinct outline for our service of Hashem and the process of repentance in Tishre, beginning with Rosh Hashanah.
Let us begin with Birkat Avot, the first blessing, where we address Hashem as Melech, Ozer, u’Moshia, u’Magen: King, Helper, Redeemer, and Protector. Hashem is our King, Who helps us, saves us, redeems us and shields us. These powerful words carry us through the holy days of the month of Tishre.
Melech on Rosh Hashanah
The concept of Melech, Hashem as King, is the fundamental basis of Rosh Hashanah. In the words of our Sages, “Say before Me malchuyot [the portion of the prayers in which we express our acceptance of Hashem as Melech], so that you will crown Me as your King” (Rosh Hashanah 16a). The very first stage of repentance, and its essential preliminary condition, is accepting the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven. The entire Rosh Hashanah service is founded on this principle.
On Rosh Hashanah we say, “Rule over the whole, entire world with Your glory.” The realization that the entire universe is ruled by a King Who judges every individual, and before Whom we will one day give a reckoning and accounting, will motivate us to subject our deeds to careful scrutiny. This scrutiny is our springboard to repentance.
Ozer in the Ten Days of Repentance
Ozer, Helper, corresponds to the Ten Days of Repentance. This is the time when we can “Seek out Hashem while He can be found, call Him when He is close” (Yeshayahu 55:6). As our Sages tell us, “These are the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur” (Rosh Hashanah 18a). During these special days, Hashem’s Hand is extended to accept His children’s repentance. If only we take the first step, He will have mercy on us and help us return to Him. Our Sages teach that “One who comes to purify himself is granted assistance” (Yoma 38b). This is not merely a kindly helping hand; it is our only hope in the face of the evil inclination. On our own, we would be helpless against this formidable contender: “Man’s evil inclination attempts to overpower him every day… and if not for the Holy One, blessed be He, Who helps him, he would not be able to overcome it” (Sukkah 52b).
Hashem in His mercy fulfills the Torah’s words, “You shall surely help him” (Shmot 23:5).3 We start by doing our part. If the load proves too heavy for us, Hashem completes the job for us. With Him helping us and guiding us along the proper path, we can succeed in achieving complete repentance.
However, it is important to realize that the first move really is up to us. “The Holy One, blessed be He, says to Israel, ‘My children, open for Me an opening of repentance as small as the head of a needle, and I will open for you an opening large enough for wagons to enter’” (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 5:3). We must be the ones to take the first step, however small, and begin the upward climb. Then He will take over, flinging open the Gates of Repentance and helping us repent in full.
How big does our initial “opening” have to be? Not very big at all. A sincere, heartfelt desire to do what is right, even if it is not yet accompanied by actual deed, is enough to merit’s Hashem’s assistance.
Moshia on Yom Kippur
Moshia, Redeemer, corresponds to Yom Kippur, as we learn from our Sages’ explanation of the verse, “‘Hashem is my light and my redeemer.’ My Light – on Rosh Hashanah… and my Redeemer – on Yom Kippur” (Shohar Tov, Tehillim 27).
On this sacred day, our Father in Heaven draws us close to Him. He cleanses us of all our impurities, protects us, and defends us against our accusers, as we learn from the verse, “Israel’s hope is Hashem, He saves him in time of trouble” (Yirmiyahu 14:8).
On Yom Kippur, Hashem, our Redeemer, rescues us from the evil accusations of the Satan. The Satan arrives at the Heavenly Court loaded down with our entire year’s crop of sins, demanding that we be punished in full for every last slipup.
But something else happens on Yom Kippur as well. We confess our transgressions openly before Hashem, saying “We have sinned unintentionally, we have sinned deliberately, we have sinned rebelliously,” fulfilling the verse, “One who confesses and forsakes [his sins] will be granted mercy” (Mishle 28:13). We repent wholeheartedly and accept Hashem’s judgment with love, saying, “For You are righteous in all that comes upon us, for You have done truth and we have done evil.”
When this happens, the Al-mighty immediately relates to us with mercy, tempering His punishment with kindness and love. Our confession earns us a plea bargain. If Hashem had sentenced us according to the true severity of our sins – as eloquently presented by the Satan – the punishment would have been too enormous and too dreadful to even contemplate. But now that we have confessed and accepted the absolute justice of Hashem’s judgment, we get a better deal, so to speak, and a much, much lighter sentence. The Satan and his incriminating testimony are thrown out of court; they have become superfluous. His claims are silenced and there is no further need for him and his evidence. Hashem has already issued the verdict, and there is nothing more to hear or discuss.
With this in mind, we can better understand the otherwise surprising phenomenon of the goat sent off to Azazel, to be given over to the Satan and his entourage as part of the Yom Kippur service in the Holy Temple. On Yom Kippur, the Cohen Gadol would confess the nation’s sins over the head of the goat designated for this unusual sacrifice. An appointed messenger would then convey the goat to the desolation of the desert, the abode of the Satan and his cohorts, and fling it over a cliff. When the goat became a mass of broken limbs and bones the messenger said, “So shall the sins of the House of Israel be erased,” and destroyed all record of our nation’s guilt.
Had the Satan gotten all he wanted, he would have unleashed a terrifying fury of retribution on our people, G-d forbid. When we confess and accept Hashem’s judgment, we are spared the full brunt of his wrath. Instead, he is only allowed a much smaller prize for his efforts, what the Zohar terms “a few dry bones” – the Azazel goat. True, there will be punishment, but it will be the milder form decreed by Hashem in His mercy, and not the savage onslaught desired by the Satan (Zohar, Ahare Mot 63b; see also Tomer Devorah, Chapter 1, Ninth Middah, Tashlich B’metzolot Yam).
This is why we confess our sins every day in our prayers. By admitting them and accepting the judgment of the Al-mighty, we forestall the Satan, eliminating his ability to prosecute us (Od Yosef Hai, Parashat Ki Tisa, halachah alef).
Magen on Sukkot
On Sukkot Hashem is Magen, our Protector; we are sheltered in the safe shadow of His wings. Even after the atonement of Yom Kippur we are still not entirely secure. We need protective fences to guard our hard-earned gains and preserve the purity we have worked to acquire.
The Festival of Sukkot is “refuge and strength” for us (Tehillim 46:2), with the capacity to shield us from the Attribute of Strict Justice. The sukkah itself is called “tzila d’mehemanuta” (literally, “shade of true belief”; Zohar, Helek Gimel, p. 103a). It is a protective haven, shielding us from the agents of harm bent on destroying us. Even after they are dispatched to strike, Hashem will protect us and turn our decree around from death to life in the merit of our repentance.
This is the special power inherent in these holy days. As the Zohar teaches, after the accusers depart on Yom Kippur, Hashem wishes to rejoice with us, His children. When we dwell in our sukkot, we are secure against their harmful designs. This concept is alluded to in the verse (Bereshit 33:17), “And Yaakov traveled to Sukkot, and he built a house for himself there” (Raaya Mehemana, Emor p. 100b). The Zohar also teaches that we take shelter without fear in the sukkah, which is symbolic of our faith in the Al-mighty, for the accuser has retired (ibid. p. 103b).
Melech, Ozer, Moshia, U’Magen: these few words encompass the developing stages of repentance. Throughout the holy days of Tishre, every day and in every prayer, they remind us to repent and return to the Al-mighty, our King, Helper, Redeemer, and Protector.
Birkat HaDaat: Repenting Through Reason
The Amidah is divided into three sections. In the first three blessings, we praise Hashem, and in the last three blessings we thank Him. The thirteen middle blessings are a series of requests. Careful study of these requests shows that they too relate to the step-by-step process of repentance. Let us see how the Men of the Great Assembly instilled this message into what appears to be an appeal for personal needs.
This set of blessings begins with the Birkat HaDaat. Before anything else, we pray, hanenu m’Itcha hochmah, binah, va’daat: grant us from You wisdom, intelligence, and reason.
Our Sages’ teachings highlight the importance of daat (reason).
- “If you have acquired reason, what do you lack? If you lack reason, what do you have?” (Vayikra Rabbah 1:6).
- “If you have [daat], you have everything. If you lack [daat], what do you have?”(Nedarim 41a, Rashi).
- “If there is no reason, how will we have the capacity to differentiate?” (Jerusalem Talmud Berachot 5:2).
“Reason” is the power to distinguish between truth and falsehood, good and evil. If we can tell the difference between them, we are able to choose between them. This capacity is a primary requirement in service of Hashem.
The Mekubalim teach that the human mind is divided into three distinct compartments. Hochmah, wisdom, is the capacity to accumulate and store knowledge, located in the right brain. Binah, intelligence, located in the left brain, is the capacity for intellectual depth. Binah defines, classifies, compares, and contrasts our stock of acquired information (hochmah). Daat, the third brain at the nape of the neck, is the most important of the three. It connects the mind to the body, and to our heart, our middot, and our deeds.
Daat is the reasoning power and capacity for innovative, creative, thought which enables us to apply the product of our hochmah and binah to the situation at hand. With daat, we are able to carry over our theoretical knowledge to practical halachic conclusions. Daat brings intellect to bear on action. As such, it truly is the most important brain of all, for without it, our knowledge remains abstract. We find this concept in the verse “To make known (ladaat) Your way on earth” (Tehillim 67:3). The earthly affairs of this world must also be guided by daat.
Unlike other cultures, in Torah, knowledge cannot be divorced from deed. The Greeks achieved very great heights of philosophical wisdom, including comprehension of the Al-mighty, as the Rambam said of Aristotle. Yet all their wisdom did not obligate them to behave like decent human beings, because it was detached from the critical element of daat. In the words of our Sages, “Any Torah scholar who has no daat, a carcass is better than him” (Vayikra Rabbah 1:15). A scholar may be fluent in enormous quantities of material and be able to explain and discuss it brilliantly. However, if his actions and character are not directed by his intellect – by daat – his knowledge has little worth.
The Ramhal tells us that “the foundation of saintliness and the source of perfection in the service of Hashem is that it becomes very clear to man what his duties are in this world, and towards what objective he should set his sights and goals in all his labors” (Mesillat Yesharim, Chapter 1). We must recognize our duties and the goals we work for in this world. For that we need daat Torah, the special reason and insight that comes with Torah learning.
There is only one way to attain daat Torah: by toiling in Torah. In-depth Torah study is the gateway to fear of Heaven, and to all spiritual growth and development (see Yoma 72b, Rashi). We find this concept in Rabbi Pinhas ben Yair’s famous brieta (Avodah Zarah 20b): “Torah brings to watchfulness, watchfulness leads to zeal,” and so on, with progressively higher levels culminating in Ruah HaKodesh (Divine inspiration). If we wish to repent, we must begin the process with a firm commitment to Torah.
The word “Torah” is derived from hora’ah, instruction. Our Torah is not merely theoretical, abstract intellectual concepts and ideas. It is practical instruction, applicable to every aspect of daily life. As King David said, “and Your Torah is in my intestines” (Tehillim 40:9). True Torah directs us in all we do, penetrating to the very depths of our being, controlling our wishes and desires.
Our first request, then, is hanenu m’Itcha hochmah, binah, va’daat: grant us from You wisdom, intelligence, and reason, or in other words, Torah. It is through daat that we accept upon ourselves the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven, subjugating ourselves completely to the Al-mighty. Birkat HaDaat corresponds to Rosh Hashanah and the concept of Melech.
Birkat HaTeshuvah: Repenting with Torah
We are making good progress. We are learning Torah, and through daat, have accepted Hashem as King. Now we are ready for the next stage, that of teshuvah, repentance. Our Sages (Megillah 17b) ask why the Men of the Great Assembly placed the blessing concerning repentance immediately after the request for binah (intelligence). In answer, they cite the verse, “And his heart will understand (yavin) and he will repent and be healed” (Yeshayahu 6:10).
The Blessing of Repentance has three parts. It is significant that this blessing also begins with the words, hashivenu Avinu l’Toratecha: bring us back Hashem, to Your Torah. We asked for Torah in the first blessing; why is this request repeated here, in our plea for repentance?
Torah is the embodiment of Divine wisdom, but the mere acquisition of wisdom is not the purpose of Torah study. We learn Hashem’s Word in order to know how to obey His Will and serve Him. It is only the unique spiritual power of Torah which enables us to repent. We find this concept frequently in our Sages teachings:
“The Torah teaches man to walk in the true path” (Zohar, Va’et’hanan
- “How can one correct himself? He should engage in Torah study” (Erchin 15b).
- “If only they would forsake Me and study My Torah, for when they engage in it, the light in it brings them back to good (Echah Rabbati Pesih’ta 2).
- “If one transgress a sin punishable by death at the hands of the Heavenly Court, what should he do in order to live? If he was accustomed to learning one page, he should learn two. If he was accustomed to learning a single chapter, he should learn two” (Vayikra Rabbah 25:1).
Clearly, repentance begins with Torah. Before any attempt at rectification (tikun) or self-imposed afflictions (sigufim), we must first repent by strengthening our commitment to Torah study.
After “Bring us back, our Father to Your Torah,” we can go on to request, “and bring us close, our King, to Your service.” Torah study is the key to perfect fulfillment of the commandments, bringing us closer to the service of Hashem. We “learn in order to do” (Avot 4:5). Increased knowledge helps us “turn away from evil and do good” (Tehillim 334:9), by fulfilling the six hundred and thirteen commandments to the very best of our ability.
It is only now, when we are both learning and fulfilling, that we reach the third request in the Blessing of Repentance: “and bring us back in complete repentance before You.” “Complete repentance” is the rectification of the roots of the sin and the blemish it caused in the higher worlds.
As we see, we follow a distinct order: Torah learning, careful fulfillment of the mitzvot, and the final stage of repentance, that of cleansing the spiritual blemish caused by the sin and rectifying the higher worlds. In essence, this is the procedure we should follow in the Ten Days of Repentance, when Hashem helps those who truly seek to return to Him.
Birkat Selah Lanu: Repentance and Forgiveness
We have explained that the blessings in our daily Shemoneh Esre follow the pattern of Rosh Hashanah, the Ten Days of Repentance, and Yom Kippur. After completing the stages of repentance outlined in the Blessing of Repentance, it is time to seek the concept of forgiveness and atonement represented by Yom Kippur. This is expressed in the blessing selah lanu Avinu ki hatanu: Forgive us Our Father, for we have sinned.
If we have repented and warded off punishment, why need we also ask specifically for forgiveness? To answer this question, let us consider what happens when we sin.
The commission of a sin awakens the Attribute of Strict Justice in Heaven, bringing our case under review. As soon as our file is opened, our sins come crowding around to testify against us, eagerly accusing and denouncing us. It is worth remembering that our very own sins clamor to see us punished: “Evil pursues sinners” (Mishle 13:21), and “Your evil will rebuke you” (Yirimiyahu 2:19).5 As our Sages tell us, “One who transgresses a sin, acquires for himself a prosecutor” (Avot 4:11).
However, as long as the trial is still in progress in the Heavenly Court, we can ask forgiveness and plead for Hashem’s mercy. At this point, it is still possible to keep the punishment at bay in Heaven; Hashem may yet choose to rip up our guilty verdict and replace it with a favorable one, rescuing us from our accusers.6
Once the verdict has been handed over to the agents of punishment, however, it is almost impossible to turn back the tide; crying to them for mercy will not help. They are following orders and carrying out the job they were sent to do, making repentance and forgiveness much more difficult to attain.
We find this frightening concept in an incident related in the Zohar. One day when Rabbi Shimon’s students were learning in a field, they noticed a big snake slithering along in front of them. Rabbi Elazar understood where it was going, and he told the snake to return to its hole, for the Jew it had been sent to kill had already repented. But the snake stayed where it was. Rabbi Elazar said, “I understand what you want. Since you were sent to do harm, you won’t retreat until you cause some injury, if not to your original victim, then at least to someone else. If that is the case, go back to the cave you came from, find a wicked non-Jew who has hurt a Jew, and kill him instead.” The snake obeyed Rabbi Elazar and went off to do as he said (Zohar, Helek Gimel, Tosefet p. 304a).
We learn from this incident that once an agent of harm is let loose, it will fulfill its mission, come what may. Once matters have gotten that far, it would obviously require enormous Divine mercy and compassion to annul the decree. Because of
this, we protect ourselves in advance by praying for forgiveness every day, instead of waiting until it is too late.
This is why we pray, “Forgive us, our Father, for we have sinned.” We ask Hashem to pardon us as long as our judgment is still in His Hands, for He is “a kind and forgiving G-d,” Who wants us to live to fulfill more mitzvot and fully rectify the source of our soul.
Geulah, Refuah, Parnassah: Fully Protected
With this in mind, we can explain the next three blessings: Geulah (Redemption), Refuah (Healing), and Parnassah (livelihood).
When the verdict has been issued and the agents of harm have permission to set about their business, they can attack on any of three major fronts: bodily harm from an external source; bodily harm from an internal source (such as illness); and financial loss.
Even if the decree has already been issued for one of these three forms of punishment, we still should not give up on Hashem’s mercy: “Even if a sharp sword is already resting on a person’s his neck, he should not refrain from asking for [Divine] compassion” (Berachot 10a). No matter how bad a situation looks, repentance and prayer can always help. In the next three blessings, we ask Hashem to save us from these three dangers.
We ask Hashem, re’eh na b’anyenu, v’rivah rivenu, u’ge’alenu meherah: please, see our affliction, and fight our battle, and redeem us speedily. This does not refer to future Redemption and the coming of Mashiah; we request this specifically in the later blessings. Here we are speaking not about the future, but about the present – we ask Hashem to redeem us from the sufferings which continually befall our nation (Megillah 17b, Rashi).
This blessing refers to harm from external sources. The harsh decrees may have already been issued and the agent of harm already dispatched. Our enemies may be busily plotting our destruction, G-d forbid, and we are not even aware of the impending danger. But while our vision is limited, the Al-mighty sees all and knows all. We plead to Him to “see our affliction and fight our battles,” protecting us even from trouble brewing unseen and unknown.
Now we go on to ask for Hashem’s protection from harm emanating from internal sources within the body, saying Refa’enu Hashem v’nerafe: heal us Hashem, and we will be healed. The third blessing in the series is barech alenu… v’sabenu mituvecha: bring blessing upon us… and satiate us with Your bounty. In this blessing, we ask Hashem to spare us from financial harm in all its manifestations and grant us material abundance.
All these requests are related to our earlier request for repentance. If we repent in time to stay the decree before it is sent out for execution, we are fortunate indeed. If not, and trouble is already on its way, we can still continue to pray to Hashem to save us, and prevent our personal “snake” from attacking.
Coming Close in Tishre
Now we understand how the blessings in Shemoneh Esre parallel our repentance in the month of Tishre.
Rosh Hashanah is the first stage: we recognize and accept Hashem as Melech. We achieve this through Daat, the wisdom of Torah.
Rosh Hashanah is followed by the Ten Days of Repentance. In the Blessing of Teshuvah, we pray to Hashem, our Ozer, to help us repent and correct our misdeeds.
On Yom Kippur, when our sins condemn us in the Heavenly court, we plead to Hashem, our Moshia, to be merciful and save us from harsh decrees and punishment. This is Selah Lanu: true, we have sinned, but we beg Hashem’s forgiveness nonetheless.
On Sukkot, Hashem is our Magen, sheltering us and protecting us from all harm
– external, internal, and financial – as expressed in the blessings of Geulah, Refuah, Parnassah.
The sacred words of the Men of the Great Assembly teach us how to repent our sins and come close to the Al-mighty. Guided by their wisdom, may we all merit to “seek out Hashem while He can be found, call Him when He is close.”