Among the followers of Rebbe Elimelech MeLizensk (1717-1787) was a man who said he was a chassid, but did not act like one. He perceived that he had made many mistakes in his younger years was ridden with guilt, and sentenced himself to an ascetic life.
Determined to become a baal teshuvah (penitent), he deprived himself of nourishment, just tasting enough to keep body and soul alive, fasting every Monday and Thursday, flagellated himself and undertook dangerous tasks. He thought that this ascetic lifestyle would atone for his wrongdoing.
He tortured himself for many years. By middle age, he appeared as a very old man, decrepit, thin, and dangerously ill. Yet, all the introspection did not relieve him of the feelings that he had besmirched his soul. Despairing, he decided to seek the help of Rebbe Elimehlech. He had heard that the rebbe had the power to fix forlorn souls. Timidly, he entered the bais midrash and Rebbe Elimehlech welcomed him.
Rebbe Elimelech immediately understood his problem. Holding him around the shoulders tightly, Rebbe Elimelech said: “I understand your pain. I will help you by teaching you the process of teshuvah (repentance). It begins by recognizing and understanding your inner yearning to improve your ways, and verbally acknowledging your errors.
“You must truly express regret for those deeds. You must promise that you will not commit that sin again. But the most important part of teshuvah is knowing that the Biblical injunction to ‘afflict your soul beginning at the conclusion of the ninth day of the seventh month [the eve of Yom Kippur]’ mandates this type of behavior on one specific day of the year only. You have been living your life as if every day was Yom Kippur.
“The root of the Hebrew word for affliction also means to ask questions. When the time for teshuvah comes, a person has to examine his actions, ask himself, and answer: did I serve G-d with joy? Only when you answer in the affirmative, can you open your heart to true teshuvah. Do you understand?”
The penitent shook his head, that he understood. Rebbe Elimehlech continued:
“In your present condition, it is impossible for you to begin the process of teshuvah. Your introspection has been for naught, for it did not achieve the purpose of helping you to atone for your sins. You must stop punishing yourself. I want you to go home and remain there for two weeks. During that time, I want you to eat, drink and sleep to prepare for teshuvah. I want you to think about what Rabbi Akiva said: ‘Happy are you, Israel! Who is it that purifies you? Your Father in Heaven.’
“Rabbi Akiva based his comment on two verses: ‘And I will sprinkle holy water upon you and you shall be holy’ and ‘G-d is the mikvah of the Jewish people.’ Just as the mikvah renders holy the defiled, so does the Holy One, Blessed be He, render Israel holy. Thus no matter what you think you did, Our Father in Heaven will purify you. Now go home. I will see you in two weeks.”
Two weeks later, the penitent returned to Rebbe Elimehlech. His face was not as drawn, his body not as limp, his gait more vigorous. Rebbe Elimehlech placed his arm around him, guided him to a bench in the bais midrash, and motioned to him to sit down. The rebbe picked up a siddur (prayer book) and sat down next to the penitent.
The rebbe began in the sing-song melody of a Talmudic discussion: “G-d created man in His image. This means that man is exalted and unique. It means that the entire world was created by G-d’s command, but man was created by the ‘work of His hand.’ It also means that man alone is endowed with morality, reason and free will. Only man can know and love G-d and can hold spiritual communion with Him. Only man can guide his actions through reason.”
Rebbe Elimelech opened his siddur. “I am going to say Viduy (the confessional prayer). I want you to repeat the words after me.”
“Ahshamnu (I have erred),” prayed Rebbe Elimehlech.
“Ahshamnu,” repeated the penitent.
“Bahgadnu (I have betrayed Your trust in me),” “Bahgadnu,” repeated the penitent.
“Tetahnu (I have gone astray),”“Tetahnu.”
He felt a tremendous stirring of regret for his previous wrongdoing and understood that he had acted contrary to the will of G-d. From the awesome impact of the moment, he fainted. The rebbe instructed his assistant to place the penitent on a bed, and force a little whiskey between his lips.
The penitent quickly regained consciousness. Rebbe Elimelech was at his side.
“You have to have strength to change your ways. Only a weak person remains afflicted with guilt. Torturing yourself is the wrong way to teshuvah. The essence of teshuvah is to regret your past mistakes and not repeat those offenses. Once you have achieved that goal, you must rid yourself of that burden of guilt. Only then will your teshuvah be accepted before G-d. If you are aware that all your actions must be a source of pride to G-d, then you will be careful not to make mistakes. If, inadvertently, you perceive that there was a flaw in the action that you performed, then admit your mistake, regret it, and promise never to repeat that offense. That is the process of teshuvah.”
Rebbe Elimelech continued:
“Let me share with you an experience of one of my brothers, Rebbe Zusia. One time, he ascended the bimah (speaker’s platform) and shouted to the worshippers: ‘Do you know that the Master of the World loves you so much! Therefore, how is it possible for any Jew to perform an act that is against His Will?’ He descended the bimah. His message was short and simple, but the reaction of the people was not simple. Almost as one, they started to cry, for they feared that they had performed an act that separated them from the Master of the World. He ascended the bimah again.
“He spoke softly this time, poignantly: ‘Know that there is nothing that separates you from the Master of the World. He is your Father, you are His children. You are never too far from Him. Nothing will ever change that. Nothing can stop you from improving your actions, from returning to Him. Now, return to your house, and eat, and drink, and sleep. Go in peace’.”
“This is excerpted from a book by Rabbi Eugene z”l and Dr. Annette Labovitz, “Time For My Soul: A Treasury of Jewish Stories for Our Holy Days.” Dr. Labovitz is a resident of Woodmere.