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Vayelech, Shabbat Shuvah, and joy of teshuvah

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This Shabbat Shuvah is named after the stirring words of Hoshea that are found in our haftarah:

Return, O Israel (Shuvah Yisrael), to the L-rd your G-d, for you have stumbled in your iniquity. Take words with yourselves and return to the L-rd (v’shuvu el Hashem).

Moreover, given its placement between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, this Shabbat is focused upon teshuvah, so much so that most Chasidic groups label it, “Shabbat Teshuvah.”

As many of us have been actively engaged in the teshuvah process since the beginning of Elul, and Yom Kippur is the day upon which it reaches its crescendo, this is the ideal time to analyze the constitutive elements of teshuvah. Fortunately, the Rambam’s Hilchot Teshuvah is laser-focused upon this task:

And what is teshuvah? This is when the sinner rejects his sin, removes it from his thoughts and concludes in his mind that he will not undertake [this forbidden act] again. Moreover, he regrets what he has done in the past … [to the extent of which] that He Who Knows All Mysteries will attest that he [the sinner] will never return to this sin again … and he must confess with his lips and speak of all these matters that he has concluded in his mind. (II:2)

In sum, in the Rambam’s view, teshuvah is comprised of three clearly differentiated cognitive and emotional aspects: recognition and rejection of the sin (azivat hachate), the sinner’s heartfelt resolution not to perform this forbidden act again (kabbalah al he’atid) and profound remorse for that which has been done (nechama al he’avar). In addition, these new-found feelings of spiritual awareness must be given literal voice in the form of vidui (verbal confession).

The Rambam emphasizes the obligation for all members of the Jewish people to engage in teshuvah on Yom Kippur; everyone is obligated (chayavim hakol) to do teshuvah and confess on Yom HaKippurim.

The Rav suggests a novel interpretation of this passage in his celebrated work, Al HaTeshuvah: “From here we can learn that the Rambam maintains that in addition to the mitzvah of teshuvah that is obligatory throughout the entire year, there is a unique mitzvah of teshuvah and vidui during the Ten Days of Repentance. Consequently … Yom HaKippurim is a new and unique mitzvah, that is relevant to Yom HaKippurim alone.”

The Rav’s conclusion parallels a statement in Rabbeinu Yonah’s (seminal work, Sha’arei Teshuvah: “And there is a positive Torah commandment for a person to bestir his spirit and return [to Hashem] in teshuvah on Yom HaKippurim.” Yet, what differentiates the teshuvah of Yom Kippur from the teshuvah of the rest of the year?

We are fortunate that Rav Yehudah Amital, former co-Rosh HaYeshivah of Yeshivat Har Etzion, asks and answers this precisely this question:

“To explain the words of the Rambam, we need to distinguish between the general mitzvah of teshuvah and the teshuvah of Yom Kippur. In general, making a resolution for the future is an integral part of teshuvah. It seems [however] that there is a distinction between the teshuvah of Yom Kippur and the teshuvah of the rest of the year.

“During the year, we need to repent ‘by the book,’ which includes resolving not to sin again. However, on Yom Kippur, anyone who says, ‘we have sinned,’ is considered a ba’al teshuvah. It is true that this form of teshuvah lacks a true resolution for the future; however, the great power of Yom Kippur is that even this teshuvah is effective. …

“The teshuvah of Yom Kippur, though lacking a resolution not to sin again, is nonetheless accepted by G-d. … Ba’alei teshuvah are accepted and purified, as long as they speak sincerely.”

In my estimation, Rav Amital’s inspiring exposition is reminiscent of Dovid HaMelech’s well-known statement in Ashrei: “Hashem is near to all who call Him, to all who call Him with sincerity.”

As such, Yom Kippur emerges as the most barrier-breaking and joyous day of the Jewish calendar, for on this day, Hashem is nearest to us, and longingly accepts our teshuvah — even if it is imperfect and incomplete. No wonder that in his description of Yom Kippur, Rabbi Akiva declared, “Happy are you, O’ Israel! Before Whom are you purified, and Who purifies you? Your Father in heaven.” (Mishnah Yoma VIII:9)

Shabbat Shalom, Gamar Chatimah Tovah, and may Hashem in His infinite mercy remove the pandemic from klal Yisrael and all the nations of the world.

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