Teshuvah - Preparing for the Days of Judgement Repairing the Damage Caused by Negligence in Study
The Holy One, blessed be He, showed Himself to be very generous toward the people of Israel by granting them the mitzvah of teshuvah, the act of returning to G-d. Speaking of this mitzvah, part of the 613 mitzvot, the verse says “You shall know this day and take to your heart” (Deuteronomy 4:39), and further, “And you will return unto the HASHEM, your G-d” (ibid., 30:2).
This terminology (“return”, “you will return”) should be explained. It seems to be saying that we had left, and that we should now return. Where, then, did we go? When a man sins and finds himself replete with fault, we know that he gets further and further from the Holy One, blessed be He, and begins to act arrogantly by driving the Shechinah further away from himself (Berachot 43b). As well, he himself moves away from it, since he doesn’t fear his Creator; yet it is said of Him “The whole world is filled with His glory” (Isaiah 6:3)! But through teshuvah he gets closer, he returns to G-d and gives way for the Shechinah. He must bring his heart back to its previous state, before his sin. In addition G-d asks him to return to Him, for it is written, “You reduce man to pulp and You say, ‘Repent, O sons of man’” (Psalms 90:3).
As a result, G-d demonstrated His generosity toward Israel by giving us 40 entire days in which to repent completely, to truly get closer to Him, and for Him to get closer to and forgive us. It consists of the 40 days between the 1st of Ellul and Yom Kippur. Now it is written (Tur and Mishnah Berurah Orah Chaim 681) that the four words of the expression Ani Ledodi Vedodi Li (“I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me”) have as their initials the word “Ellul.” This expression also ends with the letter yud (which has a numerical value of 40), alluding to the 40 days of preparation.
One must understand this consists of. Why did G-d give us 40 entire days to repent, when one would have obviously sufficed? Certainly, the Sages said that these days correspond to the 40 days that Moses stayed on Mt. Sinai to receive the second Tablets of the Law. Moses returned on Yom Kippur, the day when the people of Israel knew that G-d had pardoned them, having awaited him 40 days (Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer 46). But this doesn’t remove our difficulty: Since in any case the essential thing is the day of Kippur itself - that we fast on it (Leviticus 16:31) and that G-d pardons us - why, after having committed the sin of the golden calf, did the Children of Israel need 40 days to prepare (since they didn’t wait for Moses the first time)? Why then is 40 days needed? Besides, it’s nowhere stated in the Torah that a 40-day period is needed to prepare for atonement! Moreover, the Torah doesn’t even mention the day of judgement associated with Rosh Hashana, but is satisfied with stating “You shall sound the trumpets...and they shall be a remembrance for you” (Numbers 10:10). Consequently, why are so many days needed for repentance?
We will attempt to explain this. That a man sins through thought, speech, and deed stems from the fact that he doesn’t study Torah enough, or that he is not hard enough on himself. Essentially, it is impossible that someone can sin if he devotes himself entirely to study, for the Torah protects him, saves him from all sin (Sotah 21a), and can only do him good. In addition, a man doesn’t know exactly how he has sinned, and what has damaged him, yet his sin remains. And it is particularly so with a man of great spiritual stature, for he is judged much more severely, to the point that the Sages have said that if the Holy One, blessed be He, had judged the holy Patriarchs with rigorous strictness, they would not have been found innocent before Him. So then, what will happen to us - who have already received the Torah - when the Holy One, blessed be He, comes to judge us in all strictness of justice? Even if we study day and night, all our baggage is weighted with faults and sins, so we must repent completely.
So how do we affect this repair? The Sages have said (Makkot 20b) that our 248 members and 365 nerves correspond to the 248 positive mitzvot and 365 negative mitzvot. As a result, the Holy One, blessed be He, has put in man, by these mitzvot, tremendous forces that enable him to improve his body (his members and his nerves). Now in reflecting upon this, we note that each mitzvah is representative of all mitzvot as a whole, for when someone performs a mitzvah (which corresponds to a particular body part), all the body parts benefit, and likewise when we neglect a single body part they all suffer. Consequently when we violate a single mitzvah it’s as if we neglect them all, which is absolutely horrendous. This is the principle by which one sin brings on another (Pirkei Avoth 4:2), for a violation of one mitzvah risks inciting a terrible breach of all the rest. And so what will our response be on the Day of Judgement?
If this is the situation then, how can we win in such awful circumstances? Concerning this the Sages have said, “If you meet this miserable one [the evil inclination] draw him to the house of study” (Sukkah 52b), for the Torah protects man. This is why the Nazir and the one who makes a vow erects a fence around the Torah, so as to distance himself from temptation. The righteous distance themselves as well, in sanctifying themselves in those things that are permitted to them (Yebamoth 20a). And they are perfectly correct in fleeing temptation that are connected to permissible things (Nedarim 9a), and the Torah has the ability to put back into place and to reestablish all that has been degraded or made deficient in man.
I’ve discovered a marvelous idea with the holy Shelah, who, concerning the verse “I considered my ways, and returned my feet to Your testimonies” (Psalms 119:59), says that it has a double meaning. For we can also interpret it according to the Sages’ statement which says that if a man sees that he is overcome with trials, he should examine his actions; if he does so and finds nothing, he should attribute his troubles to negligence in Torah study (Berachot 8a). In the verse in question, the feet (raglei) represent the cause, as in the expression “G-d has blessed you because of me [leragli].” This is what David means when he says that he meditated upon his paths; it signifies that he thought about all his actions without finding anything. As a result, to understand the reasons why these trials came upon him, he says “I returned my feet toward Your statutes,” which is the Torah, in supposing that they were due to a neglect in study.
The Midrash says, “Every day I told myself that I will go to a certain place” (Vayikra Rabba 35:1), and I found nothing blameworthy in my behavior. Consequently, “my steps brought me to the house of study and prayer” (ibid.), to know that I attributed my problems to a neglect in study. The fact that he equally mentions the places of prayer alludes to a neglect in prayer, which is in any case a very closely related subject. In addition, the house of study lends itself more to prayer than other places, as the Sages say concerning Rav Ami and Rav Asi who, although there were thirteen houses of prayer in Tiberias, prayed but in places where the Torah was studied (Berachot 8a). The house of prayer is thus included in the house of study.
From everything that we’ve said up to now, we can understand things perfectly. In effect, we have seen that every fault and every mishap stems from neglect in study, which is why man’s evil inclination tries to make him stumble in precisely this area. Now as we know, the Torah was given in 40 days (Menachot 99b), which is why the Children of Israel needed 40 days of forgiveness and preparation before the day of Yom Kippur; they needed it to repair the neglect of the study of Torah, which was given in 40 days.
Yet in spite of all this there still remains some questions to ask. Why, in fact, was the Torah given in 40 days? Couldn’t Moses have received it in only one day, so that there would be only one day of forgiveness? And why did Moses have to stay on the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights?
To this we can answer quite simply. As we know, a human being is formed in 40 days, for up to the 40th day we can request that the embryo becomes a boy or a girl (Berachot 60b). This is how we have understood the Divine Wisdom, but we don’t need to get involved with such mysteries. As a result, since man has 248 members and 365 nerves that appear after the 40 first days, for man to completely repent of his thoughts, speech, and deeds, and to purify himself of all fault, he also really needs 40 days. It is only then that he truly returns to G-d and then G-d returns to him, as it is said, “Return to Me and I will return to you” (Malachi 3:7). This is why the Torah was given in 40 days: That by means of the positive and negative mitzvot that correspond to the members and the nerves of the human body, which themselves are formed after 40 days, man becomes complete. In the Heavens Moses became perfect at the end of 40 days, and only then could he bring down the Torah that resembles the members and the nerves of man, formed after 40 days. It is written, “I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me,” an expression by which the last letters of each word form the number 40, alluding to the 40 days of embryo formation required to receive its members and nerves. Likewise a man should purify himself of his faults during these same 40 days, for when he has violated the Torah and the mitzvot, it’s his own being that he has undermined. When he repents of his mistakes, he is made whole again, and on the day of Yom Kippur he is like a newborn baby. This allows us to completely understand what the Sages have said: “In the future, a woman will give birth every day” (Shabbat 30b), for in the future we will no longer require these 40 days. In effect, there will no longer be an evil inclination, and the relationship between the 40 days of the Torah and the 40 days of embryo formation will no longer be valid, for failure to repent and negligence in Torah study will cease.
During these 40 days a man should acquire for himself good advocates, return toward G-d, and let the Shechinah take back its rightful place, since he had distanced it from himself. Now there is no better advocate than members and nerves that conduct themselves in conformity with the verse that states, “All my limbs will say, ‘HASHEM, who is like you?’” (Psalms 35:10). The entire body will say to G-d “who is like You?”, and that constitutes the greatest teshuvah. We come to this only by performing the 613 mitzvot, positive and negative, that correspond to the members and the nerves, and by studying the Torah with great effort, which rectifies the body of man. For this, 40 days are required.
And if we see people who repent, yet continue to sin, it’s because they don’t study the Torah. For when we get into the habit of sinning, we begin to think “I’ll sin, then repent,” and at that moment man is no longer given the ability to repent. From that point on, this sin appears to him to be permitted (Yoma 80b). Even when he repents, he neglects to do it concerning that which he thinks is now permitted. The study of Torah is therefore indispensable, for it allows him to know what is forbidden or allowed, and to know what to repent of and how.
We should know that the Torah is truth (Berachot 5b), and that truth is eternal, as it is written, “The Eternal One of Israel does not lie” (I Samuel 15:29). Whoever has a connection to the truth is equally eternal. Actually, we note that in history many peoples have completely disappeared, while the Jewish people live on eternally, despite the persecutions they have endured. For the Torah, the Jewish people, and the Holy One, blessed be He, are one (Zohar III, 73a). Truth is the stamp of the Holy One, blessed be He (Shabbat 58a). Torah is truth; the people of Israel are truth, and have not changed because they have stayed in close contact with G-d and the Torah. If all the other peoples take thousands of years to transform themselves, by G-d’s grace bestowed upon the people of Israel, each year it takes only 40 days for them to improve themselves by repenting. Even the most upright Jew, who has no blameworthy faults, improves and raises himself to ever yet higher levels during these 40 days.
This allows us to understand what is written in the Torah: “For [ki] on this day he will provide atonement for you to cleanse you; from all your sins before HASHEM shall you be cleansed” (Leviticus 16:30), which requires great preparation. Ki (“for”) has a numerical value of 30, which are the 30 days of the month of Ellul, and are a preparation for “this day,” Yom Kippur, when G-d will forgive all our sins. And if teshuvah did not exist, the people of Israel would have also disappeared, for it is by every individual’s teshuvah that he, so to speak, revives, and in its absence the people of Israel would not have revived. Yet teshuvah allows the people of Israel to revive, to come closer to the Shechinah, and to improve themselves. And as it is written, “Truth will sprout from the earth” (Psalms 85:12), meaning that the Torah, which is called “Truth,” will sprout from the earth - from man, who is created from the earth - for by teshuvah and efforts in studying the Torah, a man will flourish, be renewed, and come closer to G-d.