Teshuva and Torah seem to enjoy an underlying link. When we pray to Hashem for teshuva, we ask Hashem to “bring us back to Your Torah”. What is the connection between the two?
Seemingly, the Jewish year leaves us in a never-ending loop, whereas we spend the first part of the year reflecting on our deeds and making resolutions, only to discover them all but forgotten by the end of the year. And the next year, again. Why is this? Is real change even possible?
Teshuva is rooted in the word shav – to return. Where does the penitent return to? And what is real teshuva? Of this and more, in the coming article.
The Secret of Torah
Let us begin with a story.
My father-in-law serves on the faculty of the Or Someiach Yeshiva in Jerusalem. One year, Rabbi Mendel Weinbach asked the staff what they though was the reason for the fluctuating success rate in yeshiva – while some groups grew faster in their Yiddishkeit, others took more time or left before the process was complete. They raised several possibilities, but reached the conclusion that the determining success factor was one – Torah. When the staff succeeded in reaching out to their students through study of Gemara, the process was seamless and perfect.
What is the secret of Torah? How does a seemingly unrelated discussion in Gemara about oxen develop in Jews to an everlasting connection to Hashem?
In the Shemone Esrei we pray three times a day: “Return us, O Father to Your Torah.” While we may see this request as just another (albeit necessary) request, preceding the seemingly ‘important’ ones such as health and prosperity, the Charedim (Mitzvos Hateluyos b’Eretz Yisroel, Chapter 5) and Shela (Yoma, Ner Mitzva, 64) deem it the most important of all middle blessings, requiring the most concentration, because “It is most valuable for the soul, and its cure. One is obligated to ask Hashem to bring him back (teshuva), as no one is so righteous to have only done good and no sin. Just as one must pray for himself, he must also pray for other Jewish sinners.” What does this mean in practical terms?
Teshuva and Torah
Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin (Nefesh Hachayim, sha’ar 4:31) poses this question, and explains that teshuva is actually a person’s return to Hashem as a result of his love for Him. Accessing that infinite love is impossible without study of Torah. This point is expressed in the Zohar (Vayikra 21a): one who is far from Torah is far form Hashem; he who is close to Torah is close to Hashem.
The Chayei Adam writes (Klal 143:1) that without a connection to Torah one has no connection to Hashem. Therefore, the sin of failing to study Torah is more severe than other sins (Sha’arei Teshuva 1:8). Indeed, the connection one has to Torah study equals to his connection with G-d.
Rabbi Shlomo Berman, the Poneveze Rosh Yeshiva writes about the Torah-teshuva connection in his introduction to Shalmei Moed:
In last week’s parasha we read: “For this commandment which I command you this day, is not concealed from you, nor is it far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us, so that we can fulfill it?’… Rather it is very close to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can fulfill it” (Devarim 30:11-14). The Ramban explains that these psukim are referring to the mitzva of teshuva. Elsewhere, the Ramban seems to indicate that these psukim are referring to the mitzva of Torah study. How can one pasuk be interpreted by the same commentary as referring to two separate mitzvos?
Teshuva and Torah are interconnected. The primary way people can do teshuva, repent, or return to Hashem, is through Torah study. Therefore, the pasuk that describes repentance is also referring to the practical aspect of teshuva – Torah study.
The Ben Ish Chai quotes the Ari Hakadosh (Shana Alef, Beshalach 17) that it is human sins that cause one’s holiness of spirit — created from Torah and mitzvos — to leave him. We are obligated to pray to Hashem and work to bring them back through the power of Torah study or mitzvo performance. Then we can gain access to that holiness.
The Shela (Yisro, Derech Chayim 37) quotes sources from the hidden aspects of Torah that demonstrate how the opposite is also true: one who tries to learn Torah and finds it too difficult to comprehend should see it as a sign that sin is preventing his connection to the Torah. In order to understand Hashem’s Torah, one must repent for his transgressions, confess them, and pray to merit understanding the Torah. Then, once his sins are repented for, he will merit understanding the holy Torah properly.
This explains the sequence of the blessings in the Shemone Esrei: first we pray for insight and understanding, then for return to Torah. Through teshuva one can merit understanding Torah properly.
Rabbi Yaakov Hillel explains that one who sins loses his tzelem Elokim – his G-dly image. Through Torah study or mitzvo performance, one regains this image, enabling him to repent for his sins. Repenting without reinstitution of the spiritual image is like trying to force an animal to repent – he may go through the motions, but no real change occurs.
This might explain what happens every year without fail. While we may know our mistakes and understand them, without establishing a real, steady connection to Torah study or grow in our performance of mitzvos we may find ourselves stuck in an everlasting gerbil track, running in circles without making any real progress. Only a strong, steadfast commitment to Torah study or mitzvah performance can effect real change.
A Torah Scholar = A Penitent
The Gemara (Brachos 19a) writes: “It was taught in the school of Rabbi Yishmael: ‘If you saw a Torah scholar transgress a prohibition at night, do not think badly of him during the day; perhaps he has repented in the meantime.’ The Gemara challenges this: ‘Does it enter your mind that only perhaps he has repented? Rather, he has certainly repented.’” No doubt — if he is a talmid chacham he must have repented. Why? What’s the connection? Aren’t talmidei chachomim also human beings who sin?
Tana D’ve Eliyahu (Elyahu Raba 3) quotes a pasuk in support of this rule: “Love covers all transgressions” (Mishlei 10:12). Torah is the ultimate form of love because Torah causes one to love Hashem and for Hashem to love us. Obviously, a true talmid chacham who studies Torah leshmo will have repented out of love.
Torah study not only allows for correction of sins, but it also assures that the process of teshuva will happen. So much so, that we are obligated to assume that the process has already transpired.
Repentance – Through Torah Study
The Gemara mentions this concept many times – no human can battle his evil inclination without the power of Torah.
The Gemara (Succah 52b) writes: “The school of Rabbi Yishmael taught: If this scoundrel (the evil inclination), accosted you, (seeking to tempt you to sin) drag it to the study hall and study Torah. If it is like a stone, it will be dissolved by the Torah. If it is like iron, it will be shattered.”
Elsewhere we find (Kiddushin 30b): “So too the Holy One, Blessed be He, said to Yisroel: My children, I created an evil inclination, which is the wound, and I created Torah as its antidote. If you are engaged in Torah study you will not be given over into the hand of the evil inclination, as it is stated: ‘If you do well, shall it not be lifted up?’ (Bereshis 4:7). One who engages in Torah study lifts himself above the evil inclination. And if you do not engage in Torah study, he is given power over you, as it is stated: ‘Sin crouches at the door’ (Bereshis 4:7).”
The Midrash (Eicha Raba, introductions, B) quotes the pasuk: “Because your fathers have forsaken Me, says the Lord, and they followed other gods and worshipped them and prostrated themselves before them, but they forsook Me, and did not keep My Torah” (Yirmiyahu 16:11). The Midrash there translates this pasuk as dashed hopes: “O for them to have forgotten Me and learned My Torah, for had they done so, its [the Torah’s] light would have brought them back.”
Indeed, here again, we find the concept: even if we sin and stray from the mitzvos, Torah has the power to bring us back. Ceasing to study Torah is akin to cutting the telephone line or losing the map – the connection is no longer possible; the way back home — forgotten.
How does this Torah-teshuva connection work? Why is Torah the only effective antidote to sin?
In Mishlei (25:21) we read: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him bread, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.” Rashi, quoting the Midrash, explains: “It is referring to the evil inclination. If he is hungry and tells you to sate him with sins, draw yourself into the study hall and feed him the bread of Torah, and likewise, give him the water of Torah to drink.”
The Midrash (Bereshis Raba 22:6) tells us: “Rabbi Chanina bar Papa said: if your yetzer came to tempt you [lit. to make you desire] send him away with words of Torah.”
The yetzer hara works to create a lack within a person – that’s how we are created. Every person feels himself lacking something. And it is the yetzer hara that gives that lack context – it calls the lack ‘hunger for love’, ‘pursuit of joy’, ‘money-lust’, ‘lack of fulfillment’. At times this hunger may lead one down the track of addiction. As long as that lack exists, nothing can satiate it. The only way to settle this emotional hunger is with the real thing – studying Torah or performing mitzvos , the kind of which brings one to joy and fulfillment. This joy satisfies the hunger that the yetzer hara, or distance from Hashem created in bringing us closer to Hashem — which is our ultimate mission — while quieting the thirst and hunger that is inborn in our nature.
Kinds of Torah Study
Rabbi Yisroel of Salant explains that the different kinds of Torah study have different levels of power to effect change, or teshuva. There is Torah study in which one studies for the mitzva. This kind of study is powerful and can be compared to a gun’s shooting power in conquest of the yetzer hara. However, study of Torah that connects to one’s inner desires, fire, and passion, has much greater power to effect change on a person. One who studies what his heart desires, in the way that suits his personality is unleashing the changing effect of dynamite. His connection to Hashem and repentance is so much more effective. And, when one learns where he was mistaken and understands the root of his mistake, his newfound awareness affords him the practical knowledge how to distance himself from that sin in the future.
Teshuva after Understanding
The Gemara writes (Megillah 17b) that the sequence of prayer in which repentance only appears after asking for knowledge is based on a pasuk (Yeshayahu 6:10)that describes how to cause one to fail to do teshuvo “…Lest he see with his eyes, and hear with his ears, and his heart understand, and he repent and be healed.”
The Kuzari (Ma’amar 3:19) adds that one must first pray for knowledge and understanding because without it, one has no means of connecting to Hashem. On the other hand, all knowledge and insight must be utilized for Torah and growing closer to Hashem, therefore we immediately continue with the request to return to Torah.
Repentance and connection with G-d is not limited to people of heightened spiritual awareness, nor is it a fruit of an emotional disposition, detached from reality. Feeling connection with G-d is not enough – one must give it a factual context to allow Hashem to be connected to him as well. And, only Torah study or mitzvo performance can accomplish this.
Return to “Father”
The Rokeiach explains that the term “O father” is used in reference to Hashem only three times in prayer, one of which is here, when asking for repentance. “Bring us back, O father, to Your Torah” is the wording of our request because a father is required to teach his son Torah. Therefore, we ask of Hashem, as our Father, to bring us back to the Torah. This reference appears again when we ask for peace because there we also mention Torah learning. The third reference appears when asking for forgiveness, because a father forgives his child for his misdeeds.
The Abudraham quotes a parable from the Midrash (Sifri 345) to illustrate this choice of language:
One who used to work in an important job and then began doing menial labor is embarrassed to return to his previous job. But when a crown prince who comes to claim his position after his father’s demise needs not apologize for any previous occupation, menial as it may be — he is claiming his birthright. Similarly, if a talmid chacham leaves the Beis Midrash for other kinds of work and then wishes to return to his former occupation, he does so with no apologies and his head is held high because he is coming back to reclaim his own inheritance, as the pasuk reads: “The Torah that Moshe commanded us is a legacy for the congregation of Yaakov” (Devarim 33:4). The Torah is a Jew’s birthright. Even if he strayed, a child is always welcomed back to his parents’ home.
Repentance and the 27th Chapter in Tehilim
Many Jewish communities have the custom of reciting the 27th chapter of Tehilim after the morning and afternoon or evening prayers, from Rosh Chodesh Elul until Hosha’ana Raba. The Midrash writes that this chapter is closely linked to the high points in these months – Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Succos, and Hosha’ana Raba. But where is repentance mentioned in this chapter? It is in the psukim that refer to Torah study: “One [thing] I ask of the Lord, that I seek- to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life” (27:4), and “Instruct me, O Lord, in Your way” (27:11).
Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian (Lev Eliyahu, Chochma U’Mussar, Shvivei Or, 28) explains why we use the term “return us” when asking for repentance. Where does one return to when he repents? Some people have never before studied Torah, but the text of the prayers is uniform for all. Where is the unlearned returning to?
Rabbi Lopian explains that before a baby is born, an angel teaches him the entire Torah (according to the Gemara, Niddah 30b). Then, upon his birth, the angel smacks him on the lip, and he forgets all he learned. After birth one is charged with a mission – to reacquire what he lost, but this time — through his own sweat and toil. To quote Rabbi Akiva Tatz (As Dawn Ends the Night, p. 147): “The work of life is to recover one’s own original wisdom, to draw it out of one’s own intellect and conscience.” And he describes the experience of relearning as, “When one learns something deeply true, one does not have a feeling of learning, one has a feeling of recognition.” When one learns Torah, regardless of his family and upbringing, he is drawing on his inborn, forgotten learning experience that his soul enjoyed for nine months. He is returning to that original Torah.
And that Torah, explains the Sfas Emes (Behar, 5643; Ha’azinu, 5643) is the “portion of Torah” we beg Hashem for in our prayers – “And grant us our portion in Your Torah.”
Repentance, or teshuva means reconnecting with our portion of Torah is uniquely ours, taught to us by an angel before we were born, and which is our life’s mission to rediscover. Indeed, the Midrash describes that at the moment of death three angels approach the departing soul, one of which is the angel who taught him Torah in the womb. He comes at the moment of death to see whether the potential one was charged with reached actualization.
Bar Mitzva Celebration
A father once asked Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach if he should minimize his son’s bar mitzva celebration that fell on Aseres Yemei Teshuva. “After all,” explained the father, “We don’t recite Kiddush Levana in these days because we are being judged and one cannot recite Kiddush Levana unless he is in a joyful state of mind. Shouldn’t a bar mitzva celebration also be toned down a bit?”
Rav Shlomo Zalaman Auerbach thought the opposite. “One the contrary – this is the time in which we ask Hashem to bring us back to His Torah. What more proper way to repent is than to celebrate a child’s entrance to the covenant of Torah and mitzvos?”
How does one repent and return to his place as Hashem beloved child? By reconnecting to Torah, and asking Hashem to allow for that reconnection to take place. After prayer, a man should learn Torah immediately, at least a little, so as to give his prayers a chance to be answered. Through prayer and Torah study we are all offered a chance to take a step closer to Hashem and be blessed with a sweet new year.