As we enter Yom Kippur, the theme on everyone’s mind in teshuvah. This is what we have been working on this entire period starting from Rosh Hashanah, and really since the beginning of the month of Elul. With Yom Kippur, it all comes to a head and then it ends. Or does it? Perhaps we do not truly understand what teshuvah is. Of course it involves atoning for our sins and committing to being better Jews. But does the teshuvah process end with Yom Kippur or is there something beyond?
In everything we do, the Yetzer Hara is there to slip us up. This includes everything from walking down the street to eating, sleeping, and even learning and davening! But if there is one thing we would say we are safe from him we would say it is teshuvah. In the time we spend thinking over our actions and trying to become better people, these lofty thoughts surely keep us safe from his influence! In this time our thoughts are pure and are completely our own. In reality however, this is not true.
The Arizal brings a famous medrash that right before leaving Mitzrayim, the Bnei Yisrael had reached the forty-ninth level of tumah (impurity), and if they had not been taking out immediately would have slipped to the fiftieth and lowest level, from which they could never have risen and therefore could never have left Mitzrayim. This does not seem possible as Bnei Yisrael were on this same level before the plagues started and had only increased their level of belief in Hashem as they saw the Egyptians being punished time after time. So how could they still be on such a low level after all ten plagues had occurred? The Arizal explains that with each plague, Bnei Yisrael’s faith in Hashem increased along with their level of purity. However, as long as they had not reached their full potential, there was no need to remove them so quickly from Egypt. However, once the first-born were struck and Bnei Yisrael had complete faith in Hashem, they had to take a step up in kedushah and leave Egypt, otherwise, they risked falling all the way back down to the lowest level of tumah. We can use this explanation to understand the Yetzer Hara’s plan and how we can combat it.
R’ Shalom Schwadron ZT”L, known as the ‘Maggid (Preacher- for lack of a better word) of Yerushalayim’ in his lifetime, explains in his sefer, Kol Dodi Dofek, that far from leaving us alone, the Yetzer Hara even encourages us to grow during Elul. In fact, he wants us to reach all the way to the heavens! But only as long as our feet stay on the ground. With all our tefillos, fasting, and selichos during Elul, he has decided that it’s not worth the fight; his primary goal now is to make sure that the effects of this month don’t last. If he can keep our feet on the ground during Elul and Tishrei, then eventually our heads will follow us back down and we will settle into our old ways. He says, “Let them daven and make all the commitments they want! Eventually they will forget the whole thing.”
R’ Shalom explains that sometimes all the holy, lofty thoughts we think during Elul are part of a ploy by the Yetzer Hara. He fills our heads with too many thoughts to process all of them. We get really excited by all the amazing new opportunities awaiting us, but with so many ideas, we do not know what to do with all of them and end up doing nothing! What a frightening thought! One thing is certain, it is better to not have thought at all about teshuvah than to have thought about it and done nothing.
So how do we combat this? Are all our hopes and dreams for the new year destined to fall by the wayside? What can we do to protect ourselves from the Yetzer Hara? The answer is found in the Arizal we brought earlier. Just like the Bnei Yisrael left Mitzrayim right when they reached their high level of kedushah, the trick is that as soon as we reach the high level we so badly seek, we must immediately act upon it! The Yetzer Hara is letting us ascend during Elul with no resistance, let’s use this boost to stay there! The key is to make sure we act upon our dreams immediately. This is the real definition of teshuvah: that we atone for our sins and then change who we are forever into someone better. Taking our thoughts and acting upon them. This is teshuvah in its truest form.
Changing is not easy, but it’s even harder when you do not truly want to change. The Ohr HaChaim writes in Parshas Balak (Bamidbar 23:10) that he spoke to a few known reshaim who told him truthfully that they would love to do teshuvah, but only if they would die immediately afterwards. They knew what they were doing was wrong, but they did not want to change. Let’s take their statements at face value, perhaps they really did want to do teshuvah and maybe they really would have changed. But still, this is not enough! You cannot do real teshuvah and die, you must show how you have changed! You must live as a ‘Baal Teshuvah’! This is a question we must all ask ourselves; I truly believe that everyone reading this Dvar Torah would be more than willing to die to sanctify Hashem’s name, but how many of us are truly willing to live for it?
Standing here on the edge of Yom Kippur, we have traversed the Aseres Yimei Teshuvah and have hopefully prepared ourselves well for this holy and special day. The next step we must take is to live out our changes. R’ Shalom gives a tip that on top of whatever you do before and on Yom Kippur, after the fast you should make a new commitment for the year. This way you can immediately show that this time period has had an effect on you and you are ready to live with your teshuvah. When the fast ends, let’s give ourselves a pat on the back for a job well done, and then get right back to work, because living is what we are committing to this Yom Kippur. May this be a zchus for us to have a healthy, happy, year full of peace between all Jews. And may this be the year we see the final Geulah.
Gmar Chasima Tova and Shabbat Shalom!
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