Teshuvah need not be complete for Yom Kippur to provide atonement
Well over 20 years ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rabbi Shlomo Hoffman for my biography of Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler. Rabbi Hoffman had been one of the early leaders of the P’eylim movement, in which Rav Dessler played a large role, to rescue new immigrant children from Arab lands from assimilation.
Though I had never heard of him prior to our meeting, I left that meeting deeply impressed by both his wisdom and his pashtus, and I always regretted that I never found an excuse to visit again.
But I did, at least, subsequently gain confirmation that my judgment had been on target. Reb Shlomo, it turned out, was the figure whom mechanchim in Eretz Yisrael at every level, from senior roshei yeshivah to cheder rabbanim, consulted on all matters pertaining to chinuch and parenting.
Rav Shach used to regularly send bochurim to Reb Shlomo for counseling. In one famous story, Rav Shach called Reb Shlomo on Leil Bedikas Chometz and said there was a bochur he urgently wanted to bring. Reb Shlomo was aghast at the idea of Rav Shach coming to him, and immediately said he would travel to Bnei Brak. But Rav Shach would not hear of that, and simply said he would send the bochur in a taxi. The next morning in davening someone asked Reb Shlomo, “Why was Rav Shach pacing back and forth outside your building for over an hour last night?”
In his haskamah to the Hebrew sefer Sichos im Harav Shlomo Hoffman, Rav Moshe Shapira wrote of his longtime neighbor in Bayit Vegan, “He was a true mechanech because he was truly mechunach [by Rav Isaac Sher, who invested great efforts in him].”
“He had an extraordinary understanding of kochos hanefesh,” wrote Rav Moshe, because “he had the ability to listen [to his rebbeim], and fulfilled the verse, ‘The man who hears will speak eternally’” (Mishlei 21:28).
The Hebrew Sichos im Harav Shlomo Hoffman sold an unprecedented 20,000 copies, and a new English translation, Secrets of the Soul: Conversations with Rav Shlomo Hoffman, a Talmid of Rav Isaac Sher and Confidant of Gedolei Yisrael, even surpasses the original Hebrew in clarity and elegance of presentation.
AT THE BEGINNING of Shiur Three of the new volume, Reb Shlomo recounts an incident from his first zeman in Chevron Yeshivah in 1938. One day in the hallway he met the Rosh Yeshivah, Rav Yechezkel Sarna ztz”l, who asked him why he looked so serious and sad.
The 16-year-old bochur replied, “It’s Aseres Yemei Teshuvah. And the Rambam writes that real teshuvah occurs only when a person can testify on himself that he will never again return to his sin. Who can hope to reach this level?”
Rav Yechezkel shouted at him, “Why are you following the stringent opinion of the Rambam? We follow the lenient opinion of Rabbeinu Yonah, who writes that teshuvah necessary for atonement on Yom Kippur means ‘standing on the right path.’”
Rav Yechezkel proceeded to give a mashal of what it means to “stand on the right path,” which he had heard from the Alter of Slabodka, who heard it from Rav Yisrael Salanter.
A person goes to the taxi stand near Meah Shearim and asks how long the ride is to Bnei Brak, and is told it’s one hour. Yet two hours after starting the ride, he still hasn’t reached Bnei Brak. Indeed, when he asks how much farther it is to Bnei Brak, he is told that he is now three hours away and is near Mitzpeh Ramon in the Negev. For the last two hours he has been headed south, away from Bnei Brak. Nevertheless, he is now better off than he was when he left Yerushalayim, because at least now he is headed in the right direction. But had he continued in the wrong direction, he would never have reached Bnei Brak.
Rav Yechezkel’s point: One can’t achieve complete teshuvah in the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah or even know how long it will require to do so. But at the very least, one must be headed in the right direction.
Rav Yisrael Salanter deduced this principle — that teshuvah need not be complete for Yom Kippur to provide atonement — from the fact that the Gemara in Niddah (70b) refers to those who are “doing teshuvah,” not to those who have “done teshuvah.” Similarly, the Gemara in Shavuos (13a) says that Yom Kippur atones for those who are “doing teshuvah” (shavim), not those who have “done teshuvah” (shavu).
Young people want to do everything quickly. But teshuvah is a long process. Understanding one’s yetzer and how to cope with it is the work of a lifetime. But first one must be headed in the right direction.
And that begins, according to Chovos Halevavos, with recognizing that one has done something wrong. That itself takes effort. Most people act wrongly without remorse, or have all kinds of excuses and justifications for what they do. One great obstacle is frequent repetition of bad habits or practices. As Chazal say, when a person engages in the same wrongdoing three times, it already becomes for him akin to a mitzvah. Gaining clarity on what one has done wrong, the Chovos Halevavos implies, comes even before remorse (charatah).
But once the wrongdoing is acknowledged, even if the person knows he has not yet gained control of himself and will likely fall again, he is on the path to teshuvah and the atonement of Yom Kippur can take effect.
Reb Yisrael Salanter writes in Maamar Hateshuvah that if one has prepared himself for teshuvah, HaKadosh Baruch Hu stays His anger. And what does it mean to be muchshar for teshuvah? To feel one’s failings.
RAV HOFFMAN THEN OFFERED three crucial tools for successfully navigating the path toward full teshuvah. The first is believing in the possibility of change and eschewing all deterministic thinking — e.g., it is my nature to act in such a fashion, that is the kind of house I was raised in, etc.
Second, one must set realistic goals. If one takes on the daunting objective to learn a difficult masechta by Chanukah, outside of the yeshivah learning framework, failure does not come on Chanukah; it is baked in from the start. Change must be a step-by-step process, writes the Gaon. “‘The swift of foot’ — i.e., one who jumps to a level that is too high for him — ‘is sinful’ (Mishlei 19:2). By jumping too high, he will fall.”
And finally, a person must learn to enjoy the effort that any change requires. According to the Gaon, the pasuk “A happy heart betters the face” (Mishlei 15:13) refers to those who are happy in their hard work.
I chose to focus on one shiur of immediate use as we head into Yom Kippur, but readers will find life wisdom of immediate applicability on every page of Secrets of the Heart.
We live in an age of worthless apologies: “If I have offended anyone, I’m sorry.” Translated: “The hassle of insulting you and possible loss of income have made it not worth the pleasure. So sorry.”
And my children know by now that I’m no fan of the last-minute pro forma — “If I did anything to hurt you this past year, please be mochel me” — which only emphasizes that not a minute has been spent in contemplation of whether there is anything in need of mechilah.
So to read an honest plea for forgiveness — the kind worthy of Yom Kippur — is a pleasure.
A few weeks back, Mishpacha’s own Rabbi Ron Yitzchak Eisenman, rav of Passaic’s most frequented shul, Ahavas Yisrael, sent a no-punches-pulled open email to a yeshivah bochur who had entered the shul to daven the previous day without a mask and proceeded to speak in a chutzpahdig fashion to two elderly gentlemen who undertook to remind him of the shul’s requirement of masks during davening.
The next day, Rabbi Eisenman received a response from an obviously contrite yeshivah bochur. The bochur wanted to know the names of the older men he had insulted to ask for mechilah. He offered no defense of any kind for his behavior, as his rebbeim had always emphasized the need to treat every person with respect.
He related that his rosh yeshivah had compared him to a doctor who enters an operating theater in scrubs, with a cigarette and large glass of wine in hand, and then berates someone who questions his behavior for daring to question a doctor.
Only what the yeshivah bochur did was much worse, said his rosh yeshivah: “You don’t just represent your fellow doctors; you represent Hashem Yisbarach.’’
At that point, the bochur related, “I began to cry.”
May we all learn from his example something about what it means to genuinely seek mechilah with a broken-heart.
Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 829. Yonoson Rosenblum may be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
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