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Weekly Hashkafa # 65: Teshuva, “Returning to G-d”

Given 09/09/2021

I’d like to speak about Yom Kippur. Obviously, it is right around the corner. The main idea is to do teshuva—repent. Yom Kippur has a basis in Judaism, is part of the history of Judaism.

Historical Basis

After the sin of the Golden Calf, Moshe went up to shamayim—Heaven, was there for 40 days to beg G-d not to destroy, kill the Jews. Then he came down, took the Calf and ground it up. Thousands of yidden--Jews died. Then he went back up to make sure that G-d still keeps them as His nation. That’s another round of 40 days. Then he went back up to make sure that G-d doesn’t include another nation. That’s 120 days. He came down on Yom Kippur, the 10th of TIshrei. G-d forgave the Jews. What that really means is that they were granted kapporah--atonement based on Moshe’s tefillot--prayers. Even though G-d forgave them, it is not a complete kapporah because, as G-d tells us, in every punishment that happens to Jews based on the sins of the Jews, G-d adds a little from that kapporah from the cheit ha’egel—Sin of the Golden Calf. So, we’ve been suffering from that sin for 3,300 years; that’s a long time.

The main idea is that the 10th day of Tishrei became the day of kapporah. That is the historical antecedent of the kapporah of the Jews, becoming Yom Kippur. As I mentioned in the Rosh ha’Shana lecture, G-d makes sure that anyone’s teshuva---no matter at what level, will be accepted. I mentioned that the gematria—numerological value of the term “ha’Satan”—the Satan is 364, indicating that he works but 364 days per year. On that one day, the Satan does not prosecute. He maintains his job as tempter--yetzer hara, maintains it as executioner/Angel of Death, malach ha’mavet, but not as the Heavenly prosecuting attorney; that is suspended for that one day. Since there is no kitrug—prosecutorial action at all, there isn’t the potential for teshuva to be rejected for being insufficiently sincere or the person isn’t sure, or whatever. There is no prosecution against the teshuva you will do.

I must stress that whatever level of teshuva you do, do something! Don’t let Yom Kippur go by without doing teshuva at some level. For example, you can acknowledge something that you have been doing that you think you shouldn’t so you tell yourself you should stop or wind it down. Do that! In other words, don’t let Yom Kippur go by without any teshuva whatsoever. That’s a classic mistake because the amnesty for chataim--sins is completely open.

Teshuva: A Deep Understanding

Teshuva is a tremendous gift from G-d. When a person sins, it isn’t done with one idea. There are several violations. The first is that he disobeyed, violated a command of G-d. The second is that you damaged yourself spiritually, created a pgam---defect in yourself. There is a certain Light, holiness, of the sefiros—Divine energies that is blocked as it is coming to you. That is a damage to you but also a sin against G-d because G-d doesn’t want His children to be damaged. So, in many ways, you are inflicting something that goes against the Will of G-d. A third violation is that G-d has to punish you, and G-d doesn’t want to punish klal Yisrael. That is why the prayer uses three expressions of kapporah: “forgive,” “atone,” “overlook” because there are three aspects to violating His Will that you seek atonement for.

What is teshuva really? What is the consequence of sin, really? As I mentioned above, there are three. But there is a fourth consequence which is what it is all about, really. The word “teshuva” doesn’t mean “repentance” per se; it means “return.” One thing you damage is your relationship with G-d.

Let’s suppose you violate the will of a king and that you’ve been good friends with him. But, for some reason, you turned against him and he finds out. You are now denied the privilege of being close to the king and he has to punish you. You have damaged the relationship. That is the the true damage of cheit---sin. You have created a richuk, distance. The sin has distanced you from G-d. That has all kinds of repercussions.

As in the murder by Cain of Abel, Cain did teshuva which is why he wasn’t killed. He makes an interesting statement: “umipanecha ester”—and from Your Face I will be concealed. This reveals the essential damage of a sin. It is the realization that, as far as the relationship with

G-d is concerned, You won’t look at me, won’t care about me. My special relationship I had with you is over. This is terrible!

Without that special relationship, we can’t exist further; we’re finished! We are totally, absolutely, dependent on G-d so if G-d decides to turn His Face from us, when He says: Okay, if that’s what you want to do, then I’m not, in any way, going to relate to you, take care of you. That’s the greatest damage of all. We have to be frightened of that conclusion.

Cain also said, “Godol avoni minsoh”--the consequence of the sin is unbearable. This utterance means to communicate: You might as well take me away. I can’t live this way. That’s teshuva. Cain identified the essence of teshuva. Cain said, essentially: You’re right; it was a sin. I’m wrong. He identified his actions as sinful. That’s called “vidui”---confession. The second statement is a charata--regret. Though he committed the greatest of sins—murder--G-d forgave him, lightened the punishment, that Cain would be destined to wander. G-d put a sign on his forehead to protect him from those who sought to kill him and he was eventually killed by Lemech.

Cain identifies the real meaning of teshuva, to return to G-d. Of course, the way is to say, “I won’t sin anymore, won’t rebel anymore, won’t anger You.” On the contrary, “I will love You.” That’s what you want to do. It’s not just a vidui—confession of a particular sin--which is commendable. It is the resolution to stay away from the state of sinning. I don’t want to be in that state where I’m always sinning. You want to direct your teshuva for individual sins you’ve done and enlist G-d’s help in helping you avoid that state of sinning to spare yourself being in that state of richuk—distance from G-d. We don’t really know what the damage is when G-d decides to “cut him off” which is called “karet.” That is greatest harm that can come to a person.

What is tragic today is that there are so many people who are cut off, who don’t care. That’s the world we live in. We live in a world that’s really the pits. Most people are not spiritual and don’t care to have a relationship with G-d. They are immersed in materialism and all kinds of sinning, glory, wealth and pleasure, the conquest of others.

Also important is this: we know that there are 3 ways to do the tikkun: commandments, teshuva, and yisurim—suffering. Here’s a true story about the true meaning of yissurim: We’ve all heard about Napoleon Bonaparte, emperor of France. He was warring with some country, which he was often busy doing. In one case, he realized that he didn’t know the strategy of the enemy so he figured he’d disguise himself, take a general with him, and cross the border into enemy territory. He’d enter a tavern where soldiers were getting drunk, hoping to hear what the soldiers were saying. Perhaps they would disclose the strategy of what they had planned for the next day. So, that’s what he did.

A True Tale

He entered the tavern and took a seat in the back in order to remain obscure. He was able to gather a lot of information. The drunken troops were all blurting out, bragging about their expectation of conquest. There’s a guy at the bar, obviously drunk, observing the scene. He notices Napoleon and the general sitting in the corner. All of sudden, he says to himself: Hey! That’s Napoleon. I recognize him. I was a prisoner, held captive by him and, when he was reviewing the troops, I was able to see him through the prison bars of my cell. That’s him. He starts screaming, “That’s Napoleon!”

You can imagine the reaction of the soldiers. Everybody turns around and looks at the table where Napoleon is seated. One of the other soldiers says, “That’s impossible. Why would Napoleon come to the enemy’s establishment?”

The identifying soldier insists he recognizes Napoleon from having seen him through the bars of his cell. “I was close enough and, I’m telling you, that’s Napoleon.”

You can imagine what is going through Napoleon’s mind, thinking I’m dead meat. Out of nowhere, the general who accompanied him leaps up and angrily yells, “What? You refuse to pay me back the money I lent you?” He goes over to Napoleon who’s a short guy, lifted him up and punched him in the face. The general throws him to the floor and beats him up. The entire bar of soldiers are incredulous thinking: How can that be Napoleon? Who would ever do such a thing to Napoleon? So, they turn back and continue with whatever they were doing. After the beating, Napoleon and his general both slink out of the tavern and return to their own territory.

Beaten up, Napoleon returns to his royal tent. The general thinks: What have I done? I’m finished. Forget about it! He anticipates that, when Napoleon gets his act together, recuperates from the beating, he will be called to appear before Napoleon to receive his death sentence. A few hours later, a retinue of guards appears in front of his tent to announce he is commanded to appear before Napoleon. He knows what that means.

Standing before Napoleon, he is told that, before sentence is meted out, Napoleon has a question for him to answer. Napoleon asks, “What do you think was going through my mind during the beating?”

The general says he imagined Napoleon was thinking: “If I get out of this, I’m going to kill my general for what he’s doing.”

Napoleon says, “You’re wrong. I recognized your ruse. I realized that your actions would give the impression that I couldn’t be Napoleon. Napoleon could never allow someone to beat him like that. That was your strategy and I was realizing it was working. I was thinking: Hit me harder! If you don’t, they won’t be convinced. Please hit me harder! Thank G-d you came up with this strategy. Therefore, I am going to pronounce sentence on you. Since you saved my life, I will grant you whatever you want.

This is a true story and illustrates a very important idea. Napoleon recognized that the only way to save his life was to be beaten up.

Same thing with yessurim. We go to Heaven with all kinds of sins. Who is screaming at us?--the Satan. The kitrugim—prosecutions. He screams that he wants us to die. What does G-d do?—beat us up. This removes the sin that we have. That is really what suffering is all about. Without it, like Napoleon, we couldn’t survive. How grateful would we be that G-d is beating us up. But remember, the only reason He’s punishing us is because we didn’t do teshuva.

How should a person live his life, particularly for those who works. There was a very great rabbi, the Zvile Rebbe, a bal mofet--miracle worker, a very great man. His name was Shlomka from Zvill. He’s buried on Mount of Olives, if you want to know. He had his own shul. One of his mispalelim—congregants came home and discovered a Russian goy dead in his kitchen. Obviously, he’d been stealing from his house and, for some reason, had a heart attack and dropped dead. The rebbe was frightened, expecting that news of this could start a pogrom, with all the attendant accusations that the Jews are baking matzos with blood, etc. He panicked. He came running to the Zeville Rebbe asking frantically, “What shall I do?”

The Zville rebbe said, “Don’t worry.” He goes over to his wife’s cholent, the dish she made for Shabbat—this happened on Shabbat—and tells the congregant, “Take from this cholent which I will eat from, take it home, and put some in the mouth of the Russian goy. Then stand back.”

He did as directed. The dead man arose! He got up! The guy walked out of the house into the nearby forest and dropped dead. It was the kind of miracle the Zville Rebbe was capable of and yet, he used to work for a living. Eventually, he left Russia, went to Eretz Yisroel, and kept a low profile.

One day, he is spotted by someone who blurts out, “That’s the Zville Rebbe!” Everyone ran to him for brachos---blessings, yeshuas—deliverance. That’s how great he was. One of his chassidim asked, “What is the difference between you and me? I work for a living and you work for a living. I say kiddush; you say kiddush. How come you’re the rebbe and I’m the chassid?” Very interesting question.

He answered, “The difference is that, when I am at work, I’m thinking of kiddush. When you are saying kiddush, you’re thinking of work.” The rebbe’s work was a distraction to his dveikus—attachment to G-d, his spirituality. The chassid’s kiddush was a distraction from his thoughts about how much inventory he had and how much money he made that week.

We see from this that it’s not where you are or what you’re doing that defines you; it’s where your devotion lies. One can think: I want to do mitzvot, do acts of kindness, be close to G-d. Where you want to be, is who you are. There are many who ask, “What will become of me? I gotta go to work, pay my bills, support my family. I’m not going to become anything, not become an erliche yid---sincere Jew. I have to work for a living. I’m not in yeshiva anymore. I’m not a talmid chacham—scholar. I’ll never be a real devout Jew.

Many people give up. Deep down, they believe they can never break their bonds to the material world. What the Zville Rebbe shows is that this defeatist attitude is a tremendous mistake. What he said was profound. It’s not what you do, but where you want to be. That is the greatness of any Jew. Any Jew can imitate what the Zville Rebbe said. You can be incredibly great because you want to learn, want to grow. That is the essence of the avoda—Divine service. It is not only to do the mitzvah—which is critical—but to want to do the mitzvah, to be the talmid chacham, to know Shas, to be close to G-d.

Many times we can’t do something. The tractate “Masechet Kedushin” says that if someone wants to fulfill a commandment but can’t, is prevented for external reasons, G-d considers it as if he did the mitzvah. So, what do we see? G-d wants our ratzon-the will, the desire. That is the critical concept. In many ways, that is the message of the Bal Shem Tov. That is what chassidus really is. Every Jew has an unbelievable worth, an unbelievable avoda to serve G-d with one’s full heart.

The Raavad said that what G-d looks for is not so much that you have a charata for a sin. It’s whether---as Moshe posed G-d’s question at the time of the Sin of the Golden Calf: Are you on board with Me or not? The answer determined who is given life and who not. Rather than demanding to know who was responsible for the sin, Moshe asked “Who is with G-d?” and that can be interpreted as: You made a mistake. That’s true. But who, in the end, has unbelievable charata and wants to be with G-d? That is the essential struggle G-d wants.

This is what the Raavad says; on Yom Kippur, the atonement and the signing of the Book of Life is for the person who wants to serve G-d with all his heart even if he is prevented from doing so due to external necessities. G-d realizes this even though He also wants the person to work for a living. He wants him to be an eved ha’Shem—servant of G-d.

Closing Points

1- Yom Kippur is about repairing the distance, the damage we’ve caused.

2- NO matter what happens to us, there is always a good reason for suffering, that it will save you.

3- You want to be a servant of G-d, be close to Him and to do whatever it takes to foster that.

So don’t despair or be dismayed that you have to go to work and earn a living, that you haven’t the time to do mitzvot, to learn, to do the avoda. If you long to do the ratzon ha’bore—Will of G-d that is the greatest madreiga--level. Take these to heart and ask yourself, “What can I do to be an eved ha’Shem more than I did last year? What can I do to advance the rectification of Creation?” If you do that, you will have a tremendous year.


Participant: This should be our main objective? They usually say we should take on something new, a mitzvah. From what I’m understanding, it’s that, more important than trying something new, it is to do it better.

R’Kessin: It’s the mindset that’s the critical thing, the mindset that I really want to base my life on my desire to serve G-d, to advance the tikkun process. Why is it that people go through Yom Kippur, do teshuva, and then, the next day, they’re back to their old selves? After a couple of days, they wouldn’t even know they just passed by Yom Kippur.

The answer is based on the psychological concept of “cognitive dissonance.” If you do something which is contrary to your belief or goal, you may do it for a while but, eventually, you’ll give it up, cease doing it. It will disappear. You are dissonant, cognitively, acting against what you really want. The problem is that you do not change your goal which, for most, is to get on with life. In some respect, you confront your goals, but won’t prevail with actions that go against your goals. The goal one may set for oneself is dissonant from what one prefers to do. That is why it is critical to change your goals. You may decide: I’ll do this mitzvah, or stop doing that sin but your goal remains the same, to be the same regular guy enjoying life. So, guess what? You won’t do the mitzvah and will continue to do the sin.

The critical concept of teshuva is that you have to align the goal to the mitzvah. Then you are not dissonant with your life’s desire. That is what the Ravaad means, that the key is the struggle, that you want to struggle, to remain, and be with, G-d. That becomes your goal. Any teshuva you do, therefore, will be in consonance with your goal and will, therefore, last. If you don’t change your objective, then any teshuva you do will only be temporary. That is why Raavad emphasizes the idea of “Who is with Me?” The Ravaad conceived of “cognitive dissonance” a thousand years before psychologists came up with it. Authentic teshuva, and not just lip-service, demands that you change your goals.

The Satanic Strategy

One more idea. The Satan knows all this. I will tell you the Satan’s greatest strategy, what he does to everybody. I will unclothe his real, hidden strategy. The Satan knows that people are always concerned about their lives but that, in some way, we aren’t compelled to really reflect upon his life. If he did, he’d have to confront questions like: What’s happening with me and my Judaism? What’s happening with me and my purpose in life? Am I wasting my time? That is cheshbon ha’nefesh—reckoning of the soul, to reckon one’s thoughts in terms of one’s actions. The Satan knows that, ultimately, everyone will do this because, sooner or later, everyone looks for meaning; that is the quest: What is the meaning of my existence? The Satan doesn’t want this! That is the worst thing that can happen. What does he do?

He is brilliant in his strategy. He says: I have to distract them. I can’t let them have free time. I have to ensure they will not have time for cheshbon ha’nefesh. What did he do?—the internet. This is the problem with the internet. It is one of the greatest distractions ever devised. Even a greater distraction, though it includes the internet, is the smartphone. It is the single greatest device to distract you. Everyone is always playing around with it. They aren’t going to think about the direction of their lives. It used to be that a guy would have some free time, but now? People who can’t go to sleep unless the smartphone is on! It completely engages you to look at it constantly so you’re always distracted. You have no time. That’s the Satan exercising his strategy.

You must take time for yourself: What have I achieved and have yet to achieve? What is my purpose? Where am I going? What activities must I engage in to get it done? You must struggle against the Satan’s strategy to distract you.

I wish everyone a successful Yom Kippur, walk out of shul freed from the zoamah—spiritual defilement, the Satan and his machinations. I wish that G-d will have rachmanus—compassion on the Jewish people and the world because it is suffering so from hatred, turmoil, and evil. Hopefully, G-d will look at the world and say: Enough is enough, will end it, and bring mashiach.

Participant: Is there a difference or a preference to work on negative vs. positive mitzvot?

R’Kessin: A negative one is, in a sense, more serious than a positive, but I would not divide them. Work on one that you know you can do. There are some mitzvot that are easier for some than others. Prioritize those that you feel you can be successful at. Why?--because success breeds success; that’s the way it works. When you succeed, it creates a positive mindset to do another and another and another. That is very important. Because of the tremendous opposition to doing a mitzvah, which the Satan is always fostering, grab any mitzvah!


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