Rabbi Itamar Shwartz
In the blessing of השיבנו, we mention three kinds of Teshuvah – returning to Hashem, returning to the Torah, and returning in “complete” Teshuvah. What does it mean to do complete Teshuvah? Teshuvah means to return, to return to the original state we were in. Every sin affects a certain part of the body; when a person does teshuvah, he returns the damaged part of the body, to its original, undamaged state.
The Nefesh HaChaim says that every word of Torah is pure, even words such as “Pharoah”, “Bilaam”, and “Amalek”, who represent the most evil and impure forces in Creation. Therefore, first we ask Hashem to return us to the Torah, because from the power of Torah, we can have the strength to restore everything back to its original purity. That is the first part of the blessing, in which we ask Hashem to return us to the Torah.
But what is teshuvah shelaimah? The soul of man is comprised of five layers – Nefesh, Ruach, Neshamah, Chayah, and Yechidah. Each part of our soul requires a different Teshuvah. Teshuvah doesn’t end with stopping to sin. Shaarei Teshuvah writes that a person has to abandon the improper path he is on; it’s not enough to abandon sin – a person has to leave the very path he is on. Our soul abilities are mixed together, thus, we need to give ourselves inner order to our soul.
The Teshuvah we can do during Elul and Tishrei can rectify the entire soul, all five layers. It can be a Teshuvah shelaimah. If a person only does Teshuvah for the bad deeds he did that year, he has only done Teshuvah on the lowest part of his soul, the Nefesh, which is the sphere of his actions. A person has to penetrate into his entire soul and do Teshuvah for all of the soul’s layers.
Our soul is like a ladder footed on earth, and its head reaches the heavens. The Yechidah, the highest part of the soul, is really in the Heavens.
Our soul, beginning from lowest to highest, is: actions (Nefesh), emotions (Ruach), thoughts (Neshamah), life-source (Chayah), and connection to Hashem (Yechidah). When we do Teshuvah, we need to clarify what’s going on in our soul, beginning from lowest to highest.
For example, we are examining our actions. We need to become aware of the emotions behind our actions – like if we are doing the mitzvos with enough enthusiasm. This is how we connect Ruach with our Nefesh. Then we need to connect Ruach to our Neshamah, which is by analyzing if our emotions are in line with the thoughts of Torah we learn. If our feelings aren’t matching our thoughts, and if our actions are lacking feeling, we see that there is more Teshuvah to be done.
What is Teshuvah? The superficial answer is that we repent from our sins. This is what we are used to thinking ever since we were young. This is true, but that is not all there is to it. The first thing we must know is how we begin doing Teshuvah. First we need to begin with the lowest part of soul, our Nefesh, which is our deeds. But at the same time, we must be aware of the goal of all this, which is to arrive at the highest part of our soul – to deeply connect with Hashem, to stand “before Hashem”.
So if a person does Teshuvah for his deeds, and when it comes Yom Kippur he takes upon himself resolutions to better himself, and he feels elation and purity from Yom Kippur (anyone who doesn’t feel purity on Yom Kippur is very far from any vestige of spirituality…) and then he stops doing teshuvah at a certain point, it shows that he’s missing a certain understanding. We need to really understand what teshuvah is, by using our power of daas. To just go through learning Hilchos Teshuvah of the Rambam is being superficial. Even if a person feels some purity on Yom Kippur, this is not enough. We can’t be satisfied from this.
Teshuvah is a five-step process, as we said, and the goal is to deeply connect with Hashem, to be able to stand in front of Hashem pure. A person has to see how much he came to realizing that he is in front of Hashem after all the Teshuvah of Elul.
Moshe went up to Heaven for 40 days to receive the Torah, after the sin with the Calf. The depth behind this was not just so that he should wait for 40 days until Hashem forgave us. It was because he wanted to receive the Torah from the One who gave it. This helps us understand what teshuvah is.
Hashem breathed into a man a breathe of His life, so to speak. When a person does teshuvah, he has to return to the original breathe of life which Hashem breathed into us.
When we come to do teshuvah, we must seek teshuvah shelaimah – to do teshuvah with awareness of the goal, that we want to be able to stand before Hashem in purity when it comes Yom Kippur, after we do teshuvah from Elul.
Thus, we ask Hashem to return us to the Torah and to serving Him, because this will prepare us to have to be able to have complete Teshuvah. Real Teshuvah is not just to “return” to Hashem from sin. It is to return to our “Father”, as we express “Return us, our Father”. We must understand that only Hashem can return us to teshuvah. It is all due to the spiritual light which Hashem allows us to have during these days.
We can only do teshuvah because Hashem helps us, and in addition, we need to do teshuvah with Hashem in the equation. We return to Hashem from Hashem’s help and with awareness of Hashem, as we do teshuvah.
This understanding will totally change how you approach teshuvah. “Your right hand is open to accept those who return.” These are days in which Hashem can return us to Him.
All of our avodah during Elul must be done with awareness of the goal, that we want to arrive at deep closeness with Hashem. We must do teshuvah with Hashem in the equation. We can only do teshuvah with Hashem’s help, and our goal of doing teshuvah is to reach closeness with Hashem.
We must absorb this inner perspective on how to do teshuvah – the perspective that comes from our neshamah, as opposed to the superficial perspective towards teshuvah that comes from our body.
May we all merit to reach complete teshuvah.