Seven Levels of Teshuva Aharon Part One
Teshuva Lengthens A Person’s Life
Most communities usher in Yom Kippur with a strange prayer; Kol Nidrei. We relieve ourselves of the responsibility
of the promises of the past year and we declare that the promises we will make over the coming year will not be binding.
Halachically, in order to be released from a promise a person must appear before a court, justify or at least explain why he wants to be relieved of his promise and the court may release him or not. In fact, the custom is for everyone to appear before such a court on Erev Rosh Hashanah. This is the only way to be legitimately released from a promise. There is no such thing in Jewish law as declaring before the fact that promises I will make should not be binding. Yet we begin each Yom Kippur with just such a statement. In fact, we place a greater emphasis on the future than on the past we emphasize the least Halachically legitimate declaration!
Aren’t we supposed to make resolutions for the coming year? Isn’t that a fundamental part of Teshuva?1 How can we declare before we make determinations for the coming year that our promises should not be binding?
We explained earlier that Teshuva and Free Choice work hand in hand. The Rambam places his discussion of free choice in the Laws of Teshuva. There are two types of Teshuva which correlate to two levels of Free Choice:
I can choose to work on a personal attribute such as anger. It will take a great deal of effort and strategy. It will take time.2 I am doing Teshuva on this attribute by working on myself and slowly improving. The Rambam refers to this type of Teshuva as the Free Choice between blessing and curse.3
There is another much more powerful and immediate Teshuva. The Rambam says that it is possible to today be a person whose prayers are rejected and cannot even approach God, and yet tomorrow be a person who can touch God directly.4 The Rambam refers to such choice of Teshuva as a choice between life and death.
How can there be such different types of Teshuva and Free Choice? The latter Teshuva is a choice to become an entirely new person. This is based on the deepest expression of Free Choice:
We must first understand the role and power of free choice. When the verse says that we were created in the form and image of God it means that we were created with the power of choice. We emulate God by making choices that are an expression of ourselves and that define us as human beings. The more we emulate God by making choices and taking responsibility for our very definition as human beings the more we are attaching to God. The idea of choice is so powerful that there are stories in Tanach in which the prophet urges the Jews to choose even if their choice is wrong! For example; When Elijah gathered the Jews to Mt. Carmel for the famous contest with the priests of Ba’al,5 he said to them, “How long will you keep hopping between two opinions? If God is the Lord follow Him; and Ba’al follow him!” Elijah does not simply say, as we would expect, “Follow God!” He challenges the people to choose. He tells them that serving both God and Ba’al means that they haven’t chosen. The main lesson Elijah wants to convey is that the people must choose. The most important step in the service of God is to choose. It is the highest level of emulation of God.
If a person serves God only because he has been raised to live this way, he is not choosing. He is preprogrammed to be observant. The Ramchal, in Derech Hashem, defines choice as something perfectly balanced between the two choices. The word “free” in free choice means that there is nothing pushing the person more in one direction than the other. A person who has always been religious does not have free choice whether to eat non-kosher. It goes against his entire upbringing; it goes against his very nature. The choice of whether to eat something non-kosher is not self-defining. The choice must also have implications for him. For example, a person may have a choice whether to eat vanilla or chocolate ice cream, but it is not free choice. There are no implications for his identity. The choice must matter in order for it to be called free choice. If a young man understands the important role that his wife will play in his development as a person, and he has clarity about a woman’s qualities and midos, and understands what he will gain and what he will not have, he has a self-defining choice whether to marry this woman or not. If a person understands that by choosing one Rebbi over another that he is literally choosing one way of life, one way of serving God over another, and he so chooses his rebbi, he is making a self-defining choice. When parents choose one school over another and understand what their child will gain and what he will lose by being sent to a specific school, the parents are making a self-defining choice. They are literally emulating their Creator.
When we abdicate our responsibility to be choosers we forfeit that gift from God. Therefore, everything we do must be an expression of free choice. All of our observance, prayer and study must be because we so choose to do. The way we observe, pray and study must be a result of free choice. We must understand the different ways of serving God and choose one path over all the others. This is why the Mishna6 teaches that “One must make someone his rebbi.” He must choose his rebbi and that rabbi’s path of service of God. We must not impose one path on our children without teaching them that there are other paths in Avodas Hashem. If our children are programmed to live one way without their learning to choose then they will not see their service of God as their own. That is why we lose so many children. They were never offered options of different paths to serve God. They did not learn how to make their observance a self-defining choice.
The generation(s) preceding the destruction was not choosers. They reacted without thinking, without understanding the full implications of their “decisions.” They therefore lost their free choice and God brought about all the choices that led inevitably to the destruction. Our responsibility, as those who want to merit the Third Temple, is to become choosers in everything we do.
True Free Choice is between inertia of eternal life. This must be a constant choice each and every second of life. This is the choice between saying “I am happy with what I am,” or saying, “I want to be greater and greater.” We tend to fool ourselves into thinking that because we have potential therefore that is whom we are, “I know I have potential. I experience the potential. It surges through me therefore I am happy with my existence.” That is inertia. That means that I am no longer committed to eternal life. Anyone who is committed to eternal life cannot afford one second of inertia. Someone who is committed to eternal life will not waste a second of his time. He will never lose an opportunity to perform a Mitzvah. He will never forfeit a chance to grow. He will never stop pushing himself. He will never put down a sefer7 to read a novel. He will not waste time watching movies. If he is willing to waste time he is saying that he is happy with whom he is. That is inertia. That is anti-bechira. That is anti-Teshuva. That is Yetzer Harah, the Evil Inclination. That is the work of the Satan.
We refer to the merit of the Binding of Yitzchak over and over on Yom Kippur. The Satan did all he could to prevent Avraham from completing his mission. The Midrash says that Satan turned into a river to stop Avraham, but Avraham kept on walking. Satan continued to argue with Avraham, anything to stop him, but Avraham kept on pushing.8 The concept of Satan is to stop us from pushing ourselves to grow. The concept of Teshuva and Free Choice is to never stop pushing.
Teshuva is a commitment to recreate myself every second of my life. I live beyond time because I am a new person each second of my life. I can use Teshuva to live beyond the system of time. Any declaration I make will not hold me back, because I will make a new declaration the next second of my life. I will become someone else. That is why we begin Yom Kippur with Kol Nidrei. We declare that our resolutions will not be binding on us for more than the second we make them. The next second we will become someone else and make a higher and higher resolution.
This attachment to eternal life explains the Midrash that says the Satan cannot function on Yom Kippur. The numerical value of HaSatan, The Satan, is 364. The year has 365 days. The Satan cannot function on one day; Yom Kippur.9 If we can reach this level of Teshuva, the level of eternal life, then the Satan cannot function against us. On Yom Kippur we push through the river and arguments just as Avraham did. The Satan will have no power against us. We will experience eternal life. We will literally lengthen our days into an eternal life.
This is why the Shaarei Teshuva says, “We find that the only people who delay in choosing to do Teshuva are those who do not think.”10
- We must choose every minute of Yom Kippur to be better than the previous moment. We cannot fall into the trap of being satisfied with our prayers or Teshuva. Yom Kippur must be a day of constant pushing.
- Keep a journal of the areas of your life that need improvement. Review the journal regularly. This will clarify the choice involved in each behavior.
1 Rambam, Laws of Teshuva, Chapter 1:1
2 Ibid. Laws of Character, Chapters 1-2
3 Ibid. Laws of Teshuva, Chapter 5:3
4 Ibid. Chapter 7:6
5 I Kings, chapter 18
6 Avot 1:6
7 a holy book.
8 Tanchuma, Vayeira 22
9 Vayikra Rabbah 21:4
10 First Gate #3