We are now in the final countdown to Rosh Hashanah 5784, and thoughts of teshuvah should be constantly in our minds. The question is, what is the essence of teshuvah that we need to be working on and how does it relate to the theme of Rosh Hashanah?
Let’s begin with Rosh Hashanah. As is well known, the main theme of Rosh Hashanah is acknowledging the kingship, rulership and sovereignty of the King of kings, the Master of all the worlds, the G d of Yisrael, Hashem, may He be blessed. Nowhere is this more evident than in the mizmor that we recite seven times before Mussaf (Tehillim 47:2-3,7-9): כׇּל־הָעַמִּים תִּקְעוּ־כָף הָרִיעוּ לֵאלֹקִים בְּקוֹל רִנָּה׃ כִּי־יְיָ עֶלְיוֹן נוֹרָא מֶלֶךְ גָּדוֹל עַל־כׇּל־הָאָרֶץ…זַמְּרוּ אֱלֹקִים זַמֵּרוּ זַמְּרוּ לְמַלְכֵּנוּ זַמֵּרוּ׃ כִּי מֶלֶךְ כׇּל־הָאָרֶץ אֱלֹקִים זַמְּרוּ מַשְׂכִּיל׃ מָלַךְ אֱלֹקִים עַל־גּוֹיִם אֱלֹקִים יָשַׁב עַל־כִּסֵּא קׇדְשׁוֹ׃ (All the peoples, clap hands, sing joyfully to G d with a voice of prayer; For Hashem Most High is awesome, a great King over the whole earth…Sing to G d, sing, sing to our King, sing; for G d is King over the whole earth, sing using an instrument of wisdom; G d reigns over the goyim, G d sits on His holy throne).
Now what kind of teshuvah should accompany Hashem’s kingship?
To be honest about it, we live in an age when practically all of us have become very estranged from the idea of a King. Most of us live in nation-states that espouse some form of democracy or constitutional republic, and even in those nations that still hold onto certain formalities of kingship such as the United Kingdom, in reality these institutions are nominal only. The bottom line is that we’re not subjects of a king and have no practical experience being subjects of a king. It’s a long forgotten political system of the past.
Although we say, ‘Hashem was King, Hashem is King, Hashem will be King forever’, let’s be honest. Most of us have little understanding of the ramifications of that statement and even if we do, it is exceedingly difficult to keep it in mind all the time and to really behave as a subject to the King. Yes, we’re shomer mitzvot; we pray and learn Torah. And these things we ought to do because the King has commanded us to do these, but these things are all externalities and can easily become so routine, even for ba’alei teshuvah, that we may not even think of the internalities that should accompany them. So we ask, What are the internalities of teshuvah that we need to work on each and every day, not just the 40 days before Rosh Hashanah?
The essence of accepting upon ourselves the yoke of the kingship of Heaven, and its counterpart of acknowledging our servitude to that kingship, is acknowledging the ‘oneness’ of Hashem. But what does that really mean? It means that everything is Hashem, as explicitly taught by Moshe Rabbeinu (Devarim 4:35): אַתָּה הׇרְאֵתָ לָדַעַת כִּי יְיָ הוּא הָאֱלֹקִים אֵין עוֹד מִלְּבַדּוֹ (You have been shown to know that Hashem, He is the G d; there is nothing else besides Him). The verse does not state, ‘there is none else besides Him’. It says, ‘there is nothing else besides Him.’ Nothing else. And that includes us. We are part of that statement in the Shema (Devarim 6:4): יְיָ אֶחָד (Hashem is one). Granted, this is very difficult for most of us to really understand, let alone feel, but that doesn’t exempt us from working on it every day and striving to achieve a greater appreciation of the all encompassing reality of those two simple words.
What can we do to become more fully encompassed in the oneness of G d? Since Hashem is infinite, i.e. the Ein Sof, we might think that the road to this enlightenment is to expand ourselves. But this is not so. Expanding the self will never achieve that goal. On the contrary, it will push it away and make it more difficult to achieve. The true way to becoming encompassed in the oneness of G d is through diminishing ourselves in a process known as self-negation, self-nullification or bitul. This is taught explicitly in Likutei Moharan 52: אַךְ לִזְכּוֹת לָזֶה לְהִכָּלֵל בְּשָׁרְשׁוֹ דְּהַיְנוּ לַחֲזֹר וּלְהִכָּלֵל בְּאַחְדוּת הַשֵּׁם יִתְבָּרַךְ שֶׁהוּא מְחֻיַּב הַמְּצִיאוּת זֶה אִי אֶפְשָׁר לִזְכּוֹת כִּי־אִם עַל־יְדֵי בִּטּוּל שֶׁיְּבַטֵּל עַצְמוֹ לְגַמְרֵי עַד שֶׁיִּהְיֶה נִכְלָל בְּאַחְדוּתוֹ יִתְבָּרַךְ (However, to merit this, to be encompassed in one’s root, i.e. to return and be encompassed in the unity of Hashem, may He be blessed, that He is the Necessary Reality, is impossible except through bitul, that one nullifies himself completely until he will be encompassed in His unity, may He be blessed).
What exactly is bitul of oneself? To answer that we need to know what is ‘self’. The essence of self is will, desire, ratzon. To nullify oneself is to eliminate one’s self-will. This does not mean that he has no will. Rather, it means that he has replaced his own self-will with the desire only to do Hashem’s will. Self-nullification is the art, for lack of a better word, of replacing one’s inherit self-will with the greater will, the true Will, the will of the Holy One, may He be blessed. And the only way to achieve this is through hitbodedut, secluded prayer to Hashem, prayer in one’s own words, in one’s own language, from one’s heart, with no script. There is no other way. This is explained also in L.M. 52: וְאִי אֶפְשָׁר לָבוֹא לִידֵי בִּטּוּל כִּי־אִם עַל־יְדֵי הִתְבּוֹדְדוּת כִּי עַל־יְדֵי שֶׁמִּתְבּוֹדֵד וּמְפָרֵשׁ שִׂיחָתוֹ בֵּינוֹ לְבֵין קוֹנוֹ עַל־יְדֵי־זֶה הוּא זוֹכֶה לְבַטֵּל כָּל הַתַּאֲווֹת וְהַמִּדּוֹת רָעוֹת עַד שֶׁזּוֹכֶה לְבַטֵּל כָּל גַּשְׁמִיּוּתוֹ וּלְהִכָּלֵל בְּשָׁרְשׁוֹ (It is impossible to achieve bitul except through hitbodedut because by secluding oneself and speaking out one’s conversation between himself and his Creator, by doing this he merits to nullify all of his desires [lusts] and bad character traits until he merits to nullify all of his materialism and be encompassed in his root). Although we may avoid hitbodedut like the plague and make all the excuses in the world why we don’t do it, the truth of the matter is that it is impossible to achieve this level of teshuvah without it. Otherwise, all we are doing is banging our chest, reciting selichot, and davening for hours on Rosh Hashanah because ‘that’s just what we do’, hoping beyond reason that somehow, ‘This year will be different.’ Do we really think Hashem takes pleasure in all that chest banging (see Tehillim 51:18)? Truly has it been said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Let’s learn a little sanity instead.
As a side point, herein lies the reason why some people who started to practice hitbodedut gave up in time. How come? Because, as they would say, ‘It wasn’t working.’ In other words, ‘I prayed for this and for that, for hours and hours, and I never got those things I prayed for.’ Well, that’s not hitbodedut at all. As we have seen, hitbodedut is all about nullifying one’s will and learning to accept Hashem’s will. When we ask and ask and ask in order to try to bend Hashem’s will to our will, that defeats the very purpose of hitbodedut, and no wonder people give up on the practice.
Since nullifying bad character traits was mentioned above, let’s focus on that just a little bit. Bad character traits emerge from bad thoughts. It is taught in Likutei Eitzot (Machshavot v’Hirhurim 3): נִמְצָא שֶׁכָּל הַפְּגָמִים וְכָל הָעֲווֹנוֹת וְהַחֲטָאִים חַ”ו כֻּלָּם אֵינָם בָּאִים כִּי אִם עַל־יְדֵי פְּגַם הַמַּחֲשָׁבָה (All the defects and all the transgressions and sins, G d forbid, all of them come only through the defect of thought). Therefore, the only way to eliminate bad character traits is to eliminate bad thoughts and to replace them with good thoughts. And this is the very essence of teshuvah, to get rid of the bad thoughts (ibid): וְזֶה עִקַּר הַתְּשׁוּבָה וְתִקּוּן עַל כָּל הָעֲווֹנוֹת כְּשֶׁמִּתְגַּבֵּר לְגָרֵשׁ כָּל הַמַּחֲשָׁבוֹת חִיצוֹנִיּוֹת מִדַּעְתּוֹ וְשִׂכְלוֹ כִּי הַשֵּׂכֶל הוּא הַנְּשָׁמָה וּכְשֶׁמְּקַדֵּשׁ שִׂכְלוֹ הַיְנוּ נִשְׁמָתוֹ עַל־יְדֵי זֶה מַגְבִּיהַּ וּמֵשִׁיב הַכֹּל לְשָׁרְשׁוֹ וְזֶה עִקַּר הַתְּשׁוּבָה (This is the essence of teshuvah and the tikkun for all transgressions, when he overcomes and drives out all external thoughts from his mind and his intellect, for the intellect is the soul, and when he sanctifies his intellect, i.e. his soul, he elevates and returns everything to its root, and this is the essence of teshuvah).
Although we in the ‘orthodox world’ tend to focus on halachah, which is right and proper, we may err in thinking that one’s thoughts don’t really matter that much, i.e. ‘As long as I do the right thing, I’m okay.’ But this is far from the truth. Our thoughts sit at the very root of all of our actions; therefore, we must purify our thoughts. And when we purify our thoughts, one at a time, one small victory after another, spanning an entire lifetime, we fulfill what David ha-Melech wrote in Tehillim 109:22: כִּי־עָנִי וְאֶבְיוֹן אָנֹכִי וְלִבִּי חָלַל בְּקִרְבִּי (For I am poor and needy, and my heart is an empty space [chalal] within me). His heart was drained out, leaving a void or empty space where the Yetzer ha-Ra used to reside (see Baba Batra 17a and Berachot 61b). These words were not preserved for thousands of years so that we would praise David (although he rightly deserves our praise), but rather to teach us that we too need to strive to achieve this same goal. To the extent that we banish a bad thought and replace it with a good thought, to that very extent, we create a chalal in our heart from where the yetzer ha-ra has been banished.
A third aspect of teshuvah is connected and interwoven with these these two aspects that we have already discussed, i.e. bitul and purification of our thoughts, and that is to acknowledge that we really know nothing. To admit to ourselves and to Hashem that we really don’t know anything or understand anything is crucial for it breaks our inherent arrogance. Think about it. We say that Hashem’s ‘understanding’ and ‘knowledge’ is infinite. But really, it’s infinite among infinites! And what do we really understand about anything when lined up against that? Our knowledge and understanding is finite among finites! As the prophet says (Yeshayah 40:15): הֵן גּוֹיִם כְּמַר מִדְּלִי וּכְשַׁחַק מֹאזְנַיִם נֶחְשָׁבוּ (Behold the nations are a drop in a bucket, and are considered like dust on the scales). But Yeshayah was being generous! A drop in a bucket is saying something. Even dust on the scales is something. And if all the nations, and all the people in all those nations, come to just that, then what about me? Therefore, to do complete teshuvah we need to reach the level of really believing that we know absolutely nothing, not that we are nothing, but rather that we know nothing.
This reminds me of my college days. When I was a sophomore, I took a class in English Literature (which I really enjoyed), and I remember thinking, perhaps for the first time in my life, just how ignorant I really was about English Literature. Before I took the course, and therefore, before I began learning, I had no idea of my ignorance. And this is the way it should be with us, all the time. The more we learn of Torah, the more we should be able to more easily acknowledge our ignorance. This idea is taught in chassidut and stated explicitly in Likutei Moharan II:7: כִּי תַּכְלִית הַיְדִיעָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא נֵדַע (For the purpose of knowledge is to realize that one knows nothing).
There are no shortcuts for this kind of teshuvah. It requires a lifelong pursuit, and even then, we may not achieve it fully. But we aren’t supposed to quit either. Every bit of progress is amazing and valued by Hashem. It is as taught in Pirkei Avot 2:16: הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה (He [R’ Tarfon] said, You are not obligated to finish the job, but neither are you allowed to consider yourself free from it).
In summary, these three aspects of bitul, purification of our thoughts, and admitting that we don’t really know anything are the way that we crown Hashem as King and accept upon ourselves the sovereignty of Hashem. My will is nothing. My thoughts are nothing. My understanding is nothing.
L’shanah tovah u’metukah.