Mother’s Day and Teshuvah Week
We don’t feel a need to observe Mother’s Day,
because the mitzvah of kibud av va’eim means that
every day is Mother’s Day.
– Rabbi Shpitzer, my 5th grade rebbe
This sentiment is far from uniquely Rabbi Shpitzer’s — but he was my first rebbe from the chareidi world, and so the first person to give me this explanation.
Twenty five years later, I finally had a comeback: Yeah, but teshuvah is also a mitzvah every day. Does that make Yom Kippur and the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah redundant?
And yet teshuvah is qualitatively different on these 10 days than on the rest of the year.
… כְּשֵׁם שֶׁשּׁוֹקְלִין עֲווֹנוֹת אָדָם וְזָכִיּוֹתָיו בְּשָׁעַת מִיתָתוֹ, כָּךְ בְּכָל שָׁנָה וְשָׁנָה שׁוֹקְלִין עֲווֹנוֹת כָּל אֶחָד וְאֶחָד מִבָּאֵי הָעוֹלָם עִם זָכִיּוֹתָיו בְּיוֹם טוֹב שֶׁלְּרֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה: מִי שֶׁנִּמְצָא צַדִּיק, נֶחְתָּם לְחַיִּים; וּמִי שֶׁנִּמְצָא רָשָׁע, נֶחְתָּם לְמִיתָה. וְהַבֵּינוֹנִי, תּוֹלִין לוֹ עַד יוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים: אִם עָשָׂה תְּשׁוּבָה, נֶחְתָּם לְחַיִּים; וְאִם לָאו, נֶחְתָּם לְמִיתָה.
… Just as they weigh the sins of a person and his merits and the time of his death, so to every year they weigh this since over every one who comes into the world with their merits on the holiday of Rosh haShanah. Whomever if found to be a tzadiq is sealed for life; whomever is found to be a rashah is sealed for death. And the one in the middle, the beinoni, they hang his [fate] until Yom Kippur. He he does teshuvah, he is sealed for life, and if not, he is sealed for death.
As we say in Mussaf on the Yamim Nora’im, “On Rosh haShanah they are written, and on Yom Kippur they are sealed.” The righteous and evil are judged and sentenced on Rosh haShanah. Everyone else is given a judgment, but they have something like an appeals process through Yom Kippur before their fate is sealed.
So our first problem is what makes teshuvah and the consequent judgment of Aseres Yemei Teshuvah unique?
Second problem: Why is a rasha, an evil person, deprived of the option of doing teshuvah the rest of the 10 days and improving their fate? Is Hashem rendering the sincere repentence of someone who was (formerly, after all) evil ineffective?
(We might ask the same of the tzadiq, the righteous person who then decides to spend the week sinning, but since we know there is Compassion mixed into the Divine Justice, the question is less compelling.)
On the other hand, when something goes wrong during the year, a person might also do teshuvah and change their fate.
What’s the difference between the teshuvah and the “chasimah“, the sealing of one’s fate, of the 10 days of teshuvah, and of the rest of the year? And if one’s fate is sealed by Yom Kippur, how can doing teshuvah during the year help any? Alternatively, if it does help, what to we mean when we say “and on Yom Kippur they are sealed”?
דתניא הכל נידונים בר”ה וגזר דין שלהם נחתם ביוה”כ דברי ר”מ ר’ יהודה אומר הכל נידונין בר”ה וגזר דין שלהם נחתם כל אחד ואחד בזמנו בפסח על התבואה בעצרת על פירות האילן בחג נידונין על המים ואדם נידון בר”ה וגזר דין שלו נחתם ביוה”כ ר’ יוסי אומר אדם נידון בכל יום שנאמר (איוב ז) ותפקדנו לבקרים רבי נתן אומר אדם נידון בכל שעה שנא’ (איוב ז) לרגעים תבחננו
… for it says in a beraisa: All are judged on Rosh haShanah, and their sentence is sealed on Yom Kippur — this is the words of Rav Meir.
Rabbi Yehudah says: all are judged on Rosh haShanah and their fate is sealed in its time — on Pesach for grain, on Shavuos for fruit of the tree, on Sukkos we are judged for water. A person is judged on Rosh haShanah, and his sentence is sealed on Yom Kippur.
Rabbi Yosi says: a person is judged every day. As it says, “and He remembers him for the mornings.” (Iyov 7)
Rabbi Nasan says: a person is judged all the time, as it says, “for the moments he is tested.” (ibid)
– Berakhos 16a
(A page later the gemara gives in the name of Rav Kruspadai quoting Rav Yochanan the opinion repeated by the Rambam, above.)
The thought I want to use to explain all of the above requires accepting the notion that a person’s free will is limited. That not only is a person limited by the laws of physics, but there are also choices that would never cross their minds. This is like the questions on the obligation to believe in Hashem, or the prohibition against coveting. Do we really have such fine tune control over our beliefs that we can force ourselves to find something plausible? Or over our desires that we can not only refrain from acting, but actually not even have the desire? Much of Mussar is built on the belief that yes, such change is possible, but not overnight. A prohibition against coveting is something someone would have to work on now in order to progressively fulfill it more and more often as the years progress.
One such model is given in Michtav meiEliyahu by Rav EE Dessler (REED), and I will write using that model. But in truth, one needn’t accept his entire notion, just the element that there are decisions beyond our control.
REED (Michtav meiEliyahu, vol. I pp 114) defines free will in a way that it only includes consciously made decisions. On any axis, there is only a small range of situations in which the side saying “yes” and the side saying “no” are similar enough in strength that the issue becomes a conscious, free willed, decision. This front where the yeitzer hatov and yeitzer hara battle is called the nequdas habechirah (NhB), the Decision Point. Items beyond the NhB are simply decided preconsciously — before the person is aware of his options, he already knows what he’s going to do. For most people, robbing a back is simply not on the menu of choices. Sadly for many people, being honest on their tax forms when it may cost them significant money is also not on the menu. Etc…
For each person on each issue, the nequdas habechira is mobile. With each good decision, the NhB moves over to make the next similar decision that much easier. The yeitzer hatov becomes more powerful with exercise.
Another background issue: The gemara reads the verse, “Ki bayom hazeh yakhapeir aleikhem… – for on this day, it shall be an atonement for you…” slightly differently than this naive translation, taking the “ba-” of “bayom” as “via”, “through the aegis of”, rather than “in”. Meaning, “By utilizing this day, He shall atone for you…” And so Rabbe concludes (Shavuos 13a) , “Itzumo shel yom mechaperes — the essence of the day [of Yom Kippur] atones.”
What does that mean? The wicked person isn’t getting atonement from the essence of Yom Kippur (even with a Beis haMiqdash and a se’ir hamishtaleiach) — his fate was already sealed on Rosh haShanah. And the guy who grabs a cheeseburger for his lunch that day? Yom Kippur works for him too?
(The whole notion that the day itself can atone despite the spiritual state of the person in question also rubs my prejudice against metaphysical mechanics the wrong way. It gives power to a spiritual force other than Divine Justice and Mercy, and thus obscures Hashem’s presence in the world for no purpose I can fathom.)
The sages therefore interpret R’ Yehudah’s thought by explaing that the essence of the day atones someone who internalizes that essence by repenting. Not as a force in-and-of-itself.
דִּרְשׁוּ ה’ בְּהִמָּצְאוֹ, קְרָאֻהוּ בִּהְיוֹתוֹ קָרוֹב.
“Seek G-d when He can be found,
call out to him, when He is near.
– Yeshaiah 55:6
The power of the 10 Days of Teshuvah inheres in their being an appointment. Having an appointment for reapproachment to G-d and to the ideal for which I was made makes change easier; it adds mobility to the Nequdas haBechirah. One can choose to make that appointment, to run with that motivation and the environment of the season, by embracing “the essence of the day”.
According to this, the difference between the everyday judgment of R’ Yossi and R’ Nassan and annual judgment is that when “Hashem can be found” through these two moving days on our calendar and the time between them, we can use the opportunity to move the battlefront or not. The difference is quantitative; it’s not a different kind of judgment, but a different kind of opporunity. And once we set out from this potentially moving period on a given course, changing that course is harder.
Why does the Rambam say the beinoni, the person in between righteous and evil, has to do teshuvah? Couldn’t he instead do a number of mitzvos, and thereby tilt the score toward merit that way? If he does so as a means of reapproachment, perhaps he could — but then that is teshuvah, not its alternative. A number of differen acharonim offer variants of the following answer: To miss the opportunity of teshuvahis itself a sin. Squandering all the excitement and motivation of wanting to start a new year fresh is a sin that slips the NhB further from G-d.
There is only one experience that makes the Decision Point more mobile than these 10 days. When one army flees the battlefront, the other side can make very rapid progress. This is the situation when the soul leaves the body, leaving bodily urges, the nefesh, and this world’s distractions from our true goals behind. Thus, the Rambam’s comparison between Rosh haShanah and the day of death. Whether one is positioned to use that moment constructively makes it one’s most telling Day of Judgment
This addresses our first problem — what makes the teshuvah and judgment of Aseres Yemei Teshuvah unique. It’s the unique opportunity that comes from feeling Hashem’s presence when the year is new and full of possibility. But what about our second problem, why the rasha is not given a chance to do teshuvah?
The notion of limited free will, that a person can only change themselves incrementally, means that there are people for whom the necessary teshuvah for what they have done is simply beyond their NhQ. Before they even reach the point of choosing to do teshuvah, they already preconsciously decided not to. The option couldn’t be taken seriously. And while the NhQ does move, there is a limit to how far the person can get in just 10 days.
Such a person is a rasha in the sense of someone who not only does evil, but internalized the evil, they themselves have that evil.
I therefore want to flip our question on its head: It’s not that a rasha‘s teshuvah would be ineffective; it’s that a rasha is someone for whom sufficient teshuvah is impossible, at least within the time frame.
And the converse of our Decision-Point based definition of rasha is that a tzadiq is someone in the enviable opposite position. Of course he regrets what he did and wouldn’t do it again! He internalized that tzidqus; not only does he do tzedeq (justice), he is a tzadiq.
Which would leave the remaining ground for the beinoni — someone whose teshuvah is within the range of his possible choices during the 10 yemei teshuvah, but not the only choice. They could merit either life or ch”v death within the decisions that could reach their free will during those 10 days.