Normally, when we think of teshuvah, we think of the backbreaking kind whose focus is viduy — hunching over and confessing our sins. This, combined with expressing sincere regret over the past and a determination not to repeat our misdeeds, is the classic formula for teshuvah and features prominently in our Yom Kippur davening.
But there is another kind of teshuvah, which doesn’t require all of the above. It is the mere desire to be close to Hashem. It is a statement that needn’t even be uttered, just felt deep in the heart: “I want closeness, Hashem. I want to come back.”
The Alter of Slabodka brought proof that this kind of teshuvah is effective from a Gemara in Kiddushin (49b). The Gemara says that if a rasha gamur tells a woman, “You are my wife — mekudeshes li — on condition that I’m a tzaddik,” she is mekudeshes, she becomes his wife. How can that be? Clearly the condition wasn’t fulfilled. The Gemara answers: Because he might have had a hirhur teshuvah.
In other words, although we didn’t see him bending over and pounding his chest Ashamnu, a sincere thought may have run through his mind that he’d genuinely like to be close to Hashem. And that is enough to raise the possibility that he was indeed a tzaddik and that the kiddushin is valid.
It’s mind-boggling. We’re talking about making this woman forbidden to everyone else in the world on the basis of the possibility of a thought that could have turned this rasha gamur into a tzaddik. But that is the power of a hirhur teshuvah.
On Yom Kippur, cut off from the physical world, with no food or creature comforts, we get a taste of how wonderful it is to draw close to Hashem. Underlying the viduy is a powerful desire to come home. Sukkos is an opportunity to give meaning to that desire, to translate intent into action.
Right after Havdalah, we’re out building a sukkah — even those of us who don’t know which way to hold a hammer — for just one reason: to do retzon Hashem. We’re worried about kosher walls — making calculations about dofen akumah and gud achis, and s’chach — is it kosher, isn’t it kosher, and where exactly that tree or porch is positioned overhead — all because of a desire for closeness that isn’t just in our hearts.
On Sukkos itself, we’re literally immersed in mitzvos as at no other time of the year. Our eating and sleeping and schmoozing all become a fulfillment of the mitzvah of “And you shall dwell in the sukkah for seven days.” And it is precisely this chag, this state of being, that is labeled zman simchaseinu, the time of our joy — because there can be no greater joy than giving physical expression to our desire for closeness to the Ribbono shel Olam.
The Mesillas Yesharim, the classic mussar work, says that Hashem put us in the world in order to do battle. He says that there are many things that serve to distance us from Hashem: wealth and poverty; tranquility and difficult straits. They’re all battles that must be fought, challenges that must be overcome, in order to draw close to Hashem.
He adds that making the battle more difficult is the fact that our natural inclination is to be drawn (nimshach) after pleasures of this world, creating distance from Hashem — while to do the right thing requires concerted effort — to be sholet b’atzmo.
Sukkos is a gift from Hashem. It gives us a “free week” to relish the joy of being immersed in a mitzvah, without the normal distractions and temptations of the regular weekday. It gives us a taste of what it means to be neheneh miziv haShechinah, to bask in the glow of the Divine Presence, which the Mesillas Yesharim says is the purpose of the creation of man (and which takes place primarily in the next world).
After we state our desire for closeness, Hashem responds by giving us a chance to express it in deed, to solidify it. And the joy that we feel in this wonderful chag, coming after the cleansing that we experienced on Yom Kippur, provides an impetus to keep it going throughout the year.
The two types of teshuvah we discussed here go hand in hand. The viduy deals with the past. We want kapparah for our misdeeds; we want to wipe the slate clean. The second form of teshuvah is more about the future. It’s a statement of intent about where we’re headed.
There is an example of two cars that have driven out of Yerushalayim. One is 40 kilometers away and the other is 80. But the one that is 80 kilometers away has slowed and stopped, intending to turn around and return, while the other is speeding along. Which one is closer to Yerushalayim?
On Yom Kippur we put the brakes on our misbehavior, our misbegotten priorities. On Sukkos, we’re heading back home. More than anything else, that is the reason it is zman simchaseinu — and the reason Am Yisrael has a very bright future.