The Joy of Teshuvah

Making a spiritual reckoning in pursuit of improvement is a risky endeavor. On one hand, it is essential for a Jew to take stock honestly of where he is holding, acknowledge his faults and take practical and serious steps to improve himself. But far too often such contemplation leads to thoughts of gloom and even downright despair.

An illuminating teaching in this week’s parashah by Harav Yehoshua, the second Belzer Rebbe, zy”a, gives us a clear path to follow.

The parashah begins with the mitzvah of bikkurim, the obligation to bring the first of the fruit of the soil to the Beis HaMikdash. It then proceeds to teach us about the obligation of viduy maaser, that on Erev Pesach of the fourth year — i.e., at the conclusion of a three-year cycle — two years of maaser sheini followed by one year of maaser ani — a special viduy is recited.

After informing us of the exact wording of the viduy and the accompanying tefillah of “Gaze down from Your holy abode from the heavens and bless Your people…,” the next passuk states: “This day, Hashem… is commanding you to fulfill these decrees and statutes, and you will observe and perform them with all your heart and with all your soul.”

On the words “you will observe and perform them,” Rashi states: “A Heavenly voice blesses him: “You have brought bikurim this day — you shall repeat next year!”

At first glance this seems very perplexing. Why does the Torah speak now — after describing viduy maaser, an event that takes place every fourth year — about a bas kol regarding bikkurim, which is a mitzvah that occurs annually?

The Belzer Rebbe explains that prior to the performance of a mitzvah, a Yid hopes to Hashem that he will merit to properly and completely fulfill this mitzvah. After performing the mitzvah, a Yid is filled with longing and a sincere desire to have performed the mitzvah with greater shleimus and perfection.

During the recital of the viduy maaser, a Yid reflects back at the three years that had passed — at how he acted and how he should have should have conducted himself — and is filled with great emotion and longing.

The Ribbono shel Olam sees this feeling of longing for perfection and is metzareif machshavah l’maaseh — considers these thoughts as if they actually occurred. At that moment on Erev Pesach in the fourth year, any imperfections in the mitzvos — including the bringing of bikkurim — that transpired over the previous three years are rectified. It is as if he brought bikkurim at that moment, and so it is then that a bas kol is heard, saying, “You have brought bikkurim this day — you shall repeat next year!”

Every mitzvah must be performed with joy, especially a mitzvah like bikkurim about which the Torah specifically states, “You shall rejoice with all the goodness that Hashem has given you.”

But how can a Yid be cheerful at the time of viduy, which is when it is considered that he is actually bringing bikurim? After all, when he reflects back at the past, he is filled with regrets and disappointment.

It is because he can be mechazeik himself that less than two months later — immediately after Shavous — he will have the opportunity to again bring bikurim from the new crop of fruits.

It is this knowledge — along with a sincere hope that this time around he will be able to perform the mitzvah with more perfection — that fills him with the requisite joy.

The same concept applies to the mitzvah of teshuvah itself.

Each Elul, a Yid has earnest hopes and plans for spiritual improvement, yet at the end of the year he discovers that despite all his commitments and self-expectations, things didn’t work out as he had hoped.

Teshuvah is a mitzvah, and must, too, be performed with joy. But how can one be joyful when one’s heart and mind are filled with regrets?

The answer is, because teshuvah rectifies the past and also allows one to begin afresh. When a person decides to make amends and turn over a new leaf, it is considered as if he is a newborn child, with no past record of indiscretions, and it is crucial that this is how he views himself as well.

Allowing the past to create feelings of anxiety and even depression will actually prevent a person from properly serving Hashem. Instead, one should realize that the very feelings of regret have actually rectified the past!

* * *

The first Slonimer Rebbe, zy”a, once gave a close disciple a unique idea how to approach the aforementioned dilemma.

In this week’s parashah we learn of the tochachah, that terrible afflictions and troubles come onto us, “because you did not serve Hashem… amid gladness and goodness of heart….”

The Rebbe suggested that this “sin” of not serving Hashem through simchah be the very first thing over which to do teshuvah. If our self-reproach is about a lack of simchah, then we will not allow ourselves to contemplate any thoughts of depression, for that would be merely compounding the sin!

The very fact that Hashem has given us this wonderful ability to wipe out the mistakes of the past and begin a totally new slate is, in itself, a reason for great joy.