Dealing with Adversity – Asarah B’Teves – Day of Teshuvah, Day of Opportunity

Asarah B’Teves is observed this year on Erev Shabbos (the only fast day that can fall on a Friday). On that day, the Babylonian emperor Nevuchadnetzar laid siege to Yerushalayim, which initiated a sequence of calamities that climaxed with the Churban Beis Hamikdash and the start of galus. Asarah B’Teves is one of the five minor fast days ordained because of disastrous events that occurred on those days.

The Rambam (Hilchos Taaniyos 5: 1) tells us that the objective of a fast day is “to awaken [our] hearts and open for us the paths of teshuvah, which will serve as a reminder of our evil deeds and those of our forefathers, which are akin to our present deeds that brought these calamities upon them and us. Through recalling these mat­ters, we will do teshuvah and better ourselves, as it states: ‘Then they will confess their sin and the sin of their ancestors’” (Vayikra 26: 40).

Teshuvah, often translated as “repentance,” literally means “return” and implies returning to Hashem — abandoning conduct and mindsets that are contrary to His will as enacted in the Torah.

Sefer Shaarei Teshuvah by Rabbeinu Yonah of Gerona discusses the teshuvah process in detail. In this week’s column, in short, we will discuss some aspects of what teshuvah entails.

Teshuvah is comprised of three components: 1) charatah, regret for having sinned; 2) viduy, confession of the sin; and 3) kabbalah, resolution not to commit the particular sin again.

There are two levels of teshuvah. Teshuvah m’eyirah is precipitated by fear of punishment. Teshuvah me’ahavah is prompted by love, a yearning to come closer to Hashem. Needless to say, the latter is a much loftier form of teshuvah than the former.

Still and all, Hashem greatly values every small improvement in our avodas Hashem and character refinement — His criteria is whether we are in a mode of aliyah.

This agenda naturally differs for everyone. One person needs to combat envy, another needs to stop speaking lashon hara, while a third has to overcome stinginess and give more tzedakah. Sometimes it is in place to make a kabbalah to effect change such as instituting a fine when fall­ing short in these aspirations.

Another noteworthy form of teshuvah is seek­ing to enhance the mitzvos we already observe such as davening or reciting Birkas Hamazon with better kavanah and more attention to halachic detail. The objective is the same — to grow and come closer to Hashem.

Pirkei Avos (4:11) tells us: “Teshuvah and maasim tovim are like a shield against punish­ment.” Hashem sends situations of adversity with the hope that people will act on them and make it unnecessary to send more messages.

Rabbeinu Yonah comments that this means the teshuvah that a person does for his undesir­able acts — and the good deeds that he did from the outset — serve to protect him like a shield against punishment. Such a statement should be sufficient impetus for someone to ponder what needs to be rectified and reminds us that our maasim tovim enable us to reap rich rewards in this world and the next.

If such efforts seem arduous, consider the words of Shaarei Teshuvah (1:1): “Hashem will help those who return beyond what their natu­ral ability would allow; and He implants in them a spirit of purity, to reach great heights in His love, as it is stated (Devarim 30:2), ‘And you will return to Hashem your G-d, and heed His voice according to all I command you this day, you and your children, with all your heart and soul.’”

Rav Saadia Gaon once stayed at an inn oper­ated by a Yid who did not know his identity, although he treated him well as he did all his guests. The next day, two of Rav Saadia Gaon’s talmidim came to the inn asking for their Rebbi. The innkeeper thought they were mistaken, but after the talmidim described their Rebbi’s appearance the innkeeper was aghast.

When the innkeeper found Rav Saadia Gaon he apologized profusely for not treating him with proper honor. The latter replied that there was nothing to be sorry for; the service was fine.

The innkeeper then explained, “That was yes­terday before I knew who you were. Had I known you were Rav Saadia Gaon, I would have served the Rav much differently!”

Rav Saadia derived a lesson from this incident. “My avodas Hashem yesterday was satisfactory for yesterday. Today, my awareness of Hashem’s greatness is higher, making yesterday’s level of avodah inadequate. That warrants teshuvah.” (There are different versions of this story.)

Such growth may seem very challenging. We may need to root out spiritual blockages that hinder our connection with the Borei Olam. Yet, Chazal (Yoma 38b) assure us, “The one who comes to purify himself will receive assistance [from Shamayim to do so].” We need only to take the first step.

Rabbi Yosef Gesser is a longtime writer for Hamodia Newspaper as well as an inspirational speaker on various topics, including dealing with adversity. He can be reached at

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