Yom Kippur

September 10, 2013

Complete Teshuvah

The focus of the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is teshuvah [return or repentance]. We recite the Avinu Malkeinu prayer during this period, requesting:

“Our Father our King! Return us in complete teshuvah before You.”

When is teshuvah full and complete?

Healing the Source

We can understand this phrase better in light of the request that immediately follows: “Our Father our King! Send complete healing to the sick of Your people.”

What is ‘complete healing’? Often we are only able to alleviate the patient’s external symptoms. The true source of the illness, however, remains unknown or is untreatable. Such a treatment is only a partial healing. When we plead for complete healing, we are praying that we may succeed in discovering the source of the illness and completely cure the patient. Such a comprehensive treatment will result in full restoration of the patient’s health.

The same concept holds true for teshuvah. If we address a particular fault, we are really dealing with a symptom of a much larger problem. Correcting a specific sin is only partial teshuvah. When we ask for God’s help in attaining complete teshuvah, we seek a comprehensive teshuvah that corrects the root source of our various sins and character flaws. Such a complete teshuvah will restore our spiritual wholeness.

Elevated Perception

How does one attain complete teshuvah? In his book Orot HaTeshuvah, Rav Kook explained that this teshuvah is based on an elevated outlook on life and the world:

“The higher level of teshuvah is based on holy enlightenment and a penetrating perception of the beauty of Divine providence. This [elevated teshuvah] is the source and foundation for the lower teshuvah that corrects deeds and refines traits. The basis for elevated teshuvah is none other than the foundation of Torah, in all of its roots and branches.” (15:6)

“Teshuvah that is truly complete requires a lofty perception, an ascent to the rarified world that is replete with truth and holiness. This is only possible by delving into the depths of Torah and Divine wisdom, to the mystical secrets of the universe. …Only the higher [i.e., mystical] Torah can break down the iron barriers that divide the individual and society as a whole from their heavenly Father.” (10:1)

(Adapted from Mo’adei HaRe’iyah, p66)

Rav Kook z”l, drew attention to a strange phrase at the end of the Al Cheit confessional prayer, which is said on this awesome day: “My God, before I was formed I was of no worth; and now that I have been formed it is as if I was not formed.” Rav Kook explains that the first part of this confession is indeed easy to understand. Before I was formed I was obviously of no worth, since I did not yet exist! The world was not yet in need of me. But why should man say that once created, his existence is as if he had not been formed? Is the fact that he now exists not proof that his life is of great significance? What, then, is the meaning of this strange confession that his existence is as if he does not exist? Rav Kook goes on to explain the import of these words in a simple but penetrating way: When I was not yet formed, I was obviously of no worth, since the fact that I did not yet exist meant that there was no need for me to exist. But now that I have been formed, there must be a reason for my being: a mission that I am to fulfill, something that only I am able to accomplish. Consequently, my existence is of crucial importance not just for myself but for all of mankind and the entire universe. So, what is it that I now confess at this solemn hour? That I have neither been living up to that mission nor succeeded in my attempts to accomplish it! And if that is so, then my whole existence is called into question. As such, I have returned to a situation in which my existence is of no value, just as in my prenatal condition. So, “now that I have been formed, it is as if I was not formed”.

This awesome thought is the focal point of Yom Kippur. Am I worthy to have a claim on life? Or, have I been born but lost my right to live? This is by far the most important question for man to ask. The trembling of the earlier generations on Erev Yom Kippur was indeed that of great pachad (fear) – not fear of punishment or death, but of not rising to the challenge of living in God’s presence and fulfilling one’s destiny.

Olat Reiyah vol 2 p 356

Wishing you all an easy but meaningful fast.


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