Click on a Rebbe to read their teachings:
Teachings of Rebbe Yisrael Ben Eliezer, the Ba'al Shem Tov
Known to Chassidim as the Ba’al Shem HaKadosh, founder of the Chassidic movement
The holy Ba’al Shem Tov taught that during creation, when there was a shattering of the vessels (this refers to the stage in which the Sefiros, the divine attributes, could not contain the light of the Infinite One and they “shattered”), sparks of divine light were scattered and dispersed all over the world. These holy sparks are found everywhere and in everything, even in such mundane things as trees and stones, even in our actions and deeds, including in our sins and transgressions. Our mission in this world is to release these holy sparks by performing the will of the Almighty with those mundane, physical things.
What are the sparks found in a transgression — and how can they be elevated? The Baal Shem answered that these are the sparks of teshuvah, repentance. When a person repents of his transgressions, he elevates those sparks to the highest spiritual realms on High.
This is the deeper meaning of “Nosei avon — Forgiver of sin” (Shemos 34:7), which literally means “Sin is carried up.” Through repentance, the sin is elevated and refined. Similarly, this is what Kayin meant when he complained, “My sin is too great to ‘carry up’” (Bereishis 4:13) — he felt he was unable to elevate it to the upper realms above with true repentance.
The verse, “A Tzaddik will blossom like a date palm and grow tall as a cedar” (Tehillim 92:13) hints to two kinds of tzaddikim. Our Sages noted (Taanis 25b) that the date palm is a fruit- bearing tree whereas the cedar does not produce fruits. So, too, there are some tzaddikim who are involved in bearing fruit — in influencing others to do teshuvah and helping to produce more Tzaddikim in this world — and there there other Tzaddikim who are more focused on deveikus, attaching themselves to Hashem, but not engaged in influencing others.
This idea sheds a different light on our Sages’ teaching that, “In the place where the baal teshuvah stands, even the righteous cannot stand” (Berachos 34b). Usually, the term "baal teshuvah" is interpreted to mean “penitent.” But we can also say that a Tzaddik can be known as a “baal teshuvah” — a master of return. Such a Tzaddik is one who has turned many away from sin and returned them to the path of Hashem. It is because of this Tzaddik that there is teshuvah in the world. His reward is many times greater than that of the other kind of Tzaddik, who, righteous as he is, does not seek to “bear fruit” and guide others onto the path of teshuvah.
There is no one in this world, not even the most lowly and wicked person, who does not at some time experience pangs of remorse. Those who cast these thoughts aside instead of seizing the opportunity are like a person who takes the keys to the king’s treasury gifted to him by the king himself, and throws them away. He is throwing away the opportunity Hashem is giving him for teshuvah.
(Kesser Shem Tov)
Once, the holy Ba’al Shem Tov prayed Minchah much later than usual. When he concluded his prayers, he turned to those assembled and explained his puzzling behavior.
“There was a baal teshuvah who committed the worst sins in the world until he had come to transgress almost the entire Torah! Now he has repented, and today he prayed a sincere Minchah from the very recesses of his heart. His prayers were so heartfelt that he broke through all the gates of prayer in the heavens on High. I prayed at the same time that he prayed, trying to elevate my own prayers to join his so that they would rise to the heavens together. That was why I prayed so late today.”
(Yechi Reuven, Chagigah)
The holy Baal Shem Tov taught regarding the verse, “He gazes through the windows and peeks through the cracks” (Shir HaShirim 2:9) that Hashem is always peeking at us through the cracks. Even when someone wishes to commit a sin, Heaven forbid, and he hides, worried that at any moment someone might see him, that at any moment someone might catch him in the act — Hashem is watching.
In truth, this feeling that he is being watched comes from Hashem. His trait of Supernal Fear has constricted itself and is peeking at that person, peering through the cracks at him in order to prevent him from sinning. It tries to stop him from committing the transgression by causing him to fear that someone is watching - as indeed Someone is.
(Me’or Einayim, Bereishis)
Teachings of Rebbe Yaakov Yosef of Polonnye
The primary disciple of the holy Baal Shem Tov and the author of the first Chassidic sefer ever printed, Toldos Yaakov Yosef
The Mishnah in Avos (6:2) tells us of a heavenly voice called a “bas kol” which calls out to us on a daily basis to repent and return to Hashem. The Toldos Yaakov Yosef writes that his master and teacher, the Baal Shem Tov, asked, “What point is there in a daily heavenly voice that no one hears?”
He answered that on High, where the heavenly voice originates, there are no words and there is no speech; there is only the spiritual realm known as “Olam HaMachshavah” — the universe of pure thought. Therefore, any thoughts a person has of repentance, any urges to return to Hashem and His path, are not truly his own. Rather, these feelings are an echo of the heavenly voice. Through our thoughts of repentance, we are in fact hearing the bas kol.
(Kesser Shem Tov)
Quoting from a letter that the Baal Shem Tov had written to him, Rav Yaakov Yosef wrote, “Do not overly engage in fasts and self-mortification. Such practices lead to depression or anger. But the reason you should especially refrain from these practices is because, rather than improving your avodah, they prevent you from studying Torah and serving Hashem properly.”
(Ben Poras Yosef)
Teachings of Rebbe Pinchas of Koritz
One of the primary disciples of the holy Baal Shem Tov and author of Imrei Pinchas
There is no way to do complete teshuvah for one's sins in our times without Torah study. Some sins can only be atoned through korbanos, offerings. Teshuvah is not enough. Our Sages taught, citing the verse “This is the Torah of the burnt offering, of the minchah offering, and the sin offering…” (Vayikra 7:37), that now, when we can no longer offer sacrifices, someone who is obligated to offer a sacrificial offering should study the passages of Torah that correspond to that sacrificial offering (Menachos 110a). When one studies those parts of the Torah, it is as if one brought those offerings.
(Imrei Pinchas, Aseres Yemei Teshuvah)
Rav Refael of Bershad, the disciple of Rav Pinchas Koritzer, taught that the primary form of teshuvah is intense, increased Torah study. “Without this,” he explained, “teshuvah does not even begin!”
(Imrei Pinchas, Aseres Yemei Teshuvah)
Once, upon returning from a journey, Rav Pinchas Koritzer turned to his disciples and asked them, “What good is it to give mussar and help people to do teshuvah if they end up returning to their former misdeeds and carry on sinning as they had done before?”
He answered his own question with a parable:
There was once a prince who was captured by the enemy. His father, the king, yearned mightily to see his son again. If only it were possible to free the prince and deliver him from bondage, how wonderful that would be!
Now, if it was impossible to free him, and all they could only manage to arrange for the prince to visit his father at least for a day or even just for an hour before returning to prison - would the king not happily rejoice over this that he was able to spend even just one hour in the presence of his beloved son?
“Similarly,” explained Rav Pinchas, “even if we cannot bring these people to full repentance and complete teshuvah, if we can just give them a desire for repentance and feelings of regret for just one hour alone, that, too, is of great benefit.”
(Imrei Pinchas, Aseres Yemei Teshuvah)
Teachings of Rebbe Moshe Chaim Efraim of Sudlykov
A grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov and the author of Degel Machaneh Efraim
Each and every Jew has his roots in the Torah — his own letter (that is, there are six hundred thousand archetypal souls, which correspond to the six hundred thousand letters of the Torah). When a person sins, Heaven forbid, he blemishes his corresponding letter in the Torah and dims its light. And when he returns to the proper path he had previously traveled and repents, he shines the light of the Torah anew.
(Degel Machaneh Efraim, Ki Sissa)
Our Sages taught that when someone repents out of love, his intentional sins are transformed into merits (Yoma 86b). This can be compared to seeds planted in the ground. When a seed is sown, it must first break down and decompose before a plant can grow from it. The same is true for one who repents out of love.
(Degel Machaneh Efraim, Likutim)
When a person sins, he blemishes the spiritual light of his soul, which is drawn from the holy supernal light of the Torah, and his light is transformed into darkness, Heaven save us! When he truly repents, the light shines on him once more. As I heard from my holy grandfather the Ba’al Shem Tov, just as the darkness vanishes and is no longer discernable when a person brings a candle into a dark room, the same is true of a person who does teshuvah: although he was plunged him into darkness by his sins, when he shines the light of the Torah on himself, the darkness vanishes completely without a trace.
(Degel Machaneh Efraim, Likutim)
Teachings of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov
A great-grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov and the author of Likutei Moharan
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov taught that you must hold on to the attribute of teshuvah at all times. Even when a person is reciting the vidui, confession, and saying, “I have sinned, I have transgressed,” even then it’s not possible that it was said sincerely the first time. Therefore you must repent over the first time you did teshuvah, which was not completely sincere. You even have to repent over the confession you said.
Even if you are certain that you did fully and sincerely repent, you must still repent over the first teshuvah that you ever did. That first teshuvah you did was based on your previous level of understanding. Later, when you repented again, there is no doubt that your understanding of Hashem’s greatness (and of the magnitude of your misdeeds) has changed. Now that you have greater clarity and a better understanding than you did previously, you must do teshuvah over the way you did teshuvah previously. Happy is he who merits to do such teshuvah!
If you wish to repent and return to Hashem, you must be well versed in walking down the path of Jewish law — “halachah” (which literally means “walkway” or “path”). This will prevent anything in this world from distancing you from Hashem or from causing you to lose your way, whether you are on your way up or down the the path to spirituality.
No matter what happens to you and no matter what you experience, still you must strengthen yourself and “hold yourself up” (in Yiddish, “der halten zich”) by adhering to the halachah. Then you can fulfill the words of Tehillim 139:8: “If I travel to the heavens You [Hashem] are there, and if I make my bed in the pits of Gehinnom, You are there beside me as well.”
Even in the deepest darkest recesses of Gehinnom, you can come close to Hashem because He is found also there, for “if I make my bed in the pits of Gehinnom, You are there beside.” (Likutei Moharan)
When a person does teshuvah and repents wholeheartedly, Hashem grants him a heart that can know Him.
(Sefer HaMiddos, Teshuvah)
The moment that a person decides to repent and do teshuvah, his prayers are immediately accepted even before he has done teshuvah.
Teshuvah heals the world: when one does teshuvah out of fear, his intentional sins are transformed into mistakes; when he repents out of love they are transformed into merits. Teshuvah brings redemption closer and lengthens a man’s days and the years of his life. Through teshuvah, however, not only he but also the entire world is forgiven.
Through teshuvah, the spirit of Mashiach blows and whispers like the wind over any harsh governmental decrees and cancels them.
Through teshuvah, a person’s livelihood comes more easily.
Through Shabbos and teshuvah, one draws down upon himself the light of Mashiach.
When a Jew is moved and awakened to do teshuvah because of a feeling of impurity he experiences when attempting to pray and serve Hashem, then by repenting he affects not only himself but even those who are truly wicked and left the fold of Klal Yisrael because of their wicked misdeeds. He causes them to repent and return, and they themselves are transformed into a vehicle for sanctity, even aiding those who serve Hashem to build holy edifices.
(Likutei Eitzos, Teshuvah)
There are three conditions to teshuvah: the eyes must see, the ears must hear, and the heart must understand. A person must look for and understand his ultimate purpose in life, and he must be prepared to fulfill it. He must also listen and pay close attention to the words of our Sages — then he will merit to really succeed in doing teshuvah fully.
When the light of teshuvah begins to shine within and awaken the penitent who is distant from anything that is holy, he may find that his way is impeded by various obstacles. He must exert great effort to overcome these obstacles and divest himself of his soiled garments. These garments that have been soiled with previous sins and misdeeds act as a barrier, like a river intersecting a road so that one cannot cross.
Do not allow your thoughts to confuse you or frighten you away from drawing close to Hashem. If you see that seemingly insurmountable obstacles prevent you from returning to Him, know that these are formed from your garments soiled by sin. You must suffer this exertion and some bitterness until you can divest yourself of these garments. Then these obstacles will vanish, and any barriers between you and holiness will cease to be.
The meaning of teshuvah is to return something to its origin. The source of all things is the attribute of Wisdom. For this reason, everyone must guard their wisdom and intellect from foreign, external influences, and especially from negative, impure thoughts, because all sins are rooted in a blemished wisdom that is left unguarded. This is the primary form of teshuvah.
True teshuvah is dependent on your heart, especially those thoughts that lie deep within your heart. Therefore strengthen yourself to flee from negative thoughts and to think positively all the time. Focus on the goal of returning to Hashem and use your imagination to think up strategies and ways to help you repent. This will aid you in acquiring the secrets of Torah wisdom, for the Torah wisdom that you have acquired will be the primary delight that you will experience in the next world.
Teshuvah is primarily dependent on Torah. If you study Torah and exert yourself in your studies, then you will merit to understand how one concept is derived from another. You will merit to originate novel ideas and new interpretations for the sake of Heaven. This is a form of true and complete teshuvah.
Each person has unique experiences based on whatever came to pass on the stations along his life’s journey. A truly complete teshuvah is defined by passing through the same places you previously traveled through before your teshuvah and making different choices this time around. When you go through these situations again and now you turn your back on them and prevail over your inclination to repeat those same mistakes — this is true teshuvah.
Once, Reb Noson of Nemirov overheard Rebbe Nachman reciting the mishnah “Repent one day before your death” (Avos 2:10). When he said the words and repeated them, Rebbe Nachman kept stressing “one day.”
What Rebbe Nachman meant to convey, taught Reb Noson, is the idea that repenting even one day of your life before you die and leave this world is of the utmost significance. So many people, Reb Noson explains, give up and are lost because although they awaken themselves to repent and return to Hashem, they are prevented from doing so by by the day before and the day after — by their past and their future. The past holds them back because of the misdeeds it contains, and their future is impeded by similar personal obstacles.
Rebbe Nachman’s tells us: seize the moment and repent even just “one day” before you die. Repent even just one day of your life on this world, and don’t let yourself be discouraged, for this one day is as precious as any treasure. Seize the moment, because if you do not seize this day, you might miss the opportunity.
Teachings of Rebbe Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezeritch
The Ba’al Shem Tov’s successor, also known as “Der Groisser Maggid,” the Great Maggid
Just as olive oil is hidden within the olive, so is teshuvah hidden within the sin itself. This is because although repentance is one of the 613 commandments, one cannot repent unless he has sinned in the first place. Teshuvah, the possibility of repentance, is already hidden in its initial state of potential within the sin itself.
There are two types of people. One is truly wicked; he recognizes his Master and nonetheless rebels against Him. The other has been so blinded by his evil inclination that he and others around him are fooled into thinking that what he is doing is really good. They believe that he is a righteous Tzaddik. He might even study Torah and pray and afflict himself, but since he lacks true sincerity and faith in Hashem, his whole path is crooked and false.
The difference between the two is that there is hope for the truly wicked one. If he will one day pay heed to his feelings of remorse and he does teshuvah wholeheartedly and beseeches Hashem for guidance, he can be saved.
The same cannot be said of someone who is fooled into thinking himself a Tzaddik! How can such a person ever do teshuvah when he does not even know that he is mistaken in the first place?
This is why, when the yetzer hara tries to seduce us into sinning, he tries to convince us that our misdeeds are actually mitzvos. This is a clever ploy — it prevents us from doing teshuvah over what we have done, because we don’t think we have done anything that requires repentance!
There was once a king who had two sons. One son was faithful and dutiful toward the king. He could always be found at his father’s side. The second son was wayward and reckless. He could happily go about for long periods of time without seeing his father more than once a week. Eventually he grew so distant and rebellious that he took off and ran away. He disregarded his father’s deep, abiding love for him. Instead he blatantly shook off his father’s rule and decided to follow his own heart’s desires. He took up company with a band of vagabonds, thieves, and cutthroats.
The king could have sent armed guards after his son to force his return, but instead he exercised great mercy and restraint. Rather than punish his son, he pined after him and sighed longingly, “Woe is he who has exiled himself from his home and birthplace, and woe is the son who is not found at his father’s table!”
One day the wayward son came to his senses and regretted his ways. He recalled his father’s love and compassion and decided to return home. He would prostrate himself before his father, the king, and plead with him that he take him back.
And so he did. He prostrated himself and begged his father’s forgiveness. “Father,” he pleaded, “I have sinned and seen the error of my ways. Please forgive me!”
When the king saw his son’s earnest entreaties as he beseeched him for his forgiveness at his feet, the king’s compassion was roused and he took his son back. Seeing that his son’s remorse was genuine filled him with joy. Finally he had his son back, the one whom he had almost given up any hope of ever seeing again. He took pride in his son for returning of his own good sense and was filled with love for him, for returning out of love for his father.
The king’s feelings of love and pride in the wayward son who had returned surpassed even those feelings he had for his dutiful son. He took the dutiful son’s obedience for granted since it had never wavered at all. But the sudden upsurge of emotions that he felt at being reunited with his lost son were much greater. The king forgave his son completely and absolved him of all wrongdoing. He raised his once-wayward son in stature and gave him a station above that of all his brothers.
This parable, explains the Maggid, illustrates how Hashem feels differently toward the ba’al teshuvah than for the Tzaddik who has never sinned. Like the wayward son of the king, a wicked sinner who once turned away from Hashem evokes great pride and joy when he finally returns.
Teachings of Rebbe Chaim Tyrer of Czernowitz
A disciple of Rebbe Yechiel Michel, the Maggid of Zlotchov. Author of Be’er Mayim Chaim and Sidduro shel Shabbos
Hashem teaches us that Shabbos is a time for repentance, for teshuvah is hinted at in its name. The letters that spell Shabbos (shin, beis, tav) form the acrostic “Shabbos Bo Tashuv — On Shabbos you should repent and return!”
(Sidduro shel Shabbos)
Once, one of Rav Sa’adiah Gaon’s students visited him unexpectedly in the night. To his bewilderment and fear, he found his Rebbe rolling around in the freezing ice and snow. “Rebbe!” the talmid exclaimed. “Surely this is not necessary! Are your sins so great that you must resort to such excruciatingly painful forms of self-affliction? If a great rav such as yourself, who always safeguards himself from any blemish, even from sinful thoughts, afflicts himself like this, what can we say about ourselves? We who are full of sin from the days of our youth — why, afflictions worse than death would be too good for the likes of us!”
“My son,” Rav Saadiah Gaon replied, “you should know that I have never done this before, because I knew that I never committed a transgression that would require this of me. But recently I traveled to a certain town and found lodgings at the local inn, which was owned by a Jewish innkeeper. The innkeeper didn’t recognize me — he didn’t even know that I was a learned man who knew much Torah — and he treated me like any other guest.
“Then the news spread that I, Rav Sa’adiah Gaon, had come to town. Men, women, and children gathered to show their respects as befits a great rabbi and Torah scholar. When the innkeeper saw that the local townspeople had come to honor me, he, too, began to show me his respects and served me with great honor at every opportunity.
“When I was ready to depart, the entire community gathered to escort me, and this innkeeper fell before my feet, prostrating himself on the ground and pleading with me to forgive his earlier behavior, his slight on my honor and on the honor of the Torah. I told him that surely he had honored me to the best of his abilities. But he persisted and begged forgiveness for the way he had treated me at first. ‘Please,’ he cried, ‘I did not then know the greatness of my master and teacher! I did not honor you properly as befits someone of your stature. I treated you as a commoner, and for this I beg your forgiveness. Please, Rabbi, forgive your servant for his neglect. I did not yet realize your greatness!’
“These words,” said Rav Sa’adiah Gaon, “penetrated the depths of my heart. This innkeeper fell to his knees, begging at my feet for forgiveness of his past misdeeds, for the sake of the honor of a mere mortal. All the more so when it comes to serving the Creator! I know all too well that my understanding and appreciation of His greatness and majesty grows daily commensurate with my avodah and my love and fear of Him. Therefore I am begging Him for forgiveness for my past misdeeds. I am afflicting myself in this way that He forgive my lack of service, and the deficiency of my love and fear of Him in the past. For it distresses me greatly — how could I not serve Hashem properly in the past, in the light of my appreciation of His greatness and awe today?
“Not only am I repenting my past misdeeds, but on a daily basis I recognize Hashem’s greatness more and more each and every day as my divine service grows. So I repent my past and do teshuvah daily over yesterday’s mistakes and my lack in showing proper honor and glory toward Hashem based on what I know today.”
(Sidduro shel Shabbos)
Teachings of Rebbe Meir of Premishlan
A disciple of Rav Yechiel Michel, the Zlotchover Maggid
It is a well-known custom for the kallah’s side to give a chasan a new watch as a wedding gift. Rav Meir of Premishlan once explained the reason for this gift: to hint that a chasan must do teshuvah. How does the watch allude to this?
A new watch, explained Rav Meir, runs perfectly. But over time watches break down, not because of any negligence on the part of the watch owner, but rather the delicateness of the timepiece causes it to stop running eventually. A watch is a complex piece of machinery with many small, intricate components, with all kinds of cogs and levers, that must all work in unison. If just one spoke or cog gets slightly bent out of shape, the entire clockwork stops functioning. Then you must bring the watch to an expert watchmaker to fix it. And how does he fix it? He takes it apart, separating all the pieces, until he finds the one that has caused the malfunction.
Similarly, man was created perfect and just. His body is an intricate machine, with many complex systems that work together in unison. If he sins, however, he bends something out of shape and that can damage his entire being.
What must be done? He must repent with a broken heart, dissecting his actions and taking himself apart until he finds his flaw and rectifies it so that the entire mechanism will function properly once again.
(Divrei Torah, Munkacz)
Teachings of Rebbe Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl
A disciple of both the Ba’al Shem Tov and the Maggid, and the author of Meor Einayim
Teshuvah can be attained only by safeguarding Shabbos, because a person cannot truly repent and do teshuvah fully without Shabbos. This is because Shabbos, whose letters can be rearranged to spell tasheiv, “repent,” is a time that draws a person closer to Hashem and reconnects him to his Maker.
(Me’or Einayim, Ki Seitzei)
Our Sages taught (Kiddushin 49b) that if a woman was betrothed to someone on the condition that he was a Tzaddik and they find that he is actually wicked, this is not grounds to dissolve the betrothal. They are still considered betrothed, because there is the slightest doubt regarding his status: we can suppose that perhaps he had thoughts of sincere repentance when he married her.
We see that in a single second, with just one fleeting thought of teshuvah, a person can be considered a Tzaddik! The reason for this is because teshuvah preceded creation of the world, which was created through speech, through Hashem’s recitation of the ten utterances of the Creation (“Let there be light,” etc.). Whatever preceded the world’s creation also preceded speech. Before speech there was only thought. In that case, teshuvah, which preceded the Creation, must be connected to thought which also preceded the Creation. He who repents therefore returns to his root source above all the worlds and rectifies creation... Since teshuvah is connected to thought, and it is beyond creation, even just one single thought of teshuvah rectifies any corruption he might have brought about in this world with his misdeeds.
(Me’or Einayim, Likutim)
This world operates by time. Before the Creation, there was no concept of time at all. Since teshuvah preceded the Creation, it is above time, and therefore teshuvah’s power of rectification can occur in no time at all, even in a split second. A person can rectify all his sins in no time at all.
Whoever thinks that the process of teshuvah is a time-consuming, lengthy affair is mistaken. He must believe with complete faith that he can repair everything in an instant. This is what our Sages meant when they said, “And if not now, then when?” (Avos 1:14). If you fool yourself into thinking that you cannot repair whatever damage you have done through teshuvah right now, in this instant, because you think that teshuvah takes a long time and is a lengthy process, when will you ever succeed in repairing what you have damaged? Even if you spend all the days of your life, as many days as there are grains of sand on the seashore falling endlessly through the hourglass, you will never succeed in doing teshuvah because such thoughts prevent you from doing any real teshuvah. Know that teshuvah is above time, and in one instant you can rectify everything!
(Me’or Einayim, Likutim)
Teachings of Rebbe Mordechai of Chernobyl
Also known as Reb Mottele, the Chernobler Maggid, the son and successor of Rav Menachem Nachum and the author of Likutei Torah
Once, there was a grievous sinner present at the tisch of Rav Mordechai of Chernobyl. At one point, the sinner let out a great sigh. Upon hearing the sigh escaping the sinner’s mouth, the Chernobler Maggid declared, “Whoever does not believe that when a Jew sighs and repents Hashem immediately accepts him is a heretic!”
(Likutim Yekarim, Slonim)
Teachings of Rebbe Asher of Stolin
The son of Rav Aharon of Karlin
Once, during the confession of Yom Kippur, Rav Asher of Stolin cried out as he said the words “And on the sin that we sinned before You!” In his anguish, he could not continue. He cried out, “So what if they have to roast us in the fires of Gehinom for our sins? So what?! That is all the will of Hashem! Only one thing truly bothers me, just one thing! That ‘we sinned before You.’ Oy vey! Before Whom did I sin? Before Whom am I guilty? To You! Only to You!” And he broke down crying.
Teachings of Rebbe Elimelech Weissblum of Lizhensk
Also known as “the Holy Rebbe Reb Melech” and “the Rebbe of all Rebbes,” author of Noam Elimelech
The primary awakening that pushes a person to repent comes through the Tzaddik.
(Noam Elimelech, Yisro)
When the Tzaddik finds within himself even a small speck of sin and rebukes himself in front of others, finding fault with himself and bemoaning his lack in serving Hashem properly, then the hearts of those who hear the Tzaddik’s self-rebuke are also roused to do teshuvah. Then the Tzaddik elevates them to a higher level of sanctity, as he elevates all of Klal Yisrael higher and higher.
When you find yourself alone, you should pace back and forth and roam through the four corners of your home while you contemplate how you sinned against Hashem, the King of kings. Cry a river of tears over your misdeeds with sincere remorse. Accept upon yourself never to repeat the same mistakes. Do this on a daily basis, and surely Hashem will forgive your sins.
(Noam Elimelech, Mishpatim)
When you repent your sins, you are released from the bondage of the klippos (the husks and shells of impurity). This is your redemption, your personal exodus from Egypt.
(Noam Elimelech, Bamidbar)
The Divrei Chaim of Tzanz related that his Rebbe and mentor, Rav Naftali of Ropshitz, a disciple of the Rebbe Reb Elimelech, taught in his master’s name that when you do teshuvah, it must be a complete teshuvah. What does that mean? When you repent, you must go back, examining all of your misdeeds, until repent even over the first sin you ever did in your entire life.
In this vein, we can understand the Zohar’s explanation (Vayikra 13b) of the verse “Nefesh ki secheta… — If a soul shall sin…” (Vayikra 4:2). The Zohar reads this verse as if the Torah is asking a question: “Nefesh ki secheta?!” How could a Jewish soul possibly sin in the first place? The answer is simple. Sin is a chain reaction. Our Sages taught (Avos 4:2) that sin drags after it more sin — “aveirah goreres aveirah.” Otherwise, how is it possible that a Jew could commit grave sins? It is because initially he must have done some lesser, lighter misdeed that eventually led him to sin more grievously. It follows that each sin a person does is an outgrowth of the very first sin that he ever did, which was surely an unintentional mistake that snowballed until the sinner reached his current state. That is why he must examine his misdeeds as far back as the first sin he ever committed.
(Divrei Chaim, Shabbos Teshuvah)
The Chozeh of Lublin taught in the name of his master and Rebbe, the Rebbe Reb Elimelech of Lizhensk, that Shabbos is the source of all repentance. This is because the name Shabbos has the root word shav, “repent and return” — in other words, Shabbos is the time to do teshuvah!
(Divrei Emes, Mattos )
Rav Shlomo Bobover once related how one of the Tzaddikim met an old Jewish woman who had served as a maidservant in the home of the Rebbe Reb Melech in her youth. She recounted how every Friday after chatzos (midday), the holy Tzaddik would enter the kitchen, where the maidservants and cooks were preparing for Shabbos, place his hand on the mezuzah, and declare, “The holy Shabbos is coming! We must prepare ourselves and think thoughts of teshuvah.”
The old woman added that at that moment, as soon as the Rebbe Reb Melech said those words, “all of us, the cooks and maids, were all roused by such an awakening, and we were filled with such feelings of repentance and remorse, that we all began weeping and begging each other for forgiveness, as one customarily does on erev Yom Kippur before Kol Nidrei!”
(Noam Shabbos, Bobov)
Teachings of Rebbe Meshulem Zissel of Anipoli
A disciple of the Mezritcher Maggid, the older brother of Rav Elimelech of Lizhensk, also known as “the Rebbe Reb Zisha”
During the ten days of teshuvah between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, the Rebbe Reb Zisha sat and received his congregants to bestow on them blessings and advice. The entire community of Anipoli stood waiting their turn for an audience with the Tzaddik, and while the Rebbe sat there in deveikus, in constant connection with the Creator, his eyes turned heavenward, as was his custom, and one of the assembled was seized with a sudden passion to repent. He began to sob and as one flame ignites another, soon the entire assembly was weeping as a great awakening seized them all.
The great Tzaddik seized the oppportunity and raised his hands in supplication. He beseeched the Almighty, “Ribbono shel olam! Master of the world! Surely now is an auspicious moment for me to do teshuvah. But what can Zisha do? I have no strength to do teshuvah properly. So what can I do but to send you the letters that spell teshuvah, and You, Master of the world, shall join them together. Tav: ‘Tamim tiheyeh im Hashem Elokecha — Be sincere and faithful with Hashem, your G-d’ (Devarim 18:13). Shin: ‘Shivisi Hashem l’negdi samid — I have placed Hashem before me at all times’ (Tehillim 16:8). Vav: ‘V’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha — Love your fellow as yourself’ (Vayikra 19:18). Beis: ‘Bechol derachecha da’eihu — Know Him in all your ways’ (Mishlei 3:6). Hei: ‘Hatznei’a leches im Elokecha — Walk modestly with your G-d’ (Michah 6:8). By these commands, Hashem, I will serve You!”
This was the teshuvah of the Tzaddik, the Rebbe Reb Zisha of Anipoli.
(Peulas Tzaddikim; Menoras Zahav, Shoftim)
The Rebbe Reb Melech of Lizhensk and his brother the Rebbe Reb Zisha of Anipoli wandered together in self-imposed exile for years to arouse repentance in the hearts and souls of the Jews with whom they came in contact. Once, they took lodgings in the home of a local villager. The man of the house was away and only arrived late that night. When he came home, he lit a candle and sat down at the table to mend his fur overcoat. “Hurry,” they overheard his wife call out. “Hurry up and mend it! You only have as long as the candle burns!”
When the brothers heard that, they immediately turned to each other and exclaimed, their faces full of wonder, “Did you hear that? What a lesson! Fix it, as long as the candle burns. As long as the flame of the Jewish soul burns bright, there is still a chance to mend it!”
(Siach Sarfei Kodesh, Teshuvah)
The Rebbe Reb Zisha translated the words “Shuvu banim shovavim” (Yirmeyahu 3:22). as “Return, you returning children!” He taught that this alludes to the concept of repenting over one’s previous teshuvah (since each day you should have gained a new understanding of your service of Hashem, so your previous teshuvah has proven to be inadequate). So, you penitent children, who have already done teshuvah, still you must return!
(Toras Avos, Teshuvah)
Teachings of Rebbe Shmuel Shmelke Horowitz of Nikolsberg
Also known as “the Rebbe Reb Shmelke,” a main disciple of the Mezritcher Maggid and the author of Divrei Shmuel
The Rebbe Reb Shmelke told the following parable: A debtor owed the king a large sum of money. As long as he did not work out a payment plan for the money he had borrowed, he would not be granted an audience with the king. Once he worked out a payment plan, even before he had finished repaying the debt, he was allowed to come before the king and was granted permission for an audience with his majesty.
Similarly, once a person has made up his mind to repent, even though he has not yet done so, his prayers are allowed to ascend on High. His decision prevents his petitions from being cast aside, Heaven forbid, by the external forces of darkness. Although one must fully repent by actually rectifying his past misdeeds, as soon as he takes to heart the desire to repent, on that very day that he decides to do teshuvah, he can come before the King.
This requires an outpouring of tears during prayer, but they should be tears of joy (at having the opportunity to repent) that heal the soul. If he does cry out of sadness and pain, Hashem will also have mercy on him and heal him, for He heals all flesh, especially the downtrodden, the brokenhearted, and the depressed, but tears of joy are better.
(Divrei Shmuel, Bechukosai)
The Rebbe Reb Shmelke told the following parable:
As long as a young man has not betrothed anyone to him as his bride, he is in a state of doubt. He is unsure if this prospective bride is the right match for him — perhaps it is another? The bride is just as uncertain. Neither has a clear mind.
When the engagement finally takes place, even before the two are actually wed and brought under the wedding canopy, they have both already achieved clarity of mind and their minds are settled.
Similarly, when a person sincerely decides to repent, immediately he achieves clarity of thought even before he reaches any levels of sanctity and fulfillment. He already acquires peace of mind as soon as he has decided to repent, even before has actually done so.
(Divrei Shmuel, Shoftim)
“ ‘Days are coming,’ says Hashem, ‘and the plowman shall meet the reaper’” (Amos 9:13). This is the way of the world, taught the Rebbe Reb Shmelke. First you must plow and break the earth by making furrows. Then you can sow seeds and plant them. It rains and the seeds grow into stalks of wheat. The time comes when they are ripe for the harvest and we can reap what we have sown.
This is also the path of teshuvah: first you must plow your body and break your selfish desires and passions, as it says, “A broken heart G-d shall not despise” (Tehillim 51:19). Then you plant and water the teshuvah with tears of remorse, and finally you can harvest the benefits.
(Imrei Shmuel, Kedoshim)
Teachings of Rebbe Levi Yitzchak Derbarmdiger,
the Berditchever tzaddik
Also known as the “Sanigoran shel Yisrael” (Defender of Israel), a disciple of Rav Shmelke of Nikolsberg and the Maggid of Mezritch, and the author of Kedushas Levi
There are two types of sinners. One is the sinner who has actually committed sinful acts. The other is in the category called ba’al teshuvah, literally, “master of return,” and he is holy. Regarding him the verse says, “Ohr zarua laTzaddik — There is a light planted for the righteous” (Tehillim 97:11), because he contemplates yesterday’s deeds and reexamines his behavior, and he concludes that he has sinned, though in actuality, he is being critical of himself.
He comes to this conclusion because today the revelation of Hashem that he has experienced is greater and stronger than that of the previous day. Therefore he does teshuvah each day over yesterday’s actions and behavior. However, his sins are considered unintentional, because yesterday he lacked today’s revelation. This is what the Gemara means when it says, “Willful transgressions are transformed into unintentional ones” (Yoma 86b).
(Kedushas Levi, Vayeira)
An awakening to do teshuvah comes to us every day, originating in the voice of Hashem that we all heard on Mount Sinai. That voice declared, “I am Hashem, your G-d” (Shemos 20:2) and “You shall have no other gods before Me” (ibid. 20:3). This voice was inscribed on our hearts, and it brings about an awakening in us to repent on a daily basis.
(Kedushas Levi, Chayei Sarah)
Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev taught that we should pay particular attention to the words “as of old,” in the pasuk “Return us to You, Hashem, and we will return; renew our days as of old” (Eichah 5:21–22). The Berditchever elucidated this verse with a midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 21:6) that cites another verse: “And now, Bnei Yisrael, what is it that Hashem asks of you but to fear Him?” (Devarim 10:12).
The Midrash teaches us that the words “and now” refer to repentance. The Berditchever explained that each and every person must believe with complete faith that the Creator renews our life at each and every moment, as our Sages taught, “Praise Hashem with each and every breath you take” (Bereishis Rabbah 14:9). At every moment our vitality tries to escape from us, and the Holy One sends a person new vitality to replace it. Therefore, right at this moment — or in the language of the Midrash, “and now” — we are reborn again at every moment.
In that case, at the same moment that a person repents, he is reborn and it is as if he is a new being. And so, Hashem, in His great mercy, takes no notice of his previous sins. However, if he does not believe this that he has been reborn, that the Creator gives him new life each and every moment, then his teshuvah will not succeed. This is the meaning of the pasuk in Eichah: “Return us to You, Hashem, and we will return.” How will we return? If You “renew our days as of old” — by infusing us with vitality so that we are reborn and become new beings, clean of sin.
(Kedushas Levi, Derushim, Eichah)
Once, the Berditchever was walking down the street in Berditchev when he bumped into a well- known apostate. This was a man who was recognized for his many sins, and he had the reputation of a lowly good-for-nothing. To this man’s great astonishment, Rav Levi Yitzchak gave him a warm and hearty greeting. He grabbed the wicked man by the lapels of his coat and cried out, “I am so jealous of you!”
Nothing could have surprised the man more. “You, Rebbe?” he said, dumbfounded. “You are jealous of me?”
“Yes, I know you have sinned, but our Sages taught that when you repent out of love, your willful transgressions are transformed into merits (Yoma 86b). Just consider how many merits you will have when you repent!”
“Just wait a few more days, and you will be even more jealous of me,” the wicked man retorted (intimating that he would sin some more). But the Rebbe’s sincere words and warm demeanor worked their magic, and the man repented. He eventually became one of the most pious, G-d- fearing Tzaddikim in Berditchev.
Our Sages taught, “In the place where the ba’al teshuvah stands, even the righteous cannot stand” (Berachos 34b). To understand just what the actual avodah of teshuvah is, we must explain that this does not refer to a one-time repentance over past sins, but it refers to being in a constant state of repentance, as our Sages taught elsewhere, “All the day’s of a person’s life should be spent in teshuvah” (Shabbos 153a). This means that a person’s heart should always be broken; he should always feel empty and lacking and distant from Hashem. By always contemplating Hashem’s vast greatness, a person will truly comprehend his own lowly insignificance, that he does not even take up any space in this world. He will come to understand that when taking into consideration Hashem’s vast greatness, it’s as if he has not even begun serving Hashem!
When you serve Hashem in a state of teshuvah with great awe of Hashem, and your very existence is constantly nullified, you are a true ba’al teshuvah. Even if you are a complete Tzaddik, who fulfills all the mitzvos, but you lack this broken-hearted self-subjugation, you cannot stand in the place of such a ba’al teshuvah.
(Kedushas Levi, Likutim)
Once, taught Rav Yissachar Ber of Zlotchov, I heard my teacher and Rebbe, the pious chassid Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, explain the Sages’ statement “In the place where the ba’al teshuvah stands, even the righteous cannot stand” (Berachos 34b). How can a ba’al teshuvah, who once rebelled against the King, be greater than a Tzaddik who never transgressed from infancy?
Who is considered a true ba’al teshuvah? He is a person who is enlightened on a daily basis with new insights about Hashem that he did not have the day before. He therefore rejects yesterday’s avodah, imagining that he did not serve Hashem sufficiently, because compared to today’s understanding of Hashem’s greatness and his own lowliness, yesterday’s avodah was lacking. So he does teshuvah for yesterday’s seeming lack of good deeds.
In his place a complete Tzaddik cannot stand. This refers to someone who sees himself as complete and finds no lack in himself. He does not see anything missing in his avodah and has no cause for regret. Such a person, who fails to see his own shortcomings and imagines he is a complete Tzaddik, cannot stand before a ba’al teshuvah who constantly tries to do better than he did the day before.
(Mevaser Tzedek, Vayikra, Metzora)
Rav Yissachar Ber of Zlotchov taught that they say in the name of Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev that once, while he was explaining the Pesach Haggadah, he commented that the term Pesach, which literally means “pass over,” refers to the ba’al teshuvah. While the Tzaddik rises contually from one level to the next, the ba’al teshuvah has the ability to pass over and skip several levels in one leap.
(Mevaser Tzedek, Acharei Mos)
Once, when the Berditchever reached the words “Melech Rachaman shetashuv u’seracheim aleinu — Merciful King! We ask that You return once again, to have mercy upon us!” in the Mussaf prayers of yom tov, he went on to beseech Hashem on behalf of Bnei Yisrael, as was his custom. He said, “Shetashuv u’seracheim aleinu — Master of the world! You, too, need to do teshuvah ! What is Your teshuvah? How does G-d repent? By having mercy upon us!”
(Yalkut Kedushas Levi)
Teachings of Rebbe Shneur Zalman of Liadi
A disciple of the Mezritcher Maggid, the founder of Chabad Chassidus, and the author of Tanya
He who eats choice meats and drinks fragrant wines in order to expand his mind and better serve Hashem and study His Torah or to perform the mitzvah of enjoying Shabbos and yom tov is able to refine the essence of the meat and wine and release it from the husk known as “klippas noga.” This is as pleasing to Hashem as a fragrant burn offering… However, he who is a glutton and gorges on meat and wine to satisfy the desire of his animal soul alone...causes the essence of the meat and wine within him to descend into the completely evil klippos. Then his body acts as a vehicle for the klippos — at least, until he repents through teshuvah and serving Hashem and studying His Torah. Since the meat and wine were kosher, they can be elevated together with him when he returns to Hashem.
This is the meaning of “heter,” which connotes permitted foods. Literally it means “unfettered” or “unbound” because they are not bound to the exterior negative forces, as opposed to nonkosher foods, which are “assur,” forbidden — literally, “bound” to the negative forces — and cannot be released to ascend to Hashem... Any forbidden foods that a person might have eaten already will remain bound to the negative forces until the day when Hashem ends all death or until the person repents and does such a lofty form of teshuvah that his willful transgressions are transformed into actual merits.
This form of teshuvah is a teshuvah done out of an intense, fierce love that comes from the depths of his heart and out of such a passion to attach himself to Hashem that he is like a parched soul in a wasteland. He feels as if until today he dwelled in a desert wilderness far from Hashem where he thirsted for Hashem’s presence.
This is why our Sages taught that in the place where a ba’al teshuvah stands, not even great Tzaddikim can stand (Berachos 34b), and such a great and lofty teshuvah as this can transform willful transgressions into merits and release the bound essence in forbidden acts and foods (Yoma 86b). Teshuvah that is not done out of love, however, though it is sincere and surely Hashem will forgive him, is unable to transform transgressions into merits.
(Tanya, Sefer shel Beinonim)
The Torah’s definition of teshuvah is simply disengagement from the act of sin — to stop doing the sin. This is the definition that the Gemara cites in chapter 3 of Sanhedrin and in Choshen Mishpat (end of siman 34) regarding the testimony given by a witness who is a sinner. (A sinner’s testimony is invalid, so the Shulchan Aruch asks, if the sinner who was disqualified from giving testimony now wishes to repent, at what point is his teshuvah accepted and his testimony valid? The answer is that he must stop doing the sin.) This means that he must decide in his heart, fully and sincerely, that he will never again do those things and transgress the King’s commandments, whether positive or negative commandments. This is the primary definition of teshuvah — not fasting, as most people believe.
(Tanya, Iggeres HaTeshuvah)
Someone who gets sick from repeatedly fasting, especially nowadays, should refrain from doing so for the sake of teshuvah (this does not refer, of course, to halachically mandated fasts but to one who takes upon himself to fast as part of his repentance). He should refrain from fasting even if he has committed severe transgressions such as those that incur capital punishment or kares (spiritual excision), and even if he has transgressed many positive commandments and prohibitions. All the more so if he is learned and can study Torah — if he fasts, he is considered a sinner and will be punished for fasting because it weakens him and prevents him from properly learning Torah.
(Tanya, Iggeres HaTeshuvah)
When we do teshuvah, Hashem, in His great compassion, forgives us immediately. This fact is clearly demonstrated by the blessing of forgiveness that we recite when we pray Shemoneh Esrei. First we ask for Hashem’s forgiveness for our sins, and immediately after we pronounce, “Baruch atah Hashem chanun hamarbeh lislo’ach — Blessed are You, Hashem, the Compassionate One, who forgives abundantly.” In Jewish law, the general rule of thumb is that when in doubt we do not recite a blessing. We can conclude that the very fact that we recite this blessing clearly indicates that there is no doubt that Hashem pardons us after we have beseeched His forgiveness.
(Tanya, Iggeres HaTeshuvah)
Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad Chassidus, taught that teshuvah is not just for sinners. Everyone must do teshuvah, because the very definition of teshuvah is “return.”
Teshuvah is the process whereby we return the soul to its root source, where she was once bound up in her Creator and attached to the Source of life, to Hashem. She descended from that lofty plane and enrobed herself in this physical world. Any spiritual achievements that she attains while in this world pale in comparison to her degree of spirituality when she was on High because in the physical world she is bound by such constraints as time and place.
The only way to return her to her Source is by “crying and calling out to Hashem from our distress and constraints” (Tehillim 107:19). What are these constraints? Being bound by time and space; they are in and of themselves boundaries to achieving lofty spiritual levels. Out of the very bitterness that we feel about these barriers, our love and desire for Hashem will grow correspondingly and exponentially. Thus “from our distress” we will yearn to attach ourselves to the light of the Infinite One. This is the “light that draws benefit from the darkness” (Koheles 2:13).
This is what our Sages meant when they said, “In the place where the ba’al teshuvah stands, even the righteous cannot stand” (Berachos 34b). The Zohar explains that ba’alei teshuvah (those who return their souls to their root source) have greater strength than the Tzaddik. This is because the light of the Infinite One is truly revealed in their souls to the point where their animal soul, their body’s vitality, and their abilities and traits are transformed and returned to Hashem, as darkness is transformed into light.
(Torah Ohr, Vayechi)
Some people make the mistake of thinking that teshuvah is meant only for sinners. They mistakenly believe that only lowly, unworthy people who have transgressed the commandments must repent. The truth is that teshuvah is a much loftier process than just rectifying sins.
The Zohar teaches us (Naso 122a) that the word teshuvah is a compound of the two words “tashuv hei,” which means, “Return the letter hei to its proper place.” There are two types of heis (found in Hashem’s four-letter Name, Yud-Kei-Vav-Kei). The first is called the “hei ila,” or “upper hei (and it corresponds to the sefirah, attribute, of binah, insight). The second is the “hei tata,” or “lower hei” (which corresponds to the lower sefirah of malchus, kingship). When a person interrupts his Torah study or prayers with mundane thoughts or speech, they separate the heis from the divine Name, so to speak. The Tzaddikim must then repair the spiritual damage and return the heis to their proper place.
Thus we can say that those who study Torah and dwell in a house of study have the power to restore the letter heis to their proper place. Generally speaking, the study of the Written Torah corresponds to the hei ila, and the Oral Torah or Talmud corresponds to the hei tata. Specifically, thoughts of the mind, such as meditating on the greatness of Hashem and having intense concentration during prayers, corresponds to the hei ila. Through these meditations one can restore that hei. Speech, such as pronouncing the words of the Torah that one is studying and praying, corresponds to the hei tata. Teshuvah, then, is about returning the heis to their proper place through these meditations and words of Torah.
(Ma’amarei Admor HaZakein HaKetzarim)
A primary form of teshuvah is to verbally confess the sin you have transgressed, describing it in detail. Why do we do this? When you sin, you create an adversary — a prosecuting angel — which is called by the very same name as the sin you committed. For example, if someone eats pork, the prosecutor is named “You Ate Pork.”
The prosecuting angel draws its life force from the very letters that spell his name — that spell the sin that was committed. This is how the first man, Adam, named the animals: when he looked at them, he discerned the letters that gave them life. For example, when he looked at a horse, he discerned that the letters samech-vav-samech give it life, so he named the horse “sus” (סוס).
Therefore when a person confesses and regrets his actions saying, “I no longer wish to do this sin anymore,” he is removing the life force from the prosecuting angel that he created with that sin, effectively killing it, because he has taken away the letters that form his name that give him life.
(Ma’amarei Admor HaZakein HaKetzarim)
To understand why the power of teshuvah is so great, we must understand that teshuvah is a transformation and its power lies in a great novelty. A precious stone, for example, is valuable because it reflects light and this makes it beautiful. Now you might ask, “Doesn’t a candle shine more brightly than any precious gemstone?” But the true value of a gemstone is the fact that even though it is only a rock, it still shines! This is the great novelty — that a piece of rock can shine — and that is why it is so precious.
Similarly, a person’s hardened heart is called a “heart of stone.” When he transforms his will and changes himself to serve Hashem, his heart shines. This is a great novelty and very precious in Hashem’s eyes. When our hearts of stone shine, we call them precious gemstones and we make them into “jewelry” to adorn the Shechinah who is like a bride. There are many kinds of jewelry and precious gems, some more valuable than others. When a bride is bejeweled with all these kinds of precious gems, then she is pleasing and beautiful to her husband (i.e., HaKadosh Baruch Hu, the male aspect of Divinity).
(Ma’amarei Admor HaZakein HaKetzarim)
Teachings of Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk
A disciple of the Maggid of Mezritch, the founder of the Old Yishuv in Eretz Yisrael in Teveria, and the author of Pri Ha’aretz
Our Sages taught (Kiddushin 49b, according to the Rif) that if someone betroths a woman on the condition that he is a complete Tzaddik, and they find he is wicked, the agreement stands because perhaps he had thoughts of teshuvah. In that case, he wasn’t wicked when they made the agreement.
The Vitebsker asks the obvious question: how can it be that teshuvah, which must be done wholeheartedly and consists of remorse over past misdeeds, be done so instantaneously? How is it possible to make such a dramatic about-face in a single moment, to now regard previously cherished misdeeds as hateful and disgusting actions and previously disgarded mitzvos as desirable deeds?... How can such a transformation take place naturally?
The Vitebsker also asks why Hashem is so willing to accept the ba’al teshuvah the instant he disassociates from his past sinful behaviors? Most people are not so forgiving if someone wrongs them just because the person desisted from the negative behavior. They require the person to repeatedly ask for forgiveness before they even consider granting it. The Torah, however, teaches that for Hashem it is sufficient for the penitent to simply regret his sin and and desist from it. How can this be? The Vitebsker answers that according to our Sages’ teachings, the creation of teshuvah preceded the creation of the world (Pesachim 54a; Zohar, Vayikra 69b). The world was created after the attribute of teshuvah already existed to silence the angelic prosecutors who would argue against the creation of man. One of their arguments was that man was destined to anger Hashem and sin against Him, and so he should not be created. Teshuvah allows man to transform his sins and return to Hashem, so his creation is justified.
Man is a microcosm of the world (Tikunei Zohar 130b). It follows that just as teshuvah already existed in the world when the world was created, man also was created with the attribute of teshuvah within him. Therefore no matter where a person finds himself, even in the lowliest state, in the realm of the husks and shells of impurity known as the klippos, he need only remind himself of the primal power of teshuvah inherent in creation and that this same poweful attribute is found within himself. Then all he needs is to awaken this latent power of teshuvah from within himself (by going through the teshuvah process, confession and so on), and he can completely transform his habits and nature and raise himself to the highest heights above nature to the supernatural state of precreation... In this state, the ba’al teshuvah is like a newborn child, pure and innocent, without sin, as he was when Hashem first created him. This is why Hashem can so readily accept his teshuvah—he is no longer the person he was when he sinned.
(Pri Ha’aretz, Re’eh)
Teachings of Rebbe Yisrael Hopstein of Koznitz,
the Koznitzer Maggid
One of the primary disciples of the Rebbe Reb Melech and the author of Avodas Yisrael
The Koznitzer Maggid commented on the verse “Repent and return to Hashem, your G-d” (Hoshea 14:2), from the haftorah of Shabbos Teshuvah. You should repent and return, said the Maggid, until you can call Hashem “your G-d” — until the Creator becomes your own personal source of G-dliness.
This means that you do teshuvah until you become a vehicle for His holiness (that is, living a life of sanctity and acting holy according to the Torah’s dictates). Then you can be close to Hashem without any barriers and beseech Him in prayer, as one might speak to his best friend and confidant.
When you recite a blessing, for example, and say, “Baruch Atah Hashem — Blessed are You, Hashem,” you should feel as if you are actually standing before Hashem without any barriers or foreign thoughts separating you.
(Avodas Yisrael, Shabbos Teshuvah)
The Koznitzer Maggid commented on the verse “You should take it to heart...and return to Hashem, your G-d…and thenHashem will bring you back…” (Devarim 30:1–4) that just as there are seven supernal palaces, or holy heavenly chambers on High (see Chagigah 12b, which lists the seven levels of Heaven), there are also seven impure chambers: the seven “pits” of Gehinnom.
If a person falls and sinks down among the husks and shells of impurity known as the klippos, heaven forbid, he is actually in Gehinnom (a spiritual state where he is far from Hashem). If he wishes to repent and return to Hashem, the first thought that should enter his mind is that Hashem loves Bnei Yisrael so much that He is willing to descend to the seven pits of Gehinnom Himself to personally lift him out and bring him back to Him.
Thus said David HaMelech: “You saved my soul from the lowest pits” (Tehillim 86:13) — You, Hashem, personally redeemed me from the lowest pits of Gehinnom.
(Avodas Yisrael, Nitzavim)
Rav Meir Yechiel, also known as the “Seraph of Mogolintza,” the Fiery Angel of Mogolintza, once taught in the name of the holy Koznitzer Maggid that a person who wishes to repent must first push away any thought of the magnitude of the sins he committed. Do not initially attempt to rectify any blemish your misdeeds have caused on High. Rather, your first task should be to flee from the evil inclination who is pursuing you. Send him away, cast him out, and obliterate the evil from your character by building yourself up: serving Hashem with love and awe and other good traits. Once you rectify your character, then you can repair your flaws and focus on the specific misdeeds you did.
He related a parable to illustrate this idea: There was once a soldier who was pursued by another soldier from the opposing army. The pursuer was a champion and he managed to bruise his fleeing opponent. If the soldier who was fleeing would have stopped to tend to his many injuries, his pursuer would catch up with him and deal the final death blow. The correct course of action was to run for his life and not look back. Once he was safe and no longer had any doubts whether he had escaped his pursuer, then he could find someone to heal him and tend to his wounds.
Teachings of Rebbe Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Apt
One of the primary disciples of the Rebbe Reb Melech and the author of Ohev Yisrael
Our Sages taught, “In the place where the ba’al teshuvah stands, even the righteous cannot stand” (Berachos 34b). This is because the stature of someone who has repented is much loftier than that of the Tzaddik.
How can someone who never tasted sin, who never transgressed the Torah or its mitzvos, stand in the same place as the ba’al teshuvah? The Tzaddik is attached to the divine force of all the worlds that gives life to all of creation. But the penitent, who is seeking the way back to Hashem, must attach himself to the primordial will that even preceded creation, to the spiritual realm of teshuvah, also known as the “realm of thought” (since it is said that teshuvah was created before the world existed, so it exists in the realm of thought, where the world existed only in potential).
(Ohev Yisrael, Bereishis)
The Apta Rav taught that we can say that the verse “Speak to Bnei Yisrael that they should settle down and camp before Pi HaChiros…” (Shemos 14:2) is issuing us a directive for all generations. In this pasuk, the Torah is guiding us on the proper path of how to conduct ourselves when we sit down to study Torah or prepare for prayer.
First the verse says that he “should settle down and camp” — he should relax his mind so that it is clear and prepared for study or prayer.
The next word of the verse, “before,” can be understood to mean that he must prepare himself before his Maker, to realize before Whom he is standing, as it is taught, “Know before Whom you are standing [in prayer]” (Berachos 28b). Similarly, the Sages taught (ibid. 30b) that the pious people of the generation would spend an hour before praying to prepare their minds and direct their thoughts and hearts toward Hashem.
This is how we interpret “They should settle down and camp” — they should settle their minds and thoughts — “before Pi HaChiros.” The final words of the verse can be understood to mean “before pi cheirus — before they achieve freedom,” before they free their mouths for prayer and study. The pasuk also implies that they should do teshuvah before they achieve freedom for their mouths.
(Ohev Yisrael, Beshalach)
The Apta Rav taught that the realm of teshuvah is so lofty it is beyond the reach of many individuals. How then do we open the gates of teshuvah? Through the righteous Tzaddik.
If the Tzaddik is constantly attached to avodas Hashem with no interruptions whatsoever, then his very self and his very existence could be nullified because He is so attached to Hashem with such fierce love and devotion. In order to keep him alive, Hashem causes the Tzaddik to sometimes falter and fall from this lofty level. This occurs by some foreign or inappropriate thought that clashes with his lofty spiritual level.
But immediately the Tzaddik picks himself back up and repents. He bangs and hammers on the gates of repentance to pry them open so that his teshuvah will be accepted on High, that his mistake will be forgiven and he will be absolved of the sin of transgressing “Be careful lest you forget Hashem…” (Devarim 6:12).
Through his teshuvah, the Tzaddik also elevates all the mistakes and blemishes the wicked have done and injects the desire for repentance into all the hearts of even those who have fallen into the deepest pits of despair. In this way the gates of repentance are opened for everyone through the Tzaddik’s forgetfulness.
Such a Tzaddik is nicknamed Menasheh, which connotes “forgetfulness.” Since the entire world is elevated through the Tzaddik’s forgetfulness and his subsequent teshuvah, he is also called “nasi” — the uplifted one. This is the implication of the verse “The nasi of Bnei Menasheh...Gamliel ben Pedahtzur” (Bamidbar 7:54). The Tzaddik realizes that this forgetfulness occurs because he has fallen from his lofty level, and he recognizes that even those who have fallen even into the darkest, deepest pits of despair are able to repent and find salvation. In their hearts they can still say, “Gamliel”; that is, “Gam li E-l — I, too, still believe in G-d!” He knows that he has fallen in order to elevate others back up with him, and so he is called “Ben Pedahtzur — the Son of Hashem, the Rock and Redeemer.” Because of him, Hashem, who is the “Tzur,” Rock of Israel, redeems (“podeh”) them and the sparks of holiness that have fallen into the deepest pits of darkness.
(Ohev Yisrael, Naso)
A heavenly voice rang out and proclaimed, “Return, My wayward children — all except for Acher [Elisha ben Avuyah]” (Chagigah 15a). This is astonishing. How can this be? We are taught that nothing stands in the way of repentance (see Talmud Yerushalmi, Peah 1:5), and even someone as wicked as Menasheh, a king of Yehudah who greatly angered the Creator (Melachim II 21:1–18; Divrei HaYamim II 33:1–9), was forgiven when he repented.
It seems to me that if Acher had done teshuvah, Hashem would have accepted his repentance as well. Hashem has compassion over all His creatures, even sinners, and no one is forsaken. Therefore, Hashem sends them pangs of remorse and thoughts of teshuvah through the heavenly voice that rings out daily, asking us to repent and return, as we know from the holy writings (the teachings of the Ba’al Shem Tov and his talmidim). This awakens them to fully and sincerely repent. Then Hashem Himself opens the gates of teshuvah and pleads for each and every individual to repent and return.
For a great sinner, however, Hashem does not lower Himself thus, and he is required to awaken himself to repent and take it to heart that he must return without an awakening from on High. He must of his own volition confess before Hashem wholeheartedly and pour out his anguish, begging for heavenly aid to complete his teshuvah. Then surely even his teshuvah will be accepted, so long as he leaves his wicked ways behind.
(Ohev Yisrael, Yemei HaRatzon V’Hateshuvah)
The Apter Rav once told a sinner who had transgressed in a major way that we see that Hashem never forsakes anyone from a verse in Eichah. The verse hints to us that everyone has it in his power to fully repent and start anew. The verse he was referring to is “Return us to You, Hashem, and we will return; renew our days as of old” (Eichah 5:21–22).
The word for “old” in the verse is kedem, which can be read as an acrostic for the names of three biblical figures: Kayin, David, and Menasheh. Each personality is a symbol of teshuvah for one of the three cardinal sins: murder, immorality, and idolatry. Kayin was the first murderer in history; he regretted spilling his brother’s blood and repented. David repented his relationship with Batsheva. Menasheh, king of Yehudah, did teshuvah for his acts of idolatry.
From their example, we see that even someone who sinned against Hashem to such a degree as they did should not give up hope. He should repent and and his days will be “renewed as of old” — that is, like “KeDeM”: Kayin, David, and Menasheh.
(Yalkut Ohev Yisrael, p. 127)
Our Sages teach that a person has difficulty seeing his own faults and shortcomings (Mishnah, Nega’im 2:5). The Apta Rav concludes that therefore a person should pay attention to the misdeeds and improper actions of other people. He should then ask himself, “Why did Hashem orchestrate events so that I should witness those misdeeds? It must be that Hashem wanted me to see this so that I will realize that I have the same shortcomings, but I am blinded from seeing them by my own evil inclination.” Then he can return to Hashem by doing teshuvah over these misdeeds, and Hashem will have mercy on him.
(Ohev Yisrael, Likutim Chadashim)
The Apta Rav taught that a Tzaddik who was born righteous and never tasted sin cannot possibly condemn evil. How can a person testify regarding something he himself has never experienced? Someone who was once a sinner and repented can testify that good is truly good and that it is correct to choose the path of good and attach oneself to goodness. Only he can truly give testimony to the nature of evil and its negative affects, only he can convey how disgusted we should be by its loathsome qualities, because he once tasted all the pleasure that the side of evil offers and rejected it. Now his mind is clear and he can see how all the false pleasures of this world are nothing; they are false vanities, disgusting, loathsome, and empty.
Our commentators note that only Shlomo HaMelech could truly reject the empty vanities and false pleasures of this world and sincerely declare that “hevel havalim hakol hevel — falsehood and emptiness, everything is vanity!” (Koheles 1:1; see Ramban there). It is because he ruled over the entire world and lacked none of the physical pleasures available in this world, but nonetheless, with his holy, pure, refined mind he was able to recognize that the pleasures of this world are nothing but false vanities. He alone was truly capable of testifying to the truth: that this world and its pleasures are empty and false.
(Ohev Yisrael, Haggadah)
Teachings of Rebbe Yaakov Yitzchak Horowitz,
the Chozeh of Lublin
One of the primary disciples of the Rebbe Reb Melech, known for his extraordinary spiritual vision
The holy Chozeh of Lublin taught that when David HaMelech said, “Happy is he whose strength is in You, those whose hearts focus on upward paths” (Tehillim 84:6), he meant that when a Tzaddik sits and studies Torah liShmah, sincerely for the sake of Hashem, then he moves others to thoughts of repentance. Through his studies, he injects into their hearts the desire and motivation to do teshuvah.
This is what David meant: Happy is he, the Tzaddik, whose strength is in You — he attaches himself to You, Hashem, through the Torah, which is called “oz,” Your strength, as it says, “Hashem shall give ‘oz’ [the Torah] to His people” (ibid. 29:11; see Zevachim 115a). By the Tzaddik attaching to Hashem through the Torah, he “focuses ‘hearts’ on upward paths” — he plows furrows and paths that lead the hearts of the people to teshuvah.
Similarly, the Yismach Moshe taught that when David HaMelech sang praises thanking Hashem (ibid. 111:1), he was saying that when you praise and thank Hashem, you cause an awakening of teshuvah within the hearts of every individual.
(Ilana D’Chayi, Emor)
A heavenly voice rang out and proclaimed, “Return, My wayward children — all except for Acher [Elisha ben Avuyah]” (Chagigah 15a). Elisha ben Avuyah, also known as Acher (the “other” one), was an infamous heretic who was denied a portion in the World to Come. Anyone with any sense, taught the holy Rav Yaakov Yitzchak of Lublin, realizes that if Elisha had responded to the heavenly voice that enjoined him to repent, “All the better! Now I can truly serve You sincerely, Hashem, with no thought of any reward and with no ulterior motives except to give You satisfaction and nachas because I am fulfilling Your will,” he would have achieved full atonement. He would have been completely forgiven and attained a lofty spiritual level.
Once, Rav Shraga Feivel of Gritza, the ancestor of the Rebbes who would one day establish the Alexander Dynasty, visited the Chozeh of Lublin. The Chozeh said, “Feivele, do you know what the sin of the golden calf was?” Reb Feivel answered that Bnei Yisrael had made a graven image and bowed to it and declared it their leader. “You are mistaken,” said the Lubliner. “Their primary sin was that ‘they mourned’ (Shemos 33:4). They became sad and morose and fell into a depression after they sinned. They did not realize that they should have seized the opportunity and repented with joy in their hearts!”
A wicked person who doesn’t abandon his evil ways and repent is forbidden to study Torah… Regarding him the verse states, “To the wicked Hashem says, ‘What do you want with My book of laws?’” (Tehillim 50:16). If, however, he repents before he begins learning Torah, then he merits to study with fear and awe on the level of Bnei Yisrael when they received the Torah on Mount Sinai.
Teachings of Rebbe Klonymous Kalman Epstein of Krakow
One of the primary disciples of the Rebbe Reb Melech and the Chozeh of Lublin, and the author of Ma’or VaShemesh
Rav Klonymous Kalman once heard from his Rebbe, the Chozeh of Lublin, that the reason that the divine Name Ehey-eh, which literally means “I shall be,” is in the future tense is that it is associated with teshuvah. Teshuvah is characterized by the improvement one intends in the future: “From now on I shall be a true servant of Hashem” and “From now on I shall rectify my misdeeds.”
Teachings of Rebbe Mendel of Rimanov
One of the primary disciples of the Rebbe Reb Melech
Rav Mendel Rimanover taught that teshuvah is about “returning” — that you must return to the place you came from. That is, you need to revert to your previous level that you were on before you sinned and attach yourself to the Source of all life. You must pierce through all the barriers that separate you from Hashem, as it says, “Your iniquities have separated you from your G-d” (Yeshayahu 59:2), because they prevent you from fulfilling the will of your Creator...
Chazal say that Hashem also does teshuvah (Zohar, Vayikra 21a), citing as proof the verse “Hashem will return…” (Devarim 30:3). What does this mean? How would Hashem do teshuvah, since He does not sin? Sin has nothing to do with Him, Heaven forbid!
Chazal teaches (Sukkah 52b) that Hashem regrets that He created the evil inclination. This regret is Hashem’s teshuvah. But this in itself is puzzling. Hashem knows the future. Why did He do something that He would later regret?
The answer is that it is very difficult for us to do teshuvah. In order to make it easier for us, because Hashem has mercy and kindness and wishes that the wicked repent and return, He was the first to repent and regret (essentially creating the idea of teshuvah). Since Hashem did teshuvah first, and gave it existence, it is now easier for us to do so.
(Kuntres Menachem Tzion, Vayeilech)
Rav Menachem Mendel of Rimanov explained that without regret the world could not exist, and therefore Hashem had to make room, so to speak, for teshuvah, so that the world could be rectified through repentance.
This is the meaning of our Sages’ statement that Hashem has “charatah” over creating the evil inclination (Sukkah 52b). Charatah is usually translated as “regret,” but it can also mean “carve out.” Hashem carved out a path for regret and repentance in the heavens to counter the evil inclination.
(Emes L’Yaakov, Likutim)
Every erev Shabbos a person should review his actions and repent in order to rectify any blemishes he caused during the week. Each day of the week corresponds to a specific sefirah, supernal attribute, and if one sins on that day he causes a blemish in that attribute. On the sixth day he must rectify all of them in order to enter Shabbos, which corresponds to the seventh attribute, through repentance.
Shabbos not only corresponds to the seventh sefirah, but it encompasses all of the sefiros, all seven supernal attributes. Since the letters of Shabbos also spell tashuv, “repent,” it is through teshuvah that you can rectify the attributes that were blemised during the other six days of the week and observe Shabbos properly. Through proper preparation on erev Shabbos, by fully and sincerely repenting, you can fulfill the mitzvah of observing Shabbos itself.
(Ilana D’Chayi, Beshalach)
Rav Mendel of Rimanov once asked: If nothing stands in the way of teshuvah, how can it be that if two witnesses testify before the Sanhedrin that someone committed a murder, he can be found guilty and put to death? Why don’t we consider the possibility that he repented?
If you answer that according to the law, their testimony is acceptable only after they warn the perpetrator of the penalty for his crime, and his very defiance of their warning proves his guilt and lack of remorse, still I say that we should consider the possibility that he might yet regret his actions and repent.
This is why the witnesses undergo seven forms of interrogation to corroborate their testimony. During all this intensive corroboration, the judges sitting on the Sanhedrin did their best to infuse the accused with feelings of remorse so that he would do teshuvah. His teshuvah would cause the witnesses to become confused and fail to corroborate their testimony, and he would then go free.
This is the avodah of the righteous Tzaddikim who sat on the Sanhedrin, to cause the accused to do teshuvah so that he would be saved.
This is the meaning of the statement of Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva that had they served on the Sanhedrin, no one would ever have been sentenced to the death penalty (Makkos 7a). Since they were great Tzaddikim, they had the power to rectify Jewish souls and cause them to do teshuvah, so they would have succeeded in bringing any accused murderer standing trial to repent. This would have caused the witnesses to become confused, and the accused would have gone free.
(Imrei Yosef, Moadim)
Teachings of Rebbe Tzvi Hirsch HaKohen of Rimanov
Also known as Reb Hirsch Meshares, the devoted attendant to and successor of Rav Mendel of Rimanov
Our Sages taught that “in the place where the ba’al teshuvah stands, even the righteous cannot stand” (Berachos 34b). Through the process of bleaching of sins, the love between the penitent and Hashem grows greater.
Take two people who were once friends and now hate one another for some reason. After they make up and resolve their differences, their love is even stronger. The victory of the ba’al teshuvah over his opponent, the evil inclination, who are enemies from the start, evokes an even more intense emotion. This is a much stronger joy than the happiness of a Tzaddik who never sinned, because the Tzaddik never had to wage this war. Since he has never fought this battle, he does not know the sweet taste of victory.
The ba’al teshuvah’s joy at being victorious over the evil inclination awakens the same “feeling,” so to speak, on High. As our Sages teach, it says in the verses, “Hashem is your Guardian, Hashem is your protective shadow…” (Tehillim 121:5) and “Hashem is the mighty warrior who saves, and then He rejoices…” (Tzefaniah 3:17), and “Hashem is a ‘Man’ of war” (Shemos 15:3).
This feeling of joy is awakened when a person battles with his enemy, the evil inclination, and emerges victorious.
Once, a Jewish soldier who had been conscripted into the czar’s army under duress many years before, entered the shul of Rav Hirsch of Rimanov. When he heard the Tzaddik’s heartfelt prayers and set eyes on his holy visage, pangs of remorse seized him, and he felt an intense, fierce desire for teshuvah. He cried bitterly, recalling how he had been living among the gentiles as one of them, eating nonkosher food and desecrating the holy Shabbos!
He kept crying, wallowing in his anguish and regret, until Rav Hirsch remarked, “In Heaven it is said that it was worth it for you to have suffered all those terrible sins that you did under duress just so you could have such a genuine feeling of remorse and do a sincere teshuvah such as this.”
(Kuntres Menachem Tzion)
Teachings of Rebbe Naftali Horowitz of Ropshitz
A disciple of the Rebbe Reb Melech and the author of Zera Kodesh
Why is remorse the vehicle for teshuvah? It is because teshuvah means “return.” To what does one return?
All forms of sin stem from a person’s will and desires; all actions stem from one’s desire to perform that action. All will ultimately stems from the supernal divine will. When a person sins, by desiring to do something sinful, he is channeling the human will, whose root is in the Supernal Will, away from its purpose toward something that Hashem finds undesirable. In effect, he is exiling Hashem and His will to a place where they do not belong, because now the Supernal Will is being channeled into the negative desire for sin.
When a person feels remorse for what he did, and shows a desire for teshuvah, he restores the will to its intended purpose and rechannels the Supernal Will, releasing it from exile. This is why remorse is the vehicle for teshuvah; and this is what it means to “return” — to return the will to what it is meant to be used for.
(Zera Kodesh, Chukas )
When a person repents and does teshuvah over his misdeeds, he causes the same thing to happen on High, because, as we know, whatever actions we do down here are reflected Above. This is how our Sages interpret the verse “Hashem is your shadow” (Tehillim 121:5): just as your shadow imitates you and does whatever you do, Hashem shadows your actions, so to speak, and “does” whatever you do. When you repent, you cause Hashem to repent on High, and he regrets that He ever created the evil inclination, as our Sages taught (Berachos 32a).
This can be illustrated with a parable:
A father once gave his son a pocketknife. The child was not careful with the gift; he didn’t put it away properly in its sheath and ended up cutting himself. Witnessing his son’s pain, the father felt doubly anguished. He was troubled over his son’s pain, but he was even more deeply bothered by the fact that it was his own gift that caused his son to injure himself, even though he did not intend that his son injure himself with it.
Similarly, Hashem created the evil inclination for our benefit. It is our job to harness it and to sheath the passions and desires that it provokes in us, and in that way benefit from it. However, man does not do this. Instead he allows his evil inclination more rein and ends up ruining himself. When we repent and regret our sins, Hashem regrets the creation of the evil inclination, so to speak, because He sees the pain and anguish it causes us. When Hashem regrets the creation of the evil inclination, it saps the evil inclination of its strength and nullifies its power. Therefore, when we repent, we cause Hashem to regret creating the yetzer hara, which weakens it and hastens our redemption from the evil inclination.
(Zera Kodesh, Nitzavim)
Teachings of Rebbe Moshe Teitelbaum of Ujhel
The founder of the Satmar Dynasty and the author of Yismach Moshe
The Gemara teaches, “Whoever says, ‘I will sin now and repent later,’ is held back and prevented from repenting” (Yoma 87a).
The Yismach Moshe explained that no one is saying that teshuvah doesn’t work for someone who says he will sin and repent later, but rather that nothing he does helps him do teshuvah. Nothing truly stands in the way of teshuvah (Yerushalmi, Peah 1:1), but in this case, regarding such a person, teshuvah cannot work for him.
The primary aspect of teshuvah is the regret and remorse you feel for having done wrong. But if someone decides beforehand that he will sin now and later repent, he cannot by definition regret the very same action that he planned ahead of time!
If, however, he somehow manages to regret this whole premeditated plan, then his teshuvah will be accepted. But in all probability, the regular teshuvah will not be enough; simply repenting and regretting the act of sin alone will not suffice. Such a person would probably plan ahead and realize that he might regret his whole plan. Such regret will not be effective as teshuvah, since it will not be genuine. This cycle can repeats itself ad infinitum, and this is why such a person is held back and incapable of doing teshuvah. It’s because his teshuvah is never enough and his regret is never sincere.
(Yismach Moshe, Naso)
Many ask why we were not commanded explicitly to do teshuvah in the Torah. The Yismach Moshe answered that if there were a written commandment to do teshuvah, it might seem that just as teshuvah is mandated, its acceptance is also required by the law of the Torah. The truth is, however, that it is accepted only because of Hashem’s merciful kindness.
(Yismach Moshe, Bereishis)
Teachings of Rebbe Mordechai of Lechovitch
Founder of the Slonimer Dynasty
The Navi says, “Return to Me [says Hashem], and I will return to you” (Malachi 3:7). There was once a prince who was captured by a band of cutthroat thieves, and they took him so far away from his father the king that if he tried to walk home, it would take him ages to arrive. The king sent messengers to tell his son the prince that he was awaiting his return.
“If you do not begin your journey,” he wrote, “then the king can’t draw closer to you either.” The prince had to take the first step and set out on the journey, even though his steps might seem small and insignificant and it might seem that he was not getting anywhere. But if he would start out, then the king would come toward him, taking powerful, long strides, and then surely they would be reunited very soon.
This is what the verse means: “Return to Me,” even taking small steps, “and I will return to you” — and I will return with abundant mercy.
(Toras Avos, Teshuvah)
Teachings of Rebbe Moshe Kobriner
One of the primary disciples of Rav Mordechai of Lechovitch
Regarding the verse “Call out to Hashem when He is close” (Yeshayahu 55:6), Rav Moshe Kobriner asked, “Don’t we call out to someone when they are far away? Why do we need to call out to Hashem if He is close?”
He answered, “You should know that even if you feel far from Hashem, He is close to you. And although He is close to you, you are nonetheless still very far from Him — from truly serving Him as you should.”
(Toras Avos, Teshuvah)
Regarding the verse “Let the wicked person abandon his ways, and the iniquitous man his twisted thoughts, and return to Hashem” (Yeshayahu 55:7), Rav Moshe Kobriner explained that a wicked person should do teshuvah by distancing himself from grievous sins and transgressions. An “ish,” a man — that is, a Tzaddik — should begin his path of teshuvah by working on his thoughts, by taking the inner path to perfection.
The words “return to Hashem” connote a good friend, because only through the help of a good friend who truly loves and cares about you can you truly repent and do teshuvah.
Based on the verse “As for you, you shall repent through G-d” (Hoshea 12:7), Rav Moshe Kobriner taught, “No one is asking the impossible of you. Rather, repent through the G-d within you — find the G-dliness within yourself, and this will help you return to Hashem.”
“Days shall speak,” it says in Iyov (32:7). Rav Moshe Kobriner said that each passing day speaks and demands repentance. As we look at all the days of our life that have passed, it is as if they are saying to us, “See how much time has passed, and still you have not done teshuvah!”
Reb Moshe Kobriner once remarked that whoever can’t bring himself to pour out his soul before his Maker in prayer, even after committing grievous sins, has not yet learned to act like a child returning to his father’s loving embrace even after he’s made a mistake. Such a person therefore has not yet even stepped over the threshold of the path of chassidus (piety).
Teachings of Rebbe Avraham of Slonim
A disciple of Rav Noach of Lechovitch and Rav Moshe of Kobrin and the author of Yesod HaAvodah
Sometimes, when a person does a mitzvah, he does not feel invigorated from it at all. Most probably, his soul feels the light of the mitzvah at its roots, but his coarse, thick physical form, which acts as an obstructive barrier preventing him from this experience, prevents any light from penetrating to his heart and mind.
But when a person repents, he removes all the barriers that divide his soul and body, and then the light and vitality of the mitzvos can reach him.
(Toras Avos, Teshuvah)
Our Sages teach that the sinners of Klal Yisrael are full of regret and full of mitzvos (Eiruvin 19a). “If this is true,” said Rav Avraham of Slonim, “and they are full of regret and full of mitzvos, why are they still called the ‘poshim,’ criminals?”
He answered that this is their problem. They are so full of regret and so full of mitzvos that when they pray and cry tears, they consider themselves true ba’alei teshuvah, when in reality they are so full of themselves that there is no room left for them to improve.
(Toras Avos, Teshuvah)
Rav Avraham of Slonim once asked why the evil inclination allows sinners to be full of regret. Why give them the desire for teshuvah? He answered with a parable:
How do you fatten geese? You starve them first. When they start to eat, they are ravenous and overeat so much that they grow fat.
The same is true of the passion for sin. As the verse in Mishlei (9:17) teaches us, “Stolen waters taste sweeter” — forbidden acts give the person pleasure. The evil inclination fears that if he allows us to sin continuously without any pangs of conscience or regret, we will get so used to sin that it will lose its appeal. So he allows us to pause and regret our misdeeds and realize their sinful nature. This gives us a renewed desire for sin, and we wish to taste its flavor anew. In this way, the evil inclination causes us to pursue the pleasure of sin.
(Toras Avos, Teshuvah)
“Hashem said to me, ‘You are My child. Today I have given birth to you’” (Tehillim 2:7). Hashem said, “How can you merit the title of ‘My child’? When you repent.” Then you will be transformed into a new creation, like an infant newly born.
(Toras Avos, Teshuvah)
Our Sages taught (Kiddushin 49b) that if a woman was betrothed to someone on the condition that he was a Tzaddik and later they discovered that he was actually wicked, this is not grounds to dissolve the betrothal. They are still considered betrothed, because there is the slightest doubt regarding his status: perhaps he had thoughts of sincere repentance when they were betrothed. Many ask how mere thoughts of teshuvah, with no accompanying action, can rectify all of this wicked man’s sins.
Rav Avraham of Slonim explained that the Sages wording is very precise. They said that he must have had thoughts of teshuvah in his “da’as.” Chochmah, wisdom, is seated in the brain and binah, insight, is housed in the heart. Da’as is when chochmah and binah come together — it connects heart and mind, merging them as one. The person’s teshuvah is so genuine that it originates in his da’as and encompasses his entire being. Such teshuvah transforms a person, and he can legitimately be called a tzaddik.
(Toras Avos, Teshuvah)
There is a form of teshuvah that even the angels themselves, let alone the evil inclination, do not recognize. If a person begins to fear that he will fall into despondency and despair because he is feeling bitter, and then he makes an effort to be happy, to recognize Hashem’s kindness and trust in Him, the angels are dumbfounded by this.
They can’t understand a teshuvah that is not accompanied by feelings of lowliness and self- subjugation. Hashem, however, sees into the deepest depths of the heart and recognizes the purpose of the joy: to mask any bitterness he feels that might only lead him to despair. In essence, he has clothed his feelings of subjugation and lowliness in joy so that he will be able to do teshuvah.
(Toras Avos, Teshuvah)
Our Sages taught, “If one did many, many sins, he should do many, many mitzvos to counter them” (Vayikra Rabbah 21:5). Rav Avraham of Slonim added in the name of the Reishis Chochmah that one mitzvah done out of joy is equal to a thousand mitzvos. If we awaken ourselves to study Torah and perform mitzvos in joy, we will merit to have done many, many mitzvos easily.
(Toras Avos, Teshuvah)
The final three letters of the word teshuvah equal the gematria of ahavah, “love” (vav equals 6, beis is 2, and hei is 5, which equals 13). This teaches that the end of teshuvah is the beginning of serving Hashem out of love and joy. Even just a pang of regret felt out of love is more precious to Hashem than teshuvah done out of fear.
(Toras Avos, Teshuvah)
Our Sages taught (Sanhedrin 103a) that when you do teshuvah, Hashem burrows beneath His Throne of Glory to create a secret passage through which the ba’al teshuvah can enter and Hashem can receive him. Rav Avraham of Slonim explained the reason for this:
The angels are perplexed by Hashem’s great love for Bnei Yisrael. They can’t understand why He forgives them even after they have sinned and rebelled against Him.
Since the angels may come to accuse the ba’al teshuvah and prosecute him for his sins, Hashem digs a secret tunnel for him and opens a new opening for him to enter that even the prosecuting angels are unaware of. This prevents them from recognizing the ba’al teshuvah and allows him to return to Hashem without obstacles.
(Toras Avos, Teshuvah)
Reb Yisrael of Shorshov, one of Rav Avraham’s chassidim, came to the Rebbe heartbroken. The disciple poured out his heart’s troubles before his Rebbe, crying that although he spent all of his days repenting, he felt no change for the better.
“Rebbe,” he said, “what should I do? I’m still in the same place today that I was yesterday!”
Rav Avraham answered him with a parable.
There was once a man who was stuck in the mud. Struggling to extricate himself, he lifted his feet and tried to walk toward dry land. But with each agonizing step, his feet only sank back into the mud. Still, he didn’t give up. Although with each step he took, his feet sank back into the mud once more, he knew that each step drew him closer and closer to the dry land, and each step was essential to get him there. It is the same with teshuvah; each step is essential to reach the final goal, even if it seems like you are not getting anywhere.
(Toras Avos, Teshuvah)
A king once prepared a lavish banquet fit for royalty. After all of his ministers and servants had eaten and drunk their fill, there still remained enough leftovers for an entire feast; the king had prepared so much food that it seemed almost limitless.
The entire kingdom was invited to come and partake of the meal, yet still there was a lot of food left over. It was not befitting the king’s honor that so much food go to waste, so they even invited all the prisoners who were sitting in jail, even the criminals who had been disloyal to the king and rebelled against him. All were invited to partake of the king’s feast.
Rav Avraham of Slonim related this parable to illustrate the verse “Forgive my sin, for it is great” (Tehillim 25:11). Your attribute of mercy and kindness is vast and infinite, because just as Hashem is infinite, so is His compassion. I ask of You, please forgive my sin — allow Your limitless compassion to extend even over my “great sin” as well.
(Toras Avos, Teshuvah)
Teachings of Rebbe Moshe Midner of Slonim-Baranowitz
A grandson of the Yesod HaAvodah, a disciple of Rav Chaim Brisker, and mashgiach of Yeshivas Toras Chesed
Someone who fasts but fails to do teshuvah and subjugate his heart and soul to Hashem can be compared to the king’s servant who was dispatched on a mission while mounted on horseback. When he reached a shaded grove and needed to rest a bit, the servant tied the horse up but failed to feed him, while he went off and got drunk and failed to fulfill his mission.
The servant is compared to the soul and the horse the body. A person may have fasted, and did not feed the body, but failed to fulfill his “mission” to repent.
(Toras Avos, Teshuvah)
Teshuvah must be done out of joy and happiness in serving Hashem. This can be illustrated by a parable.
There were once two brother princes who ran away from home and joined a band of roving brigands. But the day came when they had had enough of the criminal life and grew homesick. They returned home and begged their father the king to take them back. But the king kept his distance and indicated that he was not yet ready to accept them home.
The brothers surmised that their father suspected that they had not totally relinquished their wandering ways. Perhaps, worried the king, they will remember the pleasure they found as fugitives and leave me once again, because they no longer delight in the royal life and bask in the king’s court.
What did they do? They consciously opened their hearts to the pure pleasure and joy of living as royalty once again and basking in the king’s presence, until the king saw that they were sincerely happy to be back with him again. He drew them close to him once more, knowing that now that they genuinely felt great joy in their present life and would never wish to run away again.
(Toras Avos, Teshuvah)
A verse in Mishlei (10:12) declares that “love covers up all crimes.” When a person sins and commits crimes against Hashem, he must cover up the stench of his filth. How can he do so?
Only with love can he cover it up, and only then can he return to Hashem.
Rav Moshe Midner compared this to a king who notified his subjects that he was traveling out to the countryside to meet them. Immediately they set about preparing their simple country homes to make them fit for a royal visit, and they began to clean up all the waste and dirt. As each one swept and gathered in the waste, piles of garbage began to accumulate. A foul stench wafted from the piles of garband until it became unbearable.
When the king came, he was struck by the putrid odor. It was too much and he could not stand it, but there was nowhere he could go to avoid it; it was everywhere. One man, out of his love for the king and his desire to host him, covered up the waste he had gathered with pure, clean sand. As he poured the sand over the pile of garbage in his home, the king chanced by. Here, finally, was a place that was neither dirty nor smelly. The king had finally found a place where he could reside during his visit.
The pure, clean sand represents the great love and joy we feel when we do mitzvos. This covers up any negative attributes that a person posesses when he desires to attach himself to the King Hashem. This is the meaning of “Love covers up all crimes,” and in this way a person can come to true teshuvah.
(Toras Avos, Teshuvah)
There was once a prince who acted improperly and was banished from his father’s kingdom. In exile, he took up with a group of lowlifes until he became indistinguishable from them — nothing more than a course ruffian. Still, his roots came from a good source — after all, he was a prince born of noble blood.
The day came when the prince regretted his mistakes, and he decided to escape from the brigands and return to his father. The king welcomed him warmly and drew him close with love and affection. At seeing how his father greeted him, the prince cried bitter tears.
“Why are you crying, my dear son?” asked the king. “Did you not escape from the lowest, most despicable of places, and now you sit here in my royal palace? What is there to be sad about?”
“That is exactly why I am crying,” said the prince. “I never realized how much you love me and how merciful you are. If I had known then what I know now, I would have returned so much sooner!”
(Toras Avos, Teshuvah)
Teachings of Rebbe Simcha Bunim of Peshischa
The primary disciple of the Yid HaKadosh and his successor
Rav Simcha Bunim of Peshischa would say that at first glance teshuvah seems so easy because a fleeting thought of repentance is considered teshuvah by the Torah. But true teshuvah is a process that includes a broken heart and a shattered soul, to the extent that someone who has done teshuvah properly can be compared to someone who fell off a roof and broke all his bones from head to toe.
The Ba’al Shem Tov taught that our thoughts of repentance and feelings of remorse actually originate from a bas kol, heavenly voice, that calls to us daily to repent (see Avos 6:2). Rav Simcha Bunim illustrated this idea with a parable:
A father and son were traveling together in a coach laden with wares they planned to sell at the annual spring fair. They passed through a forest, and the young boy, seeing all the beautiful spring blossoms around, declared, “Father, please allow me to stop here and pick some of these beautiful flowers!”
The father shook his head and said, “No, my son. If you stop to pick the flowers while I continue onward, you may not be able to catch up and you will get lost.”
“Please, Father, I will pick flowers slowly, and as you travel on I will call out to you. As long as you answer me and I hear your voice, I will know your location. Then all I need to do is to travel in the direction of your voice, and I will not lose my way. Once I have picked enough flowers, I can catch up to you and we will travel on together.”
The father agreed, and the son alighted from the wagon to pick flowers while his father continued onward. Soon the father called out to his son, “My son, my son!” But there was no answer! The father put his face in his hands in despair and said, “It would have been fine if you had heard my voice. Then you could follow my voice and it would have been all right! But if you don’t even hear my voice, you have likely lost your way!”
(Siach Sarfei Kodesh, Teshuvah)
Rav Simcha Bunim of Peshischa once observed a certain merchant loading his wares onto a raft to float them on the river’s currents to their destination. Something went wrong, and the entire load sank. The man’s distress at the loss of his merchandise was so great that he broke down and died on the spot! Rav Simcha Bunim declared, “This is how teshuvah is done!”
(Siach Sarfei Kodesh, Teshuvah)
Rav Simcha Bunim once taught that an act of sin itself is not as bad as we think. At the time that the person commits the infraction, he undergoes a very difficult trial and is tested, but he does not have enough willpower to overcome his inclination and prevail. The real grievous sin, the true terrible transgression, is when a person has the opportunity to repent at each and every moment of each and every day and he fails to do so! This sin is much worse than the original infraction.
(Siach Sarfei Kodesh, Teshuvah)
Before he became a Rebbe, Rav Simcha Bunim was a merchant. He was once in the marketplace buying grain. He haggled and bargained with a Polish farmer over the price of the grain, but the farmer stood his ground and only raised the price. “Poprawice,” he told Rav Simcha Bunim — “Do better” in Polish. Although the farmer only meant that he wanted Rav Simcha Bunim to pay him more money, the farmer’s words rang in Rav Simcha Bunim’s ears even after he had returned home that night. Poprowice! Improve! Do Better! The Tzaddik took these words to heart. See, even the farmer is telling you to improve, he said to himself, and he resolved then and there to better himself. “Surely now is the time to do teshuvah!” he declared.
(Siach Sarfei Kodesh, Teshuvah)
When Rav Simcha Bunim was a merchant, before he became a Rebbe, he often engaged some of his fellow Jewish merchants, who had strayed from Yiddishkeit, in a game of chess. He would use this opportunity to sneak in some remark that would help them mend their wayward ways. Once, he was playing chess when he made an illegal move. His opponent complained that the move was against the rules of the game.
Rav Simcha Bunim apologized profusely and begged his opponent’s forgiveness. “I am sorry I made a mistake. Please forgive me this one time and allow me to redo my move.”
His opponent conceded and agreed to allow Rav Simcha Bunim to make a different move since this was the first time he had made such a mistake.
They continued playing until once again Rav Simcha Bunim made an illegal move. Again his opponent caught him and berated him, castigating Rav Simcha Bunim for the illegal move. Once again Rav Simcha Bunim apologized and asked his opponent to forgive his mistake and allow him to redo his move. This time, however, his opponent refused. The first time he was willing to overlook the mistake, but he would not give Rav Simcha Bunim a second chance.
Rav Simcha Bunim now spoke up and said, “See how a person can much such a bad mistake and go so far down the wrong path that now nothing can help him return. If things go too far, he can never go back to correct his mistake and do it right!” The words penetrated the other merchant’s heart. He repented while he still had a chance to “redo his moves” and became a complete ba’al teshuvah.
(Siach Sarfei Kodesh, Teshuvah)
Teachings of Rebbe Menachem Mendel Morgensztern of Kotzk
Better known as the Kotzker Rebbe, one of the primary disciples of Rav Simcha Bunim of Peshischa
Better to be bound and subjugated to Torah study than to fasts, self-affliction, and self- mortification, as the great Kotzker Rebbe taught, “Whoever treads the path of Torah has performed the greatest form of bodily affliction that one could possibly do.” Harnessing yourself to Torah and bearing its yoke on your shoulders, whether by studying it or by diminishing your other pursuits to conform to the Torah’s dictates, is more beneficial than any form of bodily affliction. (Shem MiShmuel, Vayechi)
Teachings of Rebbe Yitzchak Meir Alter
A disciple of the Kotzker Rebbe, the founder of the Gerrer Dynasty, and the author of Chiddushei HaRim
“I am asleep,” says Shir HaShirim, “but my heart is awake” (Shir HaShirim 5:2). We may act like sleepers, sleepwalking through our lives, eating, drinking, and living each day without giving much thought to what truly matters. Nonetheless, each and every one of us has a “kol dodi dofek — the sound of my beloved knocking” (ibid.), a pulse that wakes us up. We are asleep, but not dead because we still have a pulse. That pulsating beat is what gives us life, and it is what gives us the power to move and act.
If you don’t feel this “knocking” awakening you, then connect yourself to all of Klal Yisrael and to the righteous Tzaddikim, by studying from them and emulating their ways — because the Tzaddik is the pulse of our nation. The Tzaddik acts like the pulse of our hearts, because he prays for our welfare and well-being; as the heart keeps the body alive physically, his prayers keep us alive spiritually.
(Siach Sarfei Kodesh, Teshuvah)
Once, before Yom Kippur, the Chiddushei HaRim addressed his chassidim and said to them, “When a person sins and he begins on the path of repentance known as ‘sur meira,’ turning away from evil, sometimes he spends too much time on sur meira — he spends too long going over and over his past misdeeds. He thinks too much and too deeply about the terrible actions he did and how he transgressed.
“Wherever our thoughts are, that is where we find ourselves with all our senses and our entire being. A person who dwells so long on his misdeeds will find it impossible to repent because his heart and his mind has become clogged, and he might, Heaven forbid, become despondent and depressed.
“It does not help to remain stuck in the quagmire of sur meira. You will end up asking yourself, ‘What’s the difference if I sift the mud this way or if I sift the mud that way? It still remains mud!’ What do they gain from such thoughts in Heaven? In the time wasted on such thoughts, one could have been mining for diamonds and precious stones. One could benefit and give back something to the heavens on High!
“Therefore, ‘sur meira,’ turn away quickly from evil — but don’t think about it so much. Instead immediately, ‘aseh tov,’ do good! For ‘if you have done many, many sins, do many, many good deeds instead to counteract them’ (Vayikra Rabbah 21:5).”
Teachings of Rebbe Shalom Rokeach of Belz
Also known as the “Sar Shalom” and a disciple of the Chozeh of Lublin
The Belzer Rebbe once explained that as soon as a person has made up his mind to repent, already sin’s power over him is weakened. Although, he may still have to act upon it, though it is still a mere thought and he has yet to fulfill all the details in the teshuvah process, the mere awakening in his heart to repent makes a great impression even if the sin has not yet been erased.
But there is an explicit Torah command to make a verbal confession, to admit your transgression specifically with speech and not in thought alone (see Bamidbar 5:6–7, according to Rambam, Hilchos Teshuvah 1:1). You need to say, “I have sinned and transgressed,” and not just think it in your mind. After deciding in your mind to do teshuvah, you need to add the verbal confession, and then you have the power to erase the sin completely so that not even a trace of it remains. Before you make the verbal confession, even though the sin has weakened once you have decided to repent and it has become faint, an imprint of it remains until the confession erases it.
“Cleanse me greatly of my iniquities and purify me of my sins” (Tehillim 51:4). Rav Shalom of Belz explained that when a person continuously repents and does teshuvah many times, then his soul is “greatly cleansed,” and the stain of sin is no longer discernible. This is what is meant by “Cleanse me greatly from my iniquities” — if You launder my soul, washing me again and again from my iniquities, then You will have “cleansed me greatly from my sins,” because their stains will no longer be seen.
(Imrei Yosef, Shemini)
In Belz they would say that there are two types of teshuvah. First one must repent over the sins he has done, and then one must repent over the time he wasted sinning that could have been used instead for serving Hashem and elevating himself to the highest heights!
(Sefer HaChassidus Belz)
Teachings of Rebbe Yehoshua Rokeach of Belz
Son of Rav Shalom of Belz and his successor
“In the place where the ba’al teshuvah stands, even the righteous cannot stand” (Berachos 34b). What does it mean to be a “ba’al teshuvah”? It has a similar connotation to “ba’al habayis” — the master of the house. To be master over one’s home is to be called a ba’al habayis. Similarly, a true ba’al teshuvah is someone who has mastered the art of repentance.
(Sefer HaChassidus Belz)
Rav Yehoshua of Belz used to say that it is necessary to do teshuvah twice. When a person first repents, he is so sullied with sin that it is impossible to be happy in such a filthy state. Only after he does teshuvah the first time and cleanses himself and his filth is wiped away can he do teshuvah properly — with a merry heart full of joy.
“It happened that one year,” related the son of Rav Baruch Bennett Levenstein, the Rav of Krasna, “on the Shabbos we read parashas Bechukosai, my father was sitting at the tisch of Rav Yehoshua of Belz. Many chassidim and distinguished rabbis and scholars of Galicia and Hungary were there, such as Rav Moshe Greenwald, the rav of Chust and the author of Arugas HaBosem. The Rebbe had not yet entered the room when suddenly everyone present was seized with an intense feeling of remorse and a great desire to repent.
“My father began to weep copious tears. He was embarrassed to be seen sobbing in public with no apparent reason, but when he looked around, he noticed that everyone else was also crying and sobbing. No one knew where this outpouring of emotion was coming from.
“Suddenly the Rebbe entered the room. He seated himself at the head of the table and began to say words of Torah. He said, ‘Young men, rabbis and scholars, you study Gemara and Shulchan Aruch, formulate chiddushim in Torah and answer questions on the works of the Rambam — yet do you know the words of the Be’er Heitev?’
“He repeated this rhetorical question over and over a few times: ‘Do we know the words of the Be’er Heitev?’ Then, with great emotion, he explained himself: ‘The commentary of the Be’er Heitev (571:1) teaches that all the mitzvos and good deeds that a person does and any Torah he studies while he is still wicked gives power to the shells and husks of impurity known as the klippos — that is, until he repents. Then he can remove it from their grasp.’
“‘Vos zol mein tin? What should we do? If we learn, it will go to the ‘other side,’ Heaven forbid! If we don’t learn, that, too, is no good. The only answer is to repent the sins of our youth. Only then we will be able to study the holy Torah!’
“Everyone present continued to sob, greatly inspired by the Rebbe’s words. Now they understood what had caused them to cry before the Belzer Rebbe had entered and sat down. It must have been at that moment that the Rebbe had been studying the words of the Be’er Heitev himself and reflecting on their meaning. As he himself was filled with pangs of repentance, so were all those close to him moved to do teshuvah even before he entered the room.”
(Kavanas HaLev, Introduction)
Once, a rav asked Rav Yehoshua of Belz, who was just a young boy at that time, why we eat shalosh seudos, the third meal of Shabbos, in the dark (as was the custom then in Belz and many chassidic courts). “It doesn’t make sense,” he told the young lad. “The three meals of Shabbos correspond to the three patriarchs, Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov. Shalosh seudos then corresponds to Yaakov, who was known as the “bechir haAvos,” the most accomplished and complete of the patriarchs. It should be treated as a joyful festive occasion held while it is light.”
“You are mistaken,” answered the young Rav Yehoshua. “Shalosh seudos is a time of great yearning and an auspicious time for teshuvah. When one repents, he cries over his misdeeds. That is why we eat shalosh seudos in the dark — so no one can see the other cry.”
(Sefer HaChassidus Belz)
Teachings of Rebbe Yissachar Dov Rokeach of Belz
Son of Rav Yehoshua of Belz and his successor
Rav Yissacher Dov of Belz used to boast that every Shabbos new guests were welcomed in Belz. One year, when Rosh HaShanah immediately preceded Shabbos, Rav Pinchas of Ostila, the Belzer Rav’s son-in-law, jokingly asked his father-in-law who the new guests for Shabbos were this time. Obviously no one new had arrived between Rosh HaShanah and Shabbos.
“You are mistaken,” answered Rav Yissachar Dov. “Rosh HaShanah has just passed and everyone here has repented. The process of true teshuvah transforms us, and everyone here is a brand- new person. So, as usual, I am right — there are always new guests on Shabbos in Belz!”
(Sefer HaChassidus Belz)
An older chassid once visited Rav Yissachar Dov of Belz and complained that although he had reached a venerable age and felt that Hashem had blessed him in his old age, he lacked just one thing: true regret for his youthful misdeeds.
“If you sincerely regret your sins,” said the Rebbe, “you will merit forgiveness.”
“How do I measure whether I have enough regret that I have attained atonement?”
Rav Yissachar Dov turned to the chassid and answered, “Let me tell you a story. Once, a merchant arrived a few days early to the annual fair in Lepizig to sell his wares. As he set up his wagons full of wares, eager tradesmen came to peruse his merchandise and trade with him. Since he had arrived early, he was the only merchant selling such wares at the fair and he demanded high prices. But the prices were too high, and no one was willing to pay them. Still he stubbornly stuck to his prices, and every day eager buyers passed up his inflated prices with disappointment.
“Meanwhile, the weather turned bad. The winds and rain delayed the other merchants, and our eager merchant grew even more stubborn, believing that he was to be the only one offering his merchandise. He raised his already inflated prices even higher.
“Finally, the weather cleared up, and the next day the sun came out, and with it, many merchants arrived. They were immediately set upon by the eager buyers, and their merchandise was sold quickly at a good price and handsome profit.”
The Rebbe concluded the story and looked intently at the chassid. “Can you imagine the feelings of remorse that the other merchant had as he stood alone, his wagons full of now unwanted unwanted merchandise, while all his customers went elsewhere right in front of his eyes? If your feelings of remorse over your youthful sins and misdeeds equal that merchant’s remorse, then you can be assured of achieving atonement for your sins!”
Teachings of Rebbe Yisrael of Ruzhin
A descendant of the Maggid of Mezritch and founder of the Ruzhiner Dynasty
“As far as east is from west, He distanced our transgressions from us” (Tehillim 103:12). Just as with one movement, one can turn around to face from east to west, taught Rav Yisrael of Ruzhin, so with just one thought of true regret, a person can distance himself from sin and turn away from wickedness toward righteousness.
How can teshuvah save a person from being punished for his sins? What is the connection between the feelings of regret that one has now and his rebellious feelings when he committed those past misdeeds? When he sinned, he rebelled against Hashem. That act still exists; it still happened. Does the fact that he now confessed and regrets his past actions erase what he did?
We can explain this on the basis of the Sages’ statement that “a person sins only if a spirit of folly enters him” (Sotah 3a). This spirit actually causes a person’s very form to transform from a human to an animal when he commits the sinful act. Now, when his heart regrets his actions and he repents, his intellectual understanding of what he did wrong causes him to take on the form of a thinking, rational human being once more.
Teshuvah then is a retransformation back to human form. Now standing here is a person as opposed to the animal that sinned before. Why punish a person for the acts of an animal? If anyone should be punished, it should the animal that committed those sinful acts, but that animal no longer exists.
This is how repentance saves us from punishment, since true regret restores us to our human form.
(Ner Yisrael, Teshuvah)
The holy Apta Rav, the author of Ohev Yisrael, used to cite and explain the mishnah at the end of tractate Yoma, “Whoever says, ‘I will sin now and repent later,’ is held back and prevented from repenting” (Yoma 87a) in a unique way. When he passed away, and his soul was in the heavenly realms, he attempted to use his explanation to benefit the poor souls who languished in the fires of Gehinnom because during their lifetime they had in fact said that they would sin now and repent later.
What was his unique explanation? The Apta Rav explained that the mishnah was meant to be read thus: “Ein mispakin b’yado,” usually translated as “He is held back and prevented from repenting,” should really be read as “There is no safeik, doubt, that the ability to repent is in his hands.” The heavenly tribunal argued against the Tzaddik that since he had departed from the world, he was unable to reinterpret the Torah thus. Observing this heavenly episode at the time was the holy Ruzhiner, who was seated down here below at his holy Shabbos tisch. When the Ruzhiner sensed that the proceedings had turned against the Apta Rav, he himself took upon the mission. He expounded on the mishnah and interpreted it according to the Apta Rav’s understanding.
Now that a living Tzaddik had taught this novel Torah interpretation, there was no choice. The Tzaddik’s decree was fulfilled, and those souls were rectified and achived their tikun.
Teachings of Rebbe Tzvi Elimelech Spira of Dinov
A disciple of the Chozeh of Lublin, rav of Munkacz and later of Dinov, and the author of Bnei Yissaschar
Most people make the mistake of thinking that teshuvah means afflicting yourself with various forms of torture and fasting. This is a complete mistake, because this is not mentioned at all in the Torah. The only thing that is mentioned about teshuvah is “Return to Hashem, your G-d, and hearken to His voice” (Devarim 30:2).
Teshuvah means sincere regret over all the misdeeds you’ve committed until now. You should certainly feel bad that you angered your Creator, who created your soul and spirit. If you are still steeped in any of those sins, disengage from them immediately and resolve that you would never do it again even if you were promised anything in the world if you were to do it.
(Derech Pekudecha, Introduction)
The Bnei Yissaschar teaches that a sinner is called a beast, as it says, “Man…is compared to beasts” (Tehillim 49:13), but when he repents, he transforms himself back into human form. He cites the Chida, who says that someone once dreamed that he was called a beast. When he sought advice about his disturbing dream, he was told that it was because he had sold a copy of the holy Zohar, and the word in Hebrew for “beast,” beheimah, spells the acrostic “Biarti hakodesh min habayis — I have removed all sanctity from my home” (Devash L’Fi 2:6). Similarly, the Bnei Yissaschar continues, a sinner is considered to have removed all sanctity from himself and his home when he sins. Therefore he, too, is called a beheimah — a beast! Once sanctity leaves his body, the “other side” takes over. When he repents, he chases out the “other side” and fills himself with sanctity once again. There is no greater transformational act than this.
Teachings of Rebbe Shlomo HaKohen of Radomsk
Founder of the Radomsker Dynasty and the author of Tiferes Shlomo
Teshuvah is a positive Torah commandment (see Rambam, Hilchos Teshuvah 1:1), and therefore, as with all commandments, it must be performed with joy, as it says, “Serve Hashem with joy” (Tehillim 100:2).
(Tiferes Shlomo, Vayigash)
The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 21:6) associates the word, “v’atah — from now on” with the process of teshuvah. A true penitent must say to himself, “From now on, I will repent, I will do teshuvah and never go back to my mistakes, and from this day forth, Hashem will bless me.”
(Tiferes Shlomo, Vayigash)
A person’s life is like a book. His lifetime is like a chronicle of all the days of his life that is read before the King of kings. Therefore we need to review our days and reflect on how we spent our lifetime — what deeds we were involved in, what we have achieved — making sure that we find no blemish in our actions. If we do find any misdeed, then our time should be spent constructively in doing teshuvah and good deeds.
This is what our Sages meant when they taught that a person may not allow a Torah scroll to remain in his home if it has not checked it for mistakes (Kesubos 19b). On a deeper level, the “sefer” in the Sages’ statement refers to the person’s life. A person must review his own chronicles — his Book of Life — and check to see that there are no mistakes written on the days of his life.
Similary, there is a mitzvah to study the Torah day and night (Rambam, Hilchos Talmud Torah 1:8, based on Yehoshua 1:8). In addition, the halachah says that any mistake found in a sefer Torah, even at the very end of that sefer, can render the entire Torah scroll unfit. So it is regarding one’s life. Each and every day a person must review his life’s chronicles and check them to make sure that he is fit, that it contains no mistakes, for even a mistake that he committed at the end of his life can render his entire lifetime unfit.
(Tiferes Shlomo, Beshalach)
When a person feels remorse over his past misdeeds, his repentance awakens a corresponding act of teshuvah on High. This is because each mitzvah that we do down here below awakens a similar corresponding mitzvah on High (Zohar, Vayikra 31b). For example, our Sages teach (Berachos 6a) that Hashem Himself dons tefillin; and this is true for all the mitzvos, as is known from the sefarim.
This is the deeper meaning of the statement in Avos that “the reward for a mitzvah is a mitzvah” (Avos 4:2). This refers to the mitzvah that is done on High that was a result of a mitzvah done down here below.
So when a person has remorse and repents down here, he awakens a corresponding act of teshuvah on High: Hashem has remorse over having created the evil inclination. This leads to Him giving Klal Yisrael the benefit of the doubt, because when they sinned it was the evil inclination’s fault for tempting them to sin. Now that they have repented, Hashem sees that they did not really want to sin and regrets having created the evil urge.
(Tiferes Shlomo, Ki Sissa)