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Ten Days of Repentance (5764)

This Shabbat is called Shabbat Tshuva (repentance) because it falls in the 'Ten Days of Repentance': the two days of Rosh HaShanna, one day of Yom HaKippurim and the seven days in between them. On this Shabbat we also read the final warning of Moses to the Jews, which is strangely called a 'Song' (31:19, 22, 30).

At first glance all this is not understood.

How can there be special days of 'repentance'? What about the people that didn't sin, what are they supposed to do in these days? And aren't the two days of Rosh HaShanna sufficient for those that did sin? Why eight more?

Even more; one of those days is the "Day of Atonement" which AUTOMATICALLY brings forgiveness. If so why do we need the previous nine days?

And finally what has this got to do with the reproof of Haazinu and why is it called a 'song'?

To understand all this here are two Baal Shem Tov stories:

Rabbi Michel of Zlatachov was a great and learned Rabbi who was fluent in not only the Talmud and all it's commentaries but also with all the esoteric teachings as well. People would come from far and near to ask his advice or opinion on every conceivable matter and they were never disappointed.

It so happened that once one of the citizens of Zlatachov came to him to confess a sin. He had set out on a short journey early one Friday morning with plenty of time to make it to his destination before Shabbat. But the wagon broke down several times and before he knew it he was still in the thick of the forest far from his goal and it was getting dark.

At first he considered just spending the Holy day in the woods (after all it is forbidden by the Torah to drive the wagon on Shabbat) but when it got dark and the wolves and freezing wind began to howl he changed his mind. He decided that his life was in danger and urged the horses as fast as possible despite the Shabbat. Now he was weeping, awaiting Rav Michel's verdict.

As he expected Rav Michel explained to him the seriousness of the crime, prescribed a series of severe fasts and mortifications according to various books of Kaballa and bade him farewell.

But a few days later this fellow heard that the teacher of Rav Michel; the Baal Shem Tov (Besh't for short) was visiting a nearby town and he went to see him as well.

He pleaded with the Besh't for an easier 'repentance'; he simply wasn't strong enough to follow Rab Michel's demanding prescription.

The Besh't heard him out and saw that the man's heart was really broken and his body truly frail.

"Good, instead of all those fasts you must supply the candles each Shabbat for your local synagogue until I tell you to stop."

When the word got back to Rabbi Michel that the Besh't had negated his decision he felt awful. Perhaps he had made a mistake? But where? He checked and rechecked all his sources and it was just as he said. He couldn't understand the Besht's decision and that made him feel all the worse. Could the great master be wrong? No! that was impossible!

But the Baal Shem, although twenty miles away, sensed Rabbi Michel's confusion and to console him he sent him a special messenger to invite him to be his guest for the Shabbat; truly a rare sign of affection from the master!

Rav Michel began his morning prayers at the crack of dawn and set off early Friday morning but something went wrong. The wagon driver somehow got hopelessly lost and wandered aimlessly for hours until …. Sunset.

Without hesitation the Rabbi got off the carriage and began walking in the dark as fast as possible to the town of the Baal Shem that could be seen miles away, despite the Shabbat.

When he entered the house the Besh't was just about to make Kiddush but when he saw Rav Michel distraught, dusty and exhausted from his tribulation he put down his Kiddush cup and said "A person like you that never did a sin in his life can never know the pain and broken heart of a Jew who he realizes he has done a sin. In fact, that very broken heart is what erases the sin. From now on you'll know how to correct someone that transgresses the Holy Shabbat."

This explains one reason why even the completely righteous have to do Tshuva; in order to come to love their fellow man.

Here is the second story.

The custom was in those days some three hundred years ago that great Torah orators would travel from city to city and speak to the Jews. This often was a major event causing all of the Jews in town to pack into the local synagogue to listen. In general these orators would spellbind the crowds with emotion-packed interpretations of Biblical passages. But most often, especially before the 'High Holidays' of Rosh HaShanna and Yom HaKippur the speeches would often spill over into frightening detailed descriptions of Hell and purgatory that await sinners.

Tonight was such a night. The well lit synagogue was packed and all eyes were glued on the Rabbi standing high on the stage. He had them all but hypnotized with his clear speech. But he was speaking differently than he planned.

Instead of building up the tension and chastising them for their evil ways he found himself expounding another idea. How wonderful it is to learn Torah and how the Torah enables us to feel the holiness of Shabbat. The Shabbat, in turn, brings one to feel the Joy of the Holidays, and the highest of the Holidays is Rosh HaShanna which is only a preparation for Yom Kippur. And Yom Kippur is the gateway to repentance.

Each idea he explained and developed with brilliant stories and explanations until it was obvious that he had brought the crowd to a higher level. Many began to weep in joy, others in contrition.

When he finished the people dried their eyes, shook his hand and filed out of the synagogue and as soon as he was alone he went to the bookshelf, took out a Talmud and sat down to learn. But he hadn't noticed that that one Jew remained behind until he heard a joyous tune from behind him.

When the song finished, the Rabbi turned around and said 'Shalom Alechem'. The man introduced himself as the Rabbi Yisroel Baal Shem and began another happy song.

'Why are you so happy? What is the cause of the celebration?" The Rabbi asked.

"I'm happy because you just brought a lot of people to do Tshuva!" Was the reply.

"Yes, I suppose you are right" he answered. I suppose that is a reason to be happy."

"So let us dance!" said the Besh't as he began his lively song again.

The Rabbi stood and each took the other's hand and began to dance, around and around, faster and faster until they were completely out of breath. They shook hands warmly and the Besh't departed.

[Incidentally that Rabbi, whose name was Rabbi Katzenelboigen, later became a famous Rabbi in Brisk and this episode so impressed him that he refused to sign on the excommunication that his fellow Mitnagdim later issued against the Chassidim.]

The next afternoon the Baal Shem Tov again appeared in the Synagogue but this time there were only ten Talmudic Scholars there; Jews who sat the entire day, every day, and learned Gemora.

Again he stood behind them, as he did to the Rabbi the previous night, but this time he didn't sing… he wept.

"What are you crying for?" They eventually turned around and asked him.

"I'm crying for you." He answered. "Why weren't you here last night to hear the speaker?"

That caught them by surprise. They avoided the speaker because of their haughtiness; they couldn't bear to hear unflattering words. They began squirming in their seats.

"I'll tell you why" he continued…"because you are a bunch of egotists, that's why! You spend all your time learning the Holy Torah and it only inflates you. You learn Torah but forget about the Giver of the Torah! And that is what I'm crying about."

His holy words hit the bulls-eye. At once their eyes filled with tears and they began to weep brokenheartedly. Suddenly all they wanted to know was how to correct their coarse souls. Two of them even became his devoted followers.

This story shows three other facets of 'tshuva'.

'Tshuva' brought the simple, humble people in the Synagogue to learn more Torah. It brought the Torah Scholars to become more simple and humble. And it caused the Orator to add joy into his Judaism.

This is also the message of Haazinu; although it is a reproof it also contains the opposite…. Song.

Like the Besht's definition of Tshuva that today is saving Judaism. Tshuva means not only reproof but the opposite: to 'return' to the source of the soul (like the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur) and renew all its ten facets (see the third chapter of the Tanya for details). Then wisdom, understanding, joy, humility, love, fear will all be increased at once like a joyous song. Therefore we need TEN days of Tshuva.

And this is the ONLY way to fulfill what the Lubavitcher Rebbe said so often: 'We need only open our eyes and see Moshiach NOW!

Copyright © 1999-2018 Rabbi Tuvia Bolton. All rights reserved. No unauthorized reproduction or copying of this material shall occur without prior permission.

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