The Power of Yom Kippur & Ascending the Spiritual Ladder

Everyone has shortcomings and mistakes that require teshuva, the spiritual repair known as “repentance. The possibility of teshuva was granted to the world as a gift, and comes from profound Divine compassion. The way teshuva actually works is something that defies logic or human comprehension. Teshuva is also counted as one of the constant mitzvot that is incumbent upon everyone. King Solomon says, “For there is not a righteous man upon the earth who does good and does not sin.” (Eccles. 7:20)

Let’s say that a person completely breaks something belonging to another. According to halacha, in most cases, a replacement would need to be purchased, since the original is irreparable and lost. This is not the case with teshuva, which involves the ability to fix the actual thing broken in the first place.
According to the gemara, if one’s teshuva is based on fear of sin, then the deed is considered unintentional. However, if one does teshuva and returns out of love, the misdeed itself is transformed into merit, and actually counted as a mitzvah. How is this possible?

The possibility of such a transformation comes from HaShem’s compassion on the world. Our sages identify the great potency of teshuva as coming from the fact that it preceded the creation of the world, when everything was good and perfect. If it would have come into existence after creation, it would have been irrelevant, since when something is broken beyond repair, that should be it. Yet, regarding the damage caused by our actions, HaShem preceded the illness with the cure. He created a world dependent upon teshuva, since there is “not a righteous man upon the earth who does good and does not sin.” In order for the world to function, teshuva needed to predate creation so that the moment a person damages or destroys something, a remedy is already waiting.

TESHUVA AND YOM KIPPUR
There is also one day of the year when HaShem repairs the past and purifies us, erasing all that is undesirable. The essence of the day itself atones not only for many intentional sins, but even for certain things done by someone who is completely unaware it is Yom Kippur and does not observe the day!
Yet, according to Rebbe Nachman, teshuva is ongoing. It is usually understood that when you know you did something wrong, as long as you take upon yourself not to repeat it, the issue is considered closed. However, Rebbe Nachman explains that teshuva is not a one-time event. An even higher level of teshuva is required, despite the fact we already did teshuva on a particular action. We need to return to it again and repent on yet another level.

On Yom Kippur, there is a special mitzvah to confess, and there are ten different times we confess wrongdoing in the order of the day’s prayers. According to Jewish law, we not only verbally confess transgressions of the current year, but from the previous year as well, despite the fact that we already repented last year on Yom Kippur. This Yom Kippur there is still a mitzvah to do teshuva again by confessing anew everything that happened in the past.

Why do we have to dig up the past and confess all over again, particularly when we already did teshuva for it? Rebbe Nachman explains that when you verbally admit, “I sinned, I transgressed,” etc., it is very difficult to say these words with a completely pure heart. In other words, teshuva must be done on our first teshuva, when our hearts were less pure.

This is alluded to in the verse, “They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me.” (Isa. 29:13) When you admit your wrongdoing and take upon yourself to be better, you become worthy of kavod HaShem, [a level where you are encompassed in the honor of HaShem]. Kavod HaShem is attained through nullifying your ego and being concerned solely for the honor of heaven. When teshuva is done from this place, honor is “restored” to HaShem.

Still, the rest of the verse says, “…their hearts are far from Me.” Even when you already did teshuva, repentance is still necessary for your previous teshuva, since it was done only according to your understanding of HaShem’s greatness at the time. When you ascend to a higher level afterwards, your mind becomes more purified, and you comprehend HaShem’s greatness at a completely different level. Even if you initially understood that HaShem is extremely great, your conception was still limited, since if you had understood at a higher level, you wouldn’t have transgressed in the first place. Relative to your current more spiritual level, your previous understanding is now considered “physical” because it limited the greatness of HaShem in your heart and mind.

To illustrate, say an ordinary person is sitting in synagogue and someone passes by and unintentionally trips over him. The one who tripped immediately says, “I’m so sorry! It was an accident!” Contrast this with another scenario. Instead of an ordinary person, this time he accidentally trips over an important person so forcefully that that person falls off his chair. Now, a completely different level of apology is needed, since not only is it a more distinguished person, but the force of the blow is much stronger than in the previous example.

This is similar to our situation with HaShem. To the extent we realize His greatness, we understand that every transgression has a much deeper impact than initially thought. Likewise with our example, the level of requesting forgiveness is much different between the insult of an ordinary person, or someone who is greater. Likewise, the more you understand the greatness of HaShem, the more you understand how even a seemingly small thing is an insult to His honor. The request for pardon must be commensurate with our current level of understanding. As we progressively raise ourselves up, we will experience an increased understanding of the enormity of our misdeeds. They now will require a new teshuva, demanding more of our heart and mind.

Teshuva becomes even more subtle the higher you ascend spiritually, since it will begin to involve the thought process itself. A level can be reached where the teshuva is not so much on the transgression anymore, as our actual thought and misconception that HaShem is limited in some way. We may intellectually understand the idea that HaShem’s greatness is unlimited, but our hearts are not yet sufficiently purified to feel it. We may say the words by rote, as described in the verse, “With their lips they honor Me,” but our heart doesn’t comprehend the true meaning of G-d’s limitless nature, thus, “…they are far from Me.” To the extent we are unable to understand the infinity of the Divine, we are in effect placing a limitation on the honor of HaShem in our hearts and minds. This is what requires teshuva. For this reason, according to Rebbe Nachman, in order to progress step by step up the spiritual ladder, one must constantly hold onto the attribute of teshuva.

SHABBAT AND TESHUVA
The entire dynamic of teshuva is intrinsically connected to the world to come, when it will be completely Shabbat—all teshuva. The connection between Shabbat and teshuva is alluded to in the verse, “…and you shall return to the Lord your G-d…” (Deut. 30:2) “You shall return” is v’shavta, the same Hebrew letters as the word, “Shabbat.” When will this return happen? It will occur in olam haba, the world to come, when it will be only Shabbat. Olam haba is defined as a progressive attainment of knowledge of HaShem, where each of us will perceive HaShem at our own level. And then, every time you come to a greater level of understanding, teshuva will be required on your previously more limited understanding. The nature of olam haba is the continual attainment of a greater understanding of HaShem. We will then fulfill the verse, “…and you shall return to the Lord your G-d.” Shabbat and teshuva will be one.

The profound connection between Shabbat and teshuva is quite relevant today. We rest on Shabbat, but what is our true purpose on this holy day? Any thoughts of our own wrongdoing must be brought to a state of rest so there will not be even a hint of improper deed or a damaged world on Shabbat. However, while Shabbat is a time of teshuva, it is not a time of confession. It is a time for spiritual ascent and elevation. So how is teshuva done without confessing? On Shabbat, teshuva is based on understanding rather than confession; it is accomplished when you come to a higher understanding of the greatness of HaShem and then do teshuva on your previous understanding. This is what will define our olam haba, but we can also attain this now on Shabbat. Such is the power of Shabbat, and this opportunity recurs every seven days.

TESHUVA AND HAPPINESS
Generally, when a person senses the seriousness of their situation after doing something wrong, teshuva is done with a broken heart. But there is another aspect to teshuva not commonly discussed. We witness on Yom Kippur how some people appear sad and may even weep in their efforts to do teshuva. They find it difficult to greet others during the course of the day, since they think it will detract from the seriousness of the holy day. However, truthfully, Yom Kippur should be the happiest day of the year, since it is a day of total forgiveness. We confess, and HaShem forgives and erases all of our undesirable deeds. We can dance from joy the entire day that such a thing is occurring. This positive attitude should also be conveyed at home to our families every year. Who needs to eat on such a day? We are like people in olam haba who have no need to eat or drink. This joyful attitude has practical relevance as to how to experience Shabbat as well, since teshuva and Shabbat are deeply connected.

RUNNING & RETURNING
Rebbe Nachman gives further definition to teshuva. When you want to embark on the path of teshuva, you need to be expert in the “going.” Two types of expertise are needed here: One in the running (ratzo) and one in the return (shov). This concept is alluded to in the vision of the prophet Ezekiel [1:14] where he describes how the angels were “running and returning,” as they served and praised HaShem.

The same concept applies to us. In the evening prayer, we say the blessing of hashkiveinu, where we ask, “…and remove the satan from before us and from behind us.” Sometimes when you begin something new in your quest for holiness, you experience such great enthusiasm together with expectations far beyond your actual capabilities. This is merely another strategy of the yetzer hara to set you up for a big fall when you don’t meet your unrealistic expectations. This is what is referred to in the verse, “Remove the satan from before us and from after us.” “Before us”—before we charge ahead to accomplish our goal. “Behind us”—afterwards when we fail to meet our expectations, and everything comes tumbling down where we are unable to do the things even within our power. A person needs tremendous Divine compassion at this point.

Failure to achieve a desired result after unrealistic expectations (or even realistic ones), should be your signal to guard yourself against becoming weak or falling. When you start something with good intentions and desires, be happy with whatever you accomplish; don’t fall into frustration or despair. It helps to know this in advance, when you are “running.” Then afterwards, during the return, you will be able to protect yourself from falling into a low place, and you’ll be able to renew your strength once again. If it didn’t go this time, so try again with more realistic expectations.

KING DAVID ON RUNNING & RETURNING
There is yet another aspect to the concept of “running and returning.” Rebbe Nachman explains that it is a zechut when you are able to both enter and exit an endeavor in the right way. King David describes running and returning in the verse, “If I ascend to the heavens, You are there; if I go down to the depths, You are there.” (Psa. 139:8)

The first section of the verse refers to when you undergo a spiritual ascent and feel as if you were in heaven, close to HaShem. This can happen after teshuva or when you see how much HaShem helped you beyond your wildest expectations. Yet King David sharpens the idea further as if to say, “Listen well, if you go to heaven, You are there.” There meaning not here. In other words, HaShem is still far from you. You need to come yet closer to HaShem, since He is “over there,” far away, so don’t bask in the feeling that you have already arrived at the ultimate level. Even if you ascend to heaven, know that it is still far from you. Strengthen yourself and your good aspirations to strive even higher, since you haven’t yet “made it.” There is still much more work ahead to come closer to HaShem.

The second part of the verse refers to when you experience a fall so great that you feel as though you’ve fallen into a pit—into sheol—a place much deeper in the earth from where people normally walk. You can become saddened even without a specific reason. The yetzer hara works overtime to give you a feeling of worthlessness. He can convince you that you’ve completely fallen into the lowest of depths, with no ability to pick yourself up. King David writes that this is where HaShem says, “Here I am. I am here in the deepest pit together with you. Let’s ascend together.”

You can say, “Ribono shel Olam! I made a mistake, but You are here with me wherever I have fallen. I want to raise myself up.” HaShem will immediately give you the strength to ascend. You can feel HaShem in this way, and derive strength to get up again. This is the way of teshuva.

Don’t let the temptations of the yetzer hara drag you into feelings of worthlessness and despair. The yetzer hara will give you a good feeling at first, only to trip you up later by making you feel like nothing, draining you of the strength to stand up. Rampant thoughts fill your mind: “You really messed up this time. Don’t you know yourself already? You’ll never change, so who do you think you are to try to get up again…” Don’t become overly emotional or despair out of proportion, since if despair doesn’t exist, according to Rebbe Nachman, then it doesn’t exist regarding any fall or failure.

Now it can be understood why expertise in “running and returning” is needed. Progress must be made step by step. While you are running and ascending, appeal for Divine compassion that you shouldn’t fall, but if you do, that you have the strength to get up immediately again and again. This is the wondrous expertise that Rebbe Nachman is teaching us.

The secret of teshuva was created before the creation of the world out of Divine compassion. Because of this, we have the ability to strive continually to come closer to HaShem. Know that HaShem is always waiting for our teshuva.

Hashem should help each of us to return in teshuva shleima. We should merit to feel Hashem’s closeness throughout the entire year, and draw all good influences upon ourselves, the Jewish people, and the entire world. For this will be how we will bring the complete redemption and the beit hamikdash very soon, in our days. Amen. ♦


Translated and adapted from a talk given from Tsfat to a group in Sydney, Australia. Lesson based on Likutey Moharan 6.

He [Rabbi Akiva] used to say,“Everything is given on pledge and a net is spread out over all the living. The shop is open, the merchant extends credit, the ledger is open and the hand records therein. All who wish to borrow may come and borrow. But the collectors make their regular daily rounds and take payment from a person with or without their knowledge…” Pirkey Avot 3:16

A person usually goes about their daily life thinking that whatever they do is basically okay. Even if this is not the case, they figure if no one knows, then it’s not the end of the world; they’ll just fix it afterwards. They may even realize that God knows about their indiscretions, but since the person considers them to be only temporary, everything will somehow straighten out in the end. These are the type of thoughts that Rabbi Akiva is addressing in his statement in Pirkey Avot. He reminds us that whatever we take from this world must be left behind when we leave; nothing can be taken with us when we die.

PAYING BACK WHAT YOU EAT

One way to understand this is found in the book “Chesed L’Avraham,” written by the grandfather of the Chida, Rabbi Chaim David Azulai, a”h. He writes that when a person dies, the chevra kadisha comes to attend to the body before the levaya, or funeral. They cover the body in the place where it was when the soul departed, and everyone returns home. The deceased remains alone with himself. When the body is put into the grave, if the person enjoyed a lot from this world, the first thing that happens is that the worms come to demand their portion. In other words, they must now return whatever they took from this world, whatever they ate simply to fill their stomach. Yet if they ate only in holiness and purity, i.e., only kosher food and only in quantities necessary to sustain a healthy and strong body to serve God, then there is nothing to take back. This is one understanding of “they take payment”.

WITH OR WITHOUT HIS KNOWLEDGE

Since there are specific times during the year conducive to repentance and forgiveness, a person may think that everything automatically works out. For example, there is the month of Elul, [the Hebrew month set aside for teshuva, intensive introspection and repentance] which is followed by Rosh HaShanah and the atonement of Yom Kippur. But the reality is that God is not obligated to wait until these specific times and can send messengers to collect what is due at any point. Sometimes, one may even be aware of their situation and upon a little soul searching, may even realize they might need to go through something unpleasant. But usually, this level of self-awareness is rare and one has no realization that anything is amiss or in need of change. But God operates in His ways. It is here the idea “with or without his knowledge” comes into play.

YOU ARE YOUR OWN JUDGE

Rebbe Nachman transmits the following idea in the name of the holy Baal Shem Tov. Before any decree is issued in the world, God forbid, the entire world is assembled to give their agreement. In this instance, the “entire world” encompasses the inanimate, plant, animal, and human levels. They are all notified and asked if there is any opposition to the decree. This even includes the person who has the negative decree hanging over them. When everyone reaches agreement, the judgment is passed.

Who in the world would agree to a negative decree against oneself? Obviously, if you were to ask the person directly, they would defend themselves and oppose the judgment. For this reason, a similar situation is presented to them, and their opinion is asked without realizing it has anything to do with their own case. Someone will ask them, “What do you think about what so-and-so did?” They respond, “Whoo whoo, they deserve this or that…” In heaven they say, “Is that right? You just passed judgment on yourself…” The case is closed and the person doesn’t comprehend what just transpired. According to Rebbe Nachman, this is an example of “taking payment with or without his knowledge”.

The whole concept of how a person is asked each time about their own judgment is profoundly deep. Each word of every story we hear has lofty and exalted significance. For example, we may hear a story about two people involved in an argument that has nothing to do with us. In the rare case it does, we need to be even more careful. But most of the time, it is simply a seemingly random story where everyone takes the liberty of jumping into the fray, taking a stand on who is right or wrong, and who deserves what. The very words a person utters are then taken and applied to his own case and he will be compelled to bring his own words to fruition. This is why Rebbe Nachman advises us to be very careful about what we say. Don’t let an inadvertent word slip out in the wrong way or pass judgment on another’s behavior. If you do, you are agreeing to your own verdict, since no judgment can materialize without your agreement.

CONTROLLING YOUR THOUGHTS

King David says, Zamoti bal ya’avar pi. “My thoughts dare not pass through my mouth.” (Psalms 17:3) There are two important ways to understand this verse. Firstly, the word zamoti is related to the Hebrew word for “muzzle”—z’mam. King David alludes to this as if to say, “God! Since I don’t weigh my words seriously enough, put a muzzle on my mouth to prevent me from saying anything irresponsible or improper.”

The second explanation of how to understand this verse concerns controlling our thoughts. Sometimes a person blurts out an empty phrase, without even knowing why they said it. But the reality is that there are custodial forces appointed over a person from heaven; sometimes they are good and sometimes not. They seize upon these same words and turn them around on the one who uttered them. These ramifications ought give each of us serious pause for thought.

It is not necessary to express every thought that comes to mind. Thus King David refers here to the need for an even deeper level of restraint. He would like God to place a muzzle on his mouth to stop him from verbalizing anything that enters his head. Since according to Rebbe Nachman, it is through these very words that they “take the payment from a person with or without his knowledge”.

We witness how people suffer from a bundle of woes that they carry, whether external problems or personal health issues, God forbid. Yet the reality is that they agreed and signed off on everything. Without their agreement, these difficulties could not have materialized. One may say, “I never agreed to such a thing!” The recording is then played back for them and they are asked, “You don’t remember what you said in such and such year when someone told you a certain story? Was it any of your business to comment? You gave your commentary anyway and here are the consequences.” God should save us from ourselves!

This spiritual dynamic accompanies us every single day, hour by hour. It is written, “Whoever sits in the refuge of the Most High…” (Psalms 91). The Talmud calls this particular chapter of Psalms “a song against evil forces,” since it is recited by those who want to be saved from misfortune and accidents. For instance, when mourners attend a funeral, they recite these verses since they possess tremendous protective power against negative spiritual forces seeking to harm a person. It is further written, “His angels He will charge for you, to protect you on all your paths.” This refers to the fact that there are angels who constantly accompany a person to safeguard him from harm. According to our sages, these protective angels are more accurately called the yetzer tov and the yetzer hara, the good inclination and the evil inclination. In contrast to what most people think, they are both responsible for protecting a person from disaster, since the fundamental role of the yetzer hara is to serve a person. However, if one comes too close and is drawn after him, the yetzer hara is no longer obligated to fulfill his protective duty. One then becomes enslaved to him, and the yetzer hara does whatever he wants with the person.

FORCES CREATED FROM OUR OWN ACTIONS

Along with the yetzer tov and yetzer hara, come all sorts of other forces, God forbid, which are created when a person stumbles, for example, in eating non-kosher food or is involved with any kind of negative thoughts, speech, or actions. In this case, damaging forces are created in the world that are bound to the person who created them. These forces are called mezekei alma, “destroyers of the world.” Their whole purpose is to cause damage and they don’t even realize this is their role.

To illustrate, it is like a child who plays with matches because he thinks it is fun. An adult comes along and admonishes him, but when he sees that the child doesn’t understand, he takes the matches away by force. This is because the adult understands very well that the child is doing something dangerous. The child though, doesn’t comprehend this fact. He screams and cries, “Why did you take them away from me?!” Likewise, these “destroyers of the world,” don’t even understand they are destructive. Their actions are not intentional, but since they were created from damage, this is their fundamental essence.

It is these forces that accompany us wherever we go. They catch our every word in an attempt to interpret it according to their crooked way of thinking, because after all, they are a creation based on crookedness and damage. Since they are an undesirable creation, everything about them is undesirable. They even have the ability to compel a person to undergo judgments from the upper worlds. They facilitate a person’s undoing to such an extent that life is endangered, and the individual has no idea what is actually going on.

We don’t know. We don’t actually see these forces or perceive them with our senses, but what do we know? We know that there are tzaddikim on the highest of spiritual levels, who know about these matters with such clarity, that they simply advise us to have compassion on ourselves and acknowledge we don’t know what goes on around us on a spiritual plane. For this reason, they caution us to guard ourselves from undesirable speech, thoughts, or deeds since they bring detrimental consequences.

One may take note of the many criminals at large in the world, who say and do terrible things, but seem to have it good without any suffering. So where do these ideas fit in? The answer is that something much worse is actually going on for them. The criminal doesn’t pay for his actions in this world. It simply waits for him in the next world, where everything comes back to him in a much more penetrating way. This is what the Talmud refers to when it states, “Afflictions atone for a person.” Whatever difficulties one goes through in this world serve as a huge atonement for him. It is preferable and worthwhile to undergo it here, since in the next world, one contends with not only afflictions, but humiliation along with much more unpleasantness.

The only advice is to say to oneself, “Stop.” Just as we need to be careful about what we put in our mouth, i.e., kosher and healthy food, likewise we must be careful about what comes out of it by guarding our speech. The same caution applies to our actions. We should do nothing that the Torah or our sages forbid. Similarly with thought; we shouldn’t think that just because our thoughts are only between us and God, they can be easily fixed. It doesn’t exactly work like this, since many holy books describe the power of thought as greater than the power of deed. It is possible to do teshuva or repair an action, but it is much more difficult to do the same with a thought. You can nullify or gain control over an action, but once you think it, a thought is out of your control and possession.

Thus Rebbe Nachman’s advice to everyone is to weigh our deeds in a way that will be truly positive in this world and the next, and to live good and thoughtful lives, with proper consideration for our every thought, word, and action. Since there will be no one to pass a bad judgment, every negative decree will be opposed.

Remember that you are never asked directly about your own situation, rather only about someone else’s story. Thus, don’t rush to pass judgment either verbally or even in your thoughts as to who is right or wrong. Unless it concerns you directly and practically, just leave it without comment. You will feel profoundly satisfied, and it will be so very beneficial not only to you but to the entire Jewish people.

May God enlighten us with higher levels of self-awareness to improve our lives, as well as the entire world, every day and every moment.

Translated and adapted from a talk given to Sydney, Australia from Tsfat.