This Shabbos we read Parshas Vayalech. It is also known as the special Shabbos of the year called Shabbos Shuva. On this Shabbos Jews around the world focus on the concept of Teshuva, of repentance, We would like to share a short, beautiful thought about repentance.
In last weeks Parsha, Parshas Netzavim, Moses tells us a message from Hashem. “For this mitzvah, this commandment, that I am telling you today is not far from you. It is not in the heavens that you could say, “who will climb the heavens and take it for us and teach it to us so that we will do it”; Nor is it across the ocean that you could say “who will cross over the ocean for us to take it for us and teach it to us so that we will do it”. For it is very close to you; it is in your mouth and your heart to do it.” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14).
Which commandment is the Torah telling us is so close to us that we should be able to do it? Nachmanidies along with many other commentaries tell us that the Torah here refers to the commandment to do Teshuva, to do repentance, that Moses had spoken to the Jews about earlier. Moses is now telling them that to do Teshuva, to repent, is very easy. It does not require complicated, expensive and hard trips. It is so close to us that we need no effort to find it at all. It is already in our mouth and heart.
The obvious problem is, if it is so easy to repent, why doesn’t everyone do so? Why do we ourselves have such a hard time doing repentance?
I recently heard a beautiful thought from Rabbi Zev Leff. He told of a friend of his who for twenty years kept on saying that he would go on a diet, but never managed to do so successfully. Finally, one year, his doctor told him that if he didn’t lose twenty pounds within three months, his life would be in danger. Within three months he managed to lose twenty pounds. What changed? As long as he didn’t think he really had to lose the weight, it was just a good idea, he failed to do so. As soon as he realized that he had to do so, that it wasn’t extra credit, he immediately succeeded in doing so.
This Rabbi Leff explained, is what the Torah is telling us. Don’t think that repenting is such an impossible, overwhelming task. It is simply a question of perspective; if we see it as a luxury, as “extra credit”, then it is almost impossible to do it. However, if we realize that it is a necessity, that we must reconnect with Hashem, then it is as close to us as our heart and our mouth.
One final important addition. Often people think that the main focus of repentance is the commandments that are the most hard for us. While of course repentance applies to all commandments, Rabbi Yisroel Salanter teaches us that the most important thing to focus on are shortcomings we have in those commandments that are easy to do. There, he explains, the sin is much greater when we don’t fulfill them. Therefore, as we search our hearts for ways to improve for Yom Kippur, we must first find those commandments that we know we really could do without much effort, and first focus on them.