As Yom Kippur is upon us, Teshuva - our ability to return to God – becomes a timely topic. Hopefully, when we delve into the words of Chazal we will discover some beautiful insights into the profound power of Teshuva.
There is a perplexing Gemara that appears both in the tractates of Nedarim and Pesachim. The Gemara there says that there is a list of several things that were produced before the universe was created. On that list is Teshuva.
Teshuva Kadma L’Olam. Teshuva - the capacity to overcome sin and bridge the gap with Hashem – to improve, develop and grow - was created before the stage of history was set. Let’s offer a few possible understandings to this puzzling comment of the Sages.
Rav Shmuel Tal Shlit’a in his Sefer Tal Chaim explains the following: Universal history is compared to river that flows with its dynamic changes in current and its twists and its turns. If the timeline of reality is compared to a river, then Teshuva - which is created before all of that, exists within the ‘source’ of that river. Any rock that is placed in the source of a river will cause whirls and currents that impact the river’s entire passage. So too, Teshuva’s influences permeates the course of history. Thus a person who engages in Teshuva harmonizes with that flow.
How do we see Teshuva’s influence seep into the very make-up of the world? At nearly every stage of creation we see either in explicit verses, or in the words of Chazal that Hashem carried out a certain creative act, and then decided that it wasn’t good enough. A few examples: The Midrash in Bereishis says that Hashem was “Boreh Olamos U’Machrivam”, He created a series of universes and destroyed them saying, ‘These are not pleasing to Me.’ until He created our universe world and let it remain by saying, ‘This one is pleasing to Me.’
What, God couldn’t get it right the first time?
Another Midrash. “B’Tchila Ala B’Machshava B’Midas HaDin”, HaKadosh Baruch Hu originally designed the world to run with strict, unforgiving principles – but He saw that the world could not be upheld under such standards. So what did He do? “Shiteif Ima Midas HaRachamim” He added Principles of Mercy to the mix.
Are we saying that God didn’t foresee the outcomes of His own decisions? He needed a change of plans?
When God created light the Passuk tells us that He dived between the light and the dark to make the concepts of night and day. Rashi tells us there that God hid away the original light because He saw that the wicked would abuse it.
Why create it and then hide it? Just start with it in its proper place!
There are more examples, but the theme is clear: Hashem intentionally created the world with lacks and imperfections in order to encode into the very fabric of reality a yearning for improvement.
When we do Teshuva, when we seek to improve ourselves, we synchronize our very being with the rhythm of creation.
Not only do we learn from Teshuva Kadma L’Olam that Teshuva is the propelling force of history, but we also learn something about Teshuva itself. Reb Yehoshua Skydel Shlit’a raises a beautiful point: Anything created before the world signifies that the world is meaningless without that thing.
What does this mean in relationship to Teshuva Kadma L’Olam? The answer is possibly this: Hashem created the world with the end goal in mind. And what is the end goal? BaYom HaHu Yihiyeh Hashem Echad U’Shemo Echad - the day where God’s glory will blatantly permeate all things, where the entire universe will openly be in-tune with Hashem’s Ratzon.
We see numerous sources in Chazal that certain select individuals didn’t sin in their lifetimes. We see from the fact that our Sages point out the few specials souls who did not mess up that everyone else does. We are humans, and by nature we are not perfect, therefore we make mistakes.
But now that we do make mistakes, if had no way of fixing them the world would never be able to reach the aforementioned state of flawlessness due to the piled up sins! How could the world ever reach perfection if things could only get worse?
Thus Teshuva needs to be built in as a prerequisite for creation to ever manifest positively. Teshuva Kadma L’Olam.
So now we understand that God preempted the world with Teshuva in order to direct the intrinsic shortcomings of creation towards change for the better, and let it achieve its purpose. But how does Teshuva being created before the world empower me on a practical level to overcome my personal shortcomings?
The great Maharal in his explanation on our Gemara gives the following answer. It’s a matter of simple logic that actions aren’t historically reversible. When I do something, it is done. Cause-and-Effect dictates that my deeds register on the universe in an irrevocable way.
This concept trickles down into my day-to-day. When I do something; anything really, it changes the course of events in my life. Any choice I make is the catalyst to the following set of circumstances that I will find myself in. Thus, when I; God forbid, commit a sin, my whole life moves forward with that sin as part of the background. One aspect of what Teshuva tries to accomplish is to ‘rewind’ my life, to move backwards to the original state of purity that I had before from before I did that Aveira and, as it were, start my life again from that point.
Therefore says the Maharal, every person who engages in Teshuva needs to see himself as he was before the sin was done and tap into that inner purity. ‘I felt so much close to Hashem, so much more whole before I did X.’ For in this realm of reality the sin is done, and unless you can psychologically wind back to before it was done, the association of the Aveira will continue to way you down.
For this reason we say Teshuva Kadma L’Olam - because the fresh start that I undergo has to be an entirely clean slate. And such purity exists before history, before anything in my personal history went wrong. Way back then there was a simple purity. The ability to rectify my life preceded my choice to wreck it.
How often do I find myself totally caught up in the shortcomings of my lifestyle, so absorbed in my mistakes that seemingly, there is no possible way to rise above them. “These are my friends, this is my club, this is my favorite drink, this my favorite movie – These are my Aveiros, and it’s just what I do!”
The physical reality says, ‘You’re right – this is your life, and there is no escaping it.’ Teshuva comes and says, ‘I’m one notch higher that the physical reality. Tap into my power, and anything is possible.
I’m only stuck with my mistakes inasmuch as I’m rooted in this world, but when I choose to rise above this world, when I chose to access a power that precedes the world, then I am empowered to truly be able to leave my mistakes behind and begin to grow again.
“Hashem, I’m so imperfect. I make mistakes on every level of my life. A fair assessment of my day-to-day makes me realize that I’m lacking in every area. Do I pray as well as I can? When I make Brachos, do I mean it? I really treat everyone as with the respect they deserve? I devote enough serious time to Torah study? I really go through with life with an active Emunah? Am I really I doing as well as I can? No, I’m not. But it doesn’t have to be this way. I know how good it feels to be close to you. I remember how whole I felt when I was living in sync with your Ratzon. I know that life was better when I lived with a Torah-focus. Please. I’m begging you, Aba, get me out of this. Help me rise above all of these inadequacies, empowered to overcome my weaknesses. Give me the strength to break free of my Aveiros, because their chains are so constricting. Hashem, I can’t do this by myself.
We’ve analyzed why Hashem made Teshuva first. We’ve seen how that makes it the driving force of history, and we’ve discussed how its primordial nature is the root of its power. Perhaps we can end by quoting the beautiful language of Rav Kook (Oros HaTeshuva,6:2) who encapsulates all of these ideas with sheer elegance:
“Teshuva is constantly engrained in the heart of man. Even during the moment of sin itself, the power Teshuva is contained in his spirit. And through its presence it sends forth its influence, a power only revealed when he comes to call out for Teshuva. In the very depth of reality, in the vivacity of space and time – Teshuva is rooted for it was created before the world. Even before the sin, the ability to overcome has already been prepared. Therefore nothing in this world is guaranteed like Teshuva is, and in the end all things will come under its influence and will be perfected through it, to come close, once again, to the will of the Creator.”
May we all experience the holiest Yom Kippur ever.