Dvar Torah for Elul


Based on Likutey MoHaran I, #6

Congratulations! You’ve decided to do tshuvah (repent). You probably want to know what’s involved, what you might expect, if this is as easy and as fun as some might lead you to believe. This week we’ll discuss only a few points, but they are fundamental so make sure to commit them to memory. And you’ll have no choice but to use them, if you really want to do tshuvah.

The first thing to know is that tshuvah doesn’t take place in a day. The decision to repent, to turn your back on sins, the bad habits and bad traits that steer you towards them, can take place in an instant. (See the introduction to The Breslov Haggadah, pp. 13-14, about repenting now!) The tshuvah itself, Rebbe Nachman writes, can take a long, long time. Why?

“One who comes to purify himself is told, ‘Wait’” (Yoma 38b). The Gemara gives the following analogy. Someone enters a perfumery to buy a quantity of his favorite scent. The shopkeeper, who also enjoys that scent, tells him, “Don’t take it yourself. I’ll pour it for you.” So, the customer waits, impatiently, to be waited on, and the shopkeeper, when he finally gets to pour out the perfume into a bottle, gets to enjoy the scent as he does so.

We live our lives and find ourselves wanting to enter a perfumery, to buy something that will improve our souls. This is why the Gemara chooses perfume as the item one wishes to buy, for “What does the neshamah (soul) enjoy that the body does not? A pleasant fragrance” (Berakhot 43b). You, the customer, are impatient. You want to have and enjoy the fragrance you came to purchase. Sometimes the fragrance is prayer, sometimes it is Torah, sometimes it is the self-control to stay away from what is wrong. You’re still waiting for the shopkeeper and you still don’t have what you need!

But the shopkeeper, like any good merchant, is interested in making a sale, having a satisfied customer. He is certain to get around to helping you. But, he also has the good fortune to deal in perfumes, so one of the side benefits is getting to enjoy s-l-o-w-l-y pouring out pleasing aromas to the various customers who enter the store. He wants to savor every moment. You’re still waiting for the shopkeeper and you still don’t have what you need!!

We come to Hashem (God) and we want to buy His “perfumes,” we want to instantly acquire for ourselves some spiritual balm. For example, we decide we want to pray. We want to pray well. But sometimes we don’t have the words—we can’t even read the words!— and other times we don’t have the heart. The frustration grows. One shul isn’t right for us, so we want to try another, but we’re in a one-shul-town. The frustration grows greater still. Where’s the shopkeeper?! When will it be our turn already?! The temptation is great, but don’t leave the store!

What we’ve come to purchase is something precious. It is so precious that God Himself wants to share the process with us. Certainly He could let us take it by ourselves, as He does for those who choose to pursue sin (see Yoma 38b for the other half of the analogy). But what would we lose if we were to succeed without a struggle? We would lose the closeness to Him that comes by asking and pleading with Him for His help. We would lose His participation in building ourselves a Jewishly beautiful life: “Unless Hashem builds the house, its builders labor in vain” (Psalms 127:1). So, we are told, “Wait.”

How long is the wait? Rebbe Nachman writes elsewhere, “Don’t become discouraged when you see that you’ve invested days and days—years!—of hard work to become a better Jew and you’re still so distant, you haven’t even begun to be holy. Even if you are just as drawn to physical pleasure as you ever were, even if your mind is still filled with doubts and thoughts of sin...be happy with any trace of success and don’t let go of it” (Likutey MoHaran II, #48).

Last week we wrote that if one is able to admit a mistake, then one can admit that s/he is guilty of sin. With that one can begin again and again and again. For not only does one have to do tshuvah over a long time, one also has to do tshuvah all the time. Why? Because you don’t really mean it. In Lesson #6 Rebbe Nachman writes: “For who can say, ‘I have cleansed my heart, I am purged of my sin’ (Proverbs 20:9). For [even] as a person says, ‘I have sinned, I have transgressed, I have acted wantonly,’ it is impossible for him to say it with a pure heart, without an ulterior motive.”

Of course, the Rebbe doesn’t mean that every act of repentance or confession is totally insincere and worthless. Rather it is rare that one can do them with an absolutely pure heart. How could he? For an entire lifetime a person has repeated bad habits and bad traits. The good within him that wants to flex its muscles and come to the fore not withstanding, one still has so much to overcome that it’s quite uncommon for a confession to be 100% sincere.

Even when one manages a confession that is absolutely pure and sincere, one needs to continue doing tshuvah. Why? Because he has become a new person, a person whose perceptions of Godliness are greater and more refined than the perceptions he had had pre-confession. Now that one’s perceptions are more refined one realizes that his previous understanding was crude. For having had such a crude understanding and approach to Judaism one must repent.

A story:

Reb Saadya Gaon (882-942 c.e.), the leading sage of his time, once traveled to a distant city. He arrived near the end of the day and went to the local inn. The innkeeper, not recognizing the great sage, served him a simple meal and showed him to an ordinary room. In the morning Reb Saadya went to the synagogue where he was recognized by the rabbi and other community leaders, who naturally gave him the honor due him. The innkeeper, who had also come to pray shacharit (the morning service), saw that his guest was being treated with the utmost deference. He asked why and found out that his guest was the leading sage of the generation.

The innkeeper was beside himself! After the prayers were over he waited till he was able to approach Reb Saadya. “Dear rabbi, please forgive me! If I had known who you were I would have served you a more elaborate meal and given you a more comfortable room.” Reb Saadya told him that he had not been in the least offended and that the innkeeper had done his job adequately.

When Reb Saadya returned home he told his students: “I learned a great lesson from that innkeeper. As well as I kept the mitzvot yesterday, today I realize that Hashem is greater than I had imagined Him to be. Therefore my mitzvot were lacking and I must try harder to improve them in order to honor Hashem properly.”

agutn Shabbos!
Shabbat Shalom!