Teshuva can be so frustrating. So many of us put in so much effort to do better and be better during the Aseret Ymei Teshuva, and yet many of us emerge from this time period wondering if we have even been successful in this teshuva process. In fact, how do we assess if we have been successful? If we make a resolution not to scream at our spouse anymore and we don’t scream at our spouse for the next year? For two months? For two weeks? Unfortunately, many of us find ourselves repeating the same sins year after year even after having expressed remorse and regret for committing these sins during this time year after year. So does that mean that our teshuva process was a failure? How do we know if our teshuva was a success?
In an essay entitled, “Mediocre Teshuva and the Teshuva of the Mediocre,” Rav Aharon Lichtenstein wrote that if “we try our best with our own talents and our own intellectual and moral powers, but we nevertheless fall short because of our confined ability, our constricted horizons or inimical circumstances, our teshuva is wholly acceptable. ‘It is the same whether one offers much or little’; there is a regard for effort as opposed to results, not only in the realm of Torah study or sacrificial offerings, but in the realm of teshuva as well.” According to Rav Lichtenstein, the effort to repent must be extraordinary even if the result is not.
Perhaps when it comes to repentance specifically, effort is especially critical because maybe the goal of the Aseret Ymei Teshuva is more than just achieving atonement, but it is about training us in the art of teshuva, or more specifically, the art of putting forth the extraordinary effort for teshuva during the rest of the year. Indeed, in Masechet Sanhedrin, Rabbi Abahu stated, “makom she’ba’alei teshuva omin sham tzadikim ainan omdin sham,” or “in the place where penitents stand, even the completely righteous do not stand. Why is the penitent on a higher spiritual level than the completely righteous person? In his work Arvei Nachal, Rav David Shlomo Eybeschuetz explains that the penitent is on a higher level because he is a “baal teshuva.” He is constantly involved in teshuva. He lives a life of constant striving, whereas the completely righteous person doesn’t see the need to try to improve.
So how do we know if our teshuva is successful? The following story can help illustrate the answer. Each evening before he went to sleep, it was the custom of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev to take a heshbon hanefesh, that is, to examine his thoughts and deeds for that day. If he found a blemish in them, he would say to himself, “Levi Yitzchak will not do that again.” Then he would chide himself, “Levi Yitzchak, you said the same thing yesterday.” Then he would reply, “Yesterday, Levi Yitzchak did not speak the truth. Today he speaks the truth”
How do we know if our teshuva was successful? If every morning when we wake up, despite what happened yesterday or the day before that or the day before that, we commit ourselves to live a life of being a baal teshuva each and every day. How do we know if our teshuva was successful? If every morning when we wake up, we commit ourselves that even if the results are mediocre, our efforts will be superhuman each and every day.