The theme of the months of Elul and Tishrei is teshuva, repentance. As the sound of the shofar blares each morning of Elul, heralding our approach towards Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the theme of repentance and forgiveness is very much “on our minds”. In fact, the Rambam in Hilchot Teshuva 2:6 famously declares that “even though teshuva and shouting out [to Hashem] is always great, for the ten days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur it is even greater.” It is for this reason that the ten-day period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is known as “Aseret Yemei Teshuva”.
But there is a fundamental question regarding this comment of the Rambam, and the mitzvah of teshuva in general. As the Rambam himself notes, the concept of teshuva is not limited to Elul or the Yamim Noraim. Any time a person sins- at any point of the year- he is obligated to repent, and through the mechanism of teshuva he achieves atonement for his transgression. If that is the case, what is unique about the Yamim Noraim and their relation to teshuva? If the mitzvah exists year-round, what about this time period makes it the “season” of teshuva?
One answer would be to suggest that its simply an issue of timing and a deadline. While teshuva is relevant and appropriate at all times of the year, the deadline to do teshuva is Aseret Yemei Teshuva and Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is the day of atonement, a day through which we achieve forgiveness for the past years’ iniquities. For a person to achieve the unique atonement offered by Yom Kippur, therefore, he must complete his personal process of teshuva by that day’s end. Given man’s propensity for procrastination and stalling, the deadline of Yom Kippur thereby transforms the ten days- and maybe even the month and a half- before it into days of intensive repentance, as we look to gain a favorable judgement on Yom Kippur.
However, I would like to share a different answer to this question, one that I heard from Mori v’Rabi, Rav Michael Rosensweig. He suggests that although there is a mitzvah of teshuva that applies year-round, there is a fundamental difference between the year-round teshuva and the teshuva of Aseret Yemei Teshuva. During the rest of the year, the teshuva is more specific to particular actions or sins that are committed. If at any point a person commits a transgression, he is commanded to repent for that specific sin, to atone for that particular transgression. That is the year-round mitzvah of teshuva. At one point during the year, however, we don’t simply look at specific sins- rather, we assess our entire personality.
We take a step back and ask the “big picture” questions, as we evaluate our overall direction and path. This is the mitzvah of teshuva during Aseret Yemei Teshuva. As Rav Rosensweig explained- during the rest of the year, we assess whether we are living up to our values and ideals. During the Aseret Yemei Teshuva, we assess those very values and ideals themselves. Are our ideals and values properly aligned? Should we be shooting higher, or alternatively lowering the bar? Are our priorities what they should be? This is the unique teshuva of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur- an annual opportunity to take a step back, to perform an overall, more comprehensive, assessment of who we are and what we want to become.
As full-time parents with full time jobs and various other responsibilities, we are naturally very busy. And while we value the importance of being capable parents, the demands of life cause us to often “wing it”, to figure things out as we go along and do our best. When an issue arises, we problem solve, capably taking care of the issue until the next one arises. However, the message of the teshuva of the Yamim Noraim is that, while such a strategy is understandable and reasonable, there must also be a point, at least annually, when we take a step back and ask the “big picture” questions. What are our goals as parents, and how can we achieve them? Are we raising our children in a way that reflects our priorities and values? What are our priorities and values? Are the values of both parents different or aligned- and how can we better coordinate? How can we become better parents, and be there more for our children physically and emotionally? How can we prepare ourselves for the daily challenges that we face each day in our parenting? For each of us, this reflection and consideration might look a little different, but it is crucial that it take place in some form.
The mitzvah of teshuva has two faces. The classic mitzvah of teshuva signifies the importance of taking an accounting of our actions- being aware of when we steer from the proper path, and taking the necessary steps to return to that path. On the other side, the teshuva of Yamim Noraim emphasizes the need, each year, to take a step back and to ensure that we are on the correct path to begin with- and that we are moving towards our correct destination. As parents, it is crucial that we incorporate both elements, as we aspire to be the best parents that we can be.
Shabbat Shalom and Gmar Chatima Tova!