"Every human being, even the greatest of the great, has periods of elation and depression, of ups and downs, and this lack of spiritual equilibrium is inherent in the nature of things and is not necessarily a function of the individual's own failings." by Rabbi Adin Even Israel Steinsaltz

The Rabbi's Essays
"Most of the Jewish people are so very scattered and removed from each other that they hardly ever find a common language, or even any language that makes sense to them as Jews. This is what is called assimilation, which is basically the loss of the common heritage. We therefore have to try to reach some deeper levels of the soul, many of them bordering on the unconscious, to help us get back to talking together, to having some kind of a common language."

Homecoming by Rabbi Adin Even Israel Steinsaltz.
Articles in English:
Search Essays
Shabbat Teshuvah 5777

The basic meaning of the Hebrew word Shabbat is standstill, cessation. God "worked" in the six days of Creation, and when Shabbat arrived He ceased to work. But the word Shabbat has an additional meaning, which is found also in Rabbinic literature: "return". This meaning is not contradictory but rather complementary. Before Creation it was as if the Almighty had nothing to do with the universe. In fact, all of Creation does not pertain to the order of things that existed before it. In this sense, the Sabbath is a return to the primordial state. It can, then, be said that the Sabbath is the seventh day in which all of creation is perfected, and at the same time it is also a return to the pre-Creation state; every Sabbath is both the Sabbath after Creation and the Sabbath that preceded it.

These two elements exist also in Teshuvah. On the one hand, the first step of Teshuvahis ceasing, we stop transgressing and then detach ourselves from our sins. But Teshuvaalso means "return," a return to the state of things prior to sinning. Just as in everyday life it is so much easier to cease doing something than to restore things to their former state, so too in teshuvah it is easier to cut and stop a sequence of actions than to return to the innocence that preceded the sin. Yet the prayer and the heartfelt desire that accompany every act of teshuvah is to attain not only a change of action, but a total uprooting of the evil deeds (at least from the heart; because certain actions affect reality irreversibly) and a return to purity. This aspect of teshuvah is alluded to in the Rabbinic saying (Midrash Tehillim 90) that teshuvahpreceded Creation. This is why teshuvah contains this pull towards the pre-Creation state.

These two aspects of Shabbat and Teshuvah are found in the Sabbath within the Days of Awe. This Sabbath, called Shabbat Teshuvah, is a unique combination of the essences of teshuvah and Shabbat, which together create a new entity: on the one hand, it is the only Sabbath in the course of the year in which one can engage in teshuvah, and on the other, it is the only time in which teshuvah can be done in a Shabbat-like manner.

On the Sabbath we are commanded not only to cease working, but also to turn the Sabbath into a day of pleasure (see Isaiah 58, 13). But the experience of teshuvah– born out of thoughts, memories and heart-rending compunctions – is usually not very pleasurable. In fact, this is precisely the reason why on the Sabbath we do not deal with teshuvah nor confess our sins: because teshuvahand confession, however important they may be, mar the Sabbath pleasure. On Shabbat Teshuvah we are therefore called upon to do a Shabbat-like teshuvah– namely, a teshuvah that does not touch upon the painful or turbid sides of sin. Instead, on Shabbat Teshuvah we focus on building ourselves from within, on restructuring ourselves not so as to forget the facts of our sins, but to erase the experience of sin from within us.

This point is fully expressed in a verse that we repeat over and over again both in the selihot and on Yom Kippur: "I have blotted out your transgressions as a thick cloud and, as a cloud, your sins; return unto Me, for I have redeemed you" (Isaiah 44, 22). Throughout the year we still retain, even after doing teshuvah, a certain amount of memories, as it says: "my sin is ever before me" (Psalms 51, 5). But in the ten Days of Awe, and especially on Shabbat Teshuvah and Yom Kippur, teshuvah emerges as a renewed ascent whereby sin is not only erased, but we reach a higher state. Indeed, our Sages teach us that a person who does teshuvah out of love merits to have our deliberate sins turned not into inadvertently committed errors, but into actual merits (Tractate Yuma 86b).

Theteshuvah of the Sabbath is, in essence, a teshuvah of love. We return to the Almighty not as persons fleeing from their past but as individuals who transcend the past. Tikkun is hard, demanding work, like all the work we do to honor of the Sabbath, which includes also cutting and cooking on fire; but, like this work, it is also what eventually makes possible the Sabbath pleasure, which makes us forget all our toil on Shabbat eve. Or, in a different way, it can be said that if we do not actually forget the toil, the pleasure of the Sabbath makes it taste sweet.

The pleasure of Shabbat Teshuvah – despite all our sins and transgressions – stems from our clinging to the aspect of teshuvahthat is imprinted in the very essence of Creation, and which has nothing to do with sin. This aspect of teshuvah, the teshuvah that preceded Creation, is not the reverting back from sin: it is an ascent which makes us see our failures as tests, and instead of thinking about all that we impaired and blemished makes us focus on the ways in which we will be able, from now on, to build our future in a loftier way. Even if we are unable to re-attain our pristine innocence, the complex life of the weekdays, with all its pains and inner struggles, re-connects us with the teshuvah that preceded the world – a teshuvahthat is not just the cessation of sin, but also the processing of our transgressions – in a Genesis-like way, and turning them into a new creation: holiness.