Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
Teshuva - Haven't I Seen You Somewhere Before?
This week's Shabbos is one of those special Shabboses which merits
having its own name: Shabbos Shuva. Its name is taken from the
first two words of this week's Haftora (the special section read from
the Prophets after the Torah reading), in which the prophet Hoshea
appeals to the Children of Israel (14:2-3):
Shuva Yisrael ad Hashem Elokecha - Return, o Israel, until
Hashem your G-d, for you have stumbled in your sin. Take
words with you, and return to Hashem. Say to Him, 'May
You forgive all iniquity, and accept what is good!'
It is strange that the prophet pleads with us to return, "Ad Hashem -
until Hashem," and not, "to Hashem" as we might have expected.
And what are the "words" he encourages us to take with us as we
While every Jew is most grateful for being given the chance to
annually be cleansed of all his sins, we are aware that Yom Kippur is
not a "carte blanche" through which we can continue to sin and
ignore our faults, while at the same time awaiting forgiveness and
atonement. To varying degrees, depending on the nature of our
transgressions, we are expected to recognize where we have strayed,
abandon our "old ways," and accept upon ourselves that we will no
longer return to our previous sins.
In pondering this requirement, it is most difficult not to be struck by
the following disheartening thought: Haven't I been here before?
Didn't I stand in this same place last Yom Kippur, reciting the same
words, beating my breast, and perhaps even shedding a few tears? If
we could only see a mirror reflection of ourselves: Good morning -
how do you do? Haven't we met somewhere before? Yet here we
are, back again, essentially unchanged from last year. We begin to
question the very nature of our teshuva. If, as it seems, the teshuva
process of previous years has had no lasting effect on us, then
perhaps it wasn't teshuva at all! Perhaps we are simply deluding
ourselves; going through the motions, but lacking any true
conviction. I believe almost every thinking person has at some time
been struck by the above thoughts, sometimes almost to the point of
A brilliant yeshiva bachur, who came from a highly respected family
of rabbanim, and who had himself acquired a reputation for his sharp
mind and penetrating insight, sadly began to stray from the path of
the Torah. The holy Rizhiner Rebbe zt"l once approached the boy, in
an attempt to convince him to return to a life of Torah and mitzvos.
Yet he was reluctant.
"Do you think," he said to the rebbe, "that I have never tried to
return? Do you think that I am completely void of remorse? That I
have never considered coming back? Many times I have, as you say,
done 'teshuva,' yet it is to no avail; I always return to my sinful ways.
I have strayed, it seems, too far from the path. For me, rebbe, there
is no hope."
"Since you were a yeshiva student," the rebbe responded, "I will
answer you with a scholarly explanation. We say in the Yom Kippur
prayers, 'Ki Ata Salchan le-Yisrael - for You, Hashem, are the Forgiver
of Israel.' Why do we refer to Hashem as a Salchan, instead of the
more familiar term Soleiach?
"In parshas Mishpatim we find the mitzvah of perikah - helping one's
fellow unload his donkey. The Torah states (Shemos 23:5), "If you will
see the donkey of [even] your enemy crouching (roveitz) beneath its
burden... you shall help him (unload)!" The Talmud (Bava Metzia
33a) comments on this verse, 'Roveitz - ve-lo ravtzan.' One must only
assist in unloading if the donkey is roveitz (crouching) beneath its
load, but not if it is a ravtzan.
"Rashi explains that roveitz means the animal is presently collapsing
beneath its burden. But if the animal is a ravtzan - constantly and
habitually overburdened - then there is no obligation to help unload
it. From here we see that Hebrew suffix nun after a verb signifies an
act which is performed constantly or habitually.
"Now since the holy Sages describe the Almighty as a Salchan, and
not as a Soleiach," concluded the Rizhiner, "we have proof that
Hashem constantly forgives us; there is no limit to how many times
He will forgive your sins. Don't give up - it's never too late!" His words
captured the heart of the young man, and he returned wholeheartedly
to Torah and mitzvos for the rest of his life.
Kesav Sofer writes that by using the words "[Return, O Israel,] until
Hashem," the Navi (Prophet) is intimating that we will never quite
achieve the objective. "Return to Hashem," would have implied that
one is in fact capable of completing the journey. Returning until
Hashem drives home the fact that teshuva is a constant and ongoing
process. Don't expect to ever "get there," yet never stop trying...
The Prophet recognizes the frustration a Jew might feel as he
approaches Hashem for the umpteenth time, asking once again for
forgiveness. He therefore offers us words of encouragement,
reminding us that teshuva is something we will spend our whole lives
doing. We may never "make it," achieving absolute perfection, yet we
will be far better Jews in the process.
Perhaps these words are the "words" we are encouraged to "take with
us" as we approach Hashem and ask Him to "forgive all iniquity, and
take what is good." As long as we remain convinced that teshuva is
an "all-or-nothing" process in which we either succeed or fail, we will
continue to be discouraged by our own imperfection and the roller
coaster ride which is part and parcel of being human. In order to
succeed in teshuva, it is essential we first recognize its nature.
Teshuva is not an absolute, "winner takes all" process. It is about
searching out the bad, "taking what is good," and building on it, thus
ensuring that we continue to forge forward in our struggle to become
better Jews. May Hashem give us the fortitude and inner strength to
keep up the fight!
Have a good Shabbos.
Text Copyright © 2001 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.