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D'var Torah by Dr. Kalman Stein, Interim Head of School

Dr. Kalman Stein, Head of School

Dear Hebrew Academy Community: 

Last week, days before the start of school, we entered into the month of Elul, which calls upon each of us to begin a process of introspection and Teshuva (Repentance). What exactly is Teshuva? Or more precisely what kind of repentance is most pleasing to God and leads to the most complete atonement? 

Rambam, whose Hilkhot Teshuva present us with the Halakhic and conceptual framework of proper repentance, writes (7:6):

גדולה תשובה שמקרבת את האדם לשכינה

Teshuva is supremely important because it brings one closer to God. "Yesterday the person was distant and looked down upon by Hashem, and today [in the aftermath of repentance] that same person is loved, adored, and close to God." But, wrote the Netivot Shalom, not every form of repentance leads to this significant transformation. It is only Teshuva Me'Ahava, repentance that was done from a sense of love of God, not in an attempt to escape the consequences of one's actions, that is most efficacious.

A noble sentiment, but what exactly does it mean when we are asked to repent as an expression of love for Hashem? It's so easy to say but so hard to wrap one's hands around: What did your rabbi say in Shul this morning? Well, he seems to be 1000% in favor not only of repentance but of the most profound form of Teshuva. But the Rambam does not leave us hanging. Hilkhot Teshuva (7:2) explains that one should not think that repentance applies only or even primarily to specific transgressions - I stole; I desecrated Shabbat; I ate something I should not have eaten. Explains Rambam that just as one should repent those specific sins, one should think introspectively about one's own undesirable character traits - anger, jealousy, greed, arrogance and the like - and to repent, that is, to begin the process of improving one's character. 

One shows that he/she is truly repenting and is trying to express love of God, explains the Netivot Shalom, by removing whatever it is that distances him/her from God. And we are most distant from Hashem when we forget the overriding commandment of

ועשית הישר והטוב

Do that which is righteous and good (Devarim 6:18) -- which requires us to conduct our interpersonal relations in a manner which finds favor in eyes of God whose Mitzvot are designed to refine our personalities and, thereby, to bring us closer to Him. 

It is difficult, but not all that difficult, to recognize our ritual shortcomings and to resolve to be a bit more meticulous about our observance of specific commandments. Resolving-and really meaning it - to work on one's character, to become better spouses, parents, sons and daughters, friends and neighbors is significantly more challenging. But Teshuva Me'Ahava, the most perfect form of repentance, does call upon each of us to demonstrate his/her love of God by trying harder to reach the human, interpersonal ideal that He set before us in His Torah.

Shabbat Shalom.

Dr. Kalman Stein
Head of School

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