By Rav Jesse Horn
As we approach Yom Kippur after the Eseret Yimay Teshuva (10 Days of Repentance), Rosh Hashana, and the whole month of Elul, we may wonder what the different ideas are between each these days. The four groups of days are clearly linked and presumably constitute a process as they transition immediately from one to the next. However, they are clearly different as well. On Yom Kippur we do Viduy (confession of sins) and are involved in serious Inuy (affliction, i.e. fasting, no washing, anointing, wearing of leather shoes or marital intimacy), none of which is prohibited on any of the other days. Rosh Hashana is unique as well, as illustrated by the Shofar blowing and its distinct Brachot of Malcheyot (kingship) Zichronot (remembrances) and Shofrot (Shofars). Why do these Halachic nuances exist? What is the unique nature of each: Elul, Rosh Hashana, Eseret Yimay Teshuva and Yom Kippur, and what is the idea behind this process?
Perhaps, for an excellent insight, we can turn to a fascinating conclusion Rabbi David Fohrman drew from the Rambam (Teshuva 2:3) who compares disingenuous Viduy, where one has not truly abandoned the sin to using a Mikvah (ritual bath that cleanses one from impurity) with a Sheretz (impure animal) in one’s hand. Surprisingly, the Rambam compares Viduy, not the abandoning of one’s sin, to the Mikvah. Accordingly, he indicates, that Viduy is the pinnacle of religious purity while abandoning the sin is a mere prerequisite, comparable to dismissing the impure Sheretz. Perhaps this conclusion is further supported by the Rambam (Teshuva 1:1) himself saying “when one does Teshuva, one is obligated to do Viduy,” implying that Teshuva is not an obligation, but only a prerequisite to the obligation to do Viduy.
At first glance this sounds counter-intuitive, for Teshuva, an inner character evaluation and personality improvement, should be seen as the zenith of this process. Does abandoning one sins and character improvement not seem to be the greater religious goal? Should Viduy not be a vehicle in assisting Teshuva and not the opposite? Why does Viduy play such a central role?
In truth there are those who saw Viduy as an external act designed to assist the real Mitzvah, Teshuva (Rav Solovetichik, Al HaTeshuva p 37-41). However the simple read of the Rambam, as we saw, indicates otherwise.
Perhaps Viduy is in fact the spiritual climax, however, there is a real concern of insincere Viduy, which is mere lip-service and unhelpful. In order to avoid robotically reciting an inauthentic Viduy, Teshuva is done beforehand. Teshuva is a preparation designed to enhance people’s Viduy by enabling them to mean it wholeheartedly.
Yom Kippur carries a seriousness to it as we purify ourselves from sin. We disengage from worldly pleasure (Inuy), and even act angelic (saying “Baruch Shem Kavod…” aloud for example) as we attempt a spiritual purification and a cleansing of iniquities. No day is more befitting of intense Viduy as it captures our deep hunger for religious cleansing and to stand pure before Hashem and articulate our desire to be sin-free. Viduy on Yom Kippur is in fact the religious high point; after all its seemingly the culmination placed on the last day of the entire process. Yom Kippur is preceded with the Eseret Yimay Teshuva, ten days designed for focusing on religious improvement, abandoning one’s sin and internalizing one’s new-found spiritual direction, so when Viduy is recited on Yom Kippur, it will be done properly.
Working backwards, if Yom Kippur is a day of Viduy, affliction and cleansing of sin, and the Eseret Yimay Teshuva are a preparation for it, how does Rosh Hashana fit in? Why does it precede the Eseret Yimay Teshuva?
Rosh Hashana, the day where Hashem created the world and therefore the day He became the king of it, is celebrated by reiterating our commitment and understanding that Hashem is in fact the king. On Rosh Hashana we crown Hashem king and by doing so, realize how great of a mistake our sins were. This is captured by Rav Sadiah Gaon who explains that one of the reasons (the first on a list of ten) we blow the shofar is because at a king’s inauguration trumpets and horns are sounded (Avudraham Rosh Hashana, p 300). Similarly, the Gemara (Rosh Hashana 16a) quotes Hashem explaining the reasons for the three unique Brachot on Rosh Hashana: Malcheyot, Zichronot, and Shofrot, “Malcheyot, in order to accept my sovereignty upon yourselves, Zichronot, so that your remembrance should rise before me favorably and with what? A Shofar.”
In light of this, it can be understood why Rosh Hashana triggers the Eseret Yimay Teshuva. Teshuva is the natural and correct response to the awareness that we have sinned and recognition that Hashem is the king. Upon internalizing that Hashem is the king and that we have disobeyed him, we respond with Teshuva, ten days dedicated to it.
What still remains unanswered is what Elul is? What is its unique nature?
Elul, as implied by it’s acronym “Ani L’Dodi V’L’Dodi Li” (I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me) is a time where we cultivate love for Hashem and recognize his love for us. Only once there is a deep appreciation of this mutual love, can one willingly make the sacrifices that crowning Hashem requires one to make. Only once one trusts and loves Hashem completely as well as feels the love reciprocated, can one crown Hashem king wholeheartedly with all the religious implications that accompany that commitment.
In Elul, we deepen our appreciation and recognition that Hashem loves us and that we love him. Those are the required ingredients needed to crown Hashem king, which is done on Rosh Hashana. This in turn inspires a profound Teshuva to be accomplished during the Eseret Yimay Teshuva, which facilitates a real and sincere Viduy and Yom Kippur.
Article originally appeared on Arutz Sheva