Every Shabbos we look forward to the delightful seudos where we enjoy delicious food and drinks, sing zemiros, say divrei Torah, and spend wonderful time with our families. This coming Shabbos, Yom Kippur, will be quite different. We will spend most of the day in prayer and repentance, begging Hashem to forgive us for our sins, and we may forget that it is also Shabbos. However, from the fact that we ask for forgiveness “on this day of Shabbos,” we see that there is an integral connection between Shabbos and the atonement of Yom Kippur.
One of the most important aspects of Yom Kippur is teshuvah, repentance. In fact, without it, we will not receive the atonement we so badly need. Yes, we all want to do teshuvah, and in truth, the Torah tells us (Nitzavim 30:14) “Ki karov eilecha ha’davar me’od — for it (teshuvah) is extremely close to you!” So why is it so difficult to do? The answer is that many of us simply never learned the basics of teshuvah. Let us then, in a practical manner, summarize how one does teshuvah.
The literal translation of the word teshuvah is “return” — but to where? Hashem has granted every one of us a holy neshama, carved out of His Throne of Glory. Our job in this world is to use that neshama to sanctify our bodies and souls through learning Torah, doing mitzvos, and perfecting our character. Unfortunately, though, throughout our lives we drift away from Hashem and from where our neshamos used to be. Doing teshuvah returns us to that exalted and holy status.
The first step is to become aware of what we are doing wrong. Before Yom Kippur one should look over the list in viduy and note which ones are applicable to our own lives. At the same time, we should think over our day, seeing where we can improve. For example — am I coming on time to Shacharis (or for a woman, am I taking the time to daven)? How much do I “space out” during Shemoneh Esreh? Do I remember to say brochos before and after I eat?
Next is azivah, abandoning the sin. Try to think of ways to fix these problems, and understand why they are happening. Perhaps it is because we are not aware of their severity, or because we do not set up enough safeguards to prevent the Satan from overtaking us. Just to take an extreme example; one who has difficulty holding back from eating cheeseburgers should make sure not to walk past McDonald’s!
The next step is charatah, regretting our actions. If one does not truly have remorse for his ways, then his repentance is just an outward act. Therefore, the more remorse one has, the more highly his repentance is regarded (Rabbeinu Yonah, Shaarei Teshuvah 1: 13). There are many levels of remorse. On one level is the one who regrets his actions because he realizes that Hashem has given him so much good and he has paid it back with bad. On another level is one who finds himself being punished or sees others receiving punishment and realizes that it can happen to him. This man wishes he had never sinned. Hashem, out of His great love and mercy accepts even that type of repentance.
Part of this process is accepting on ourselves never to sin again — an extremely difficult step indeed. R’ Yisroel Salanter zt”l, the famed father of the mussar movement, suggests making a kabbalah – choosing one small thing that we can truly commit to keeping for the next year. Then we will have done a complete teshuvah in at least one area and will merit the atonement of Yom Kippur. As far as all the other sins go, the fact that we are trying to prevent them from happening again is accepted by Hashem. Furthermore, at the end of each Shemoneh Esrei we ask Hashem: “Ye’hee rotzon … shelo echeteh od – may it be Your will that I never sin again.” Rav Eliyashiv zt”l would say that this plea, if said truthfully and from our hearts, is tantamount to accepting on ourselves never to sin again, because it shows that this is truly our desire. (It may take until Ne’eelah to say these words with tremendous feeling.)