Rabbi Yisroel of Vizhin would abide by the chassidic custom of going to Tashlich on the day before Yom Kippur. Thousands of his followers would gather by the water’s edge to await his arrival, intent on witnessing the tzaddik’s somber Tashlich observance.
On one such occasion, R’ Yisroel noted a chassid pushing and elbowing his way in an almost feverish attempt to get close to the tzaddik.
“What is it that you hope to see?” inquired R’ Yisroel of his overzealous follower.
“I am eager to retrieve the rebbe’s aveiros (sins) that he will cast away. To me they would be counted as mitzvos (good deeds).” came the chassid’s impassioned reply.
The tzaddik turned to address the crowd. “I am reminded that twice a year we advance toward water – Rosh Hashanah at Tashlich where we rid ourselves of our sins, and the day before Passover to prepare the water for the baking of Erev Pesach matzos.
“According to the Gemara, when we do teshuvah for fear of divine retribution, our sins perpetrated bemeizid (intentionally are converted to ones committed beshogeig (unintentionally). But when we repent out of love for our Father in Heaven, our sins become merits, for which we reap reward.
“Since on Rosh Hashanah we repent out of fear, we remain accountable for our sins – even though they’re now considered unintentional by virtue of our repentance – and therefore we come to throw our sins into the water.
“On Pesach, when we do teshuvah out of love for Hashem for all the miracles He wrought for us, our sins become mitzvos. We then approach the water to retake possession of the sins we disposed of on Rosh Hashanah, in order to accrue merit.”
R’ Yisroel returned his focus on the source that inspired his impromptu homily. “If you wish to recover my sins, young man, wait until Pesach, when they may be of some use. Today they have no worth. Sins are just that – transgressions we should have refrained from committing in the first place.”