Prayer Essentials

For the week ending 24 August 2013 / 18 Elul 5773

The Essence of Teshuva: Rejoicing with Trepidation

by Rabbi Yitzchak Botton
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It is well known that all the concepts related to the shofar revolve around the idea of teshuva (repentance). In order to gain a better understanding of how these concepts relate to the inner process of teshuva, let's take a closer look at some of the aspects of the shofar.

Consider the shape of a shofar. One end is narrow and the other end is wide.

Regarding the required length of the shofar, Chazal teach us that when you hold a shofar in your hand, part of it should stick out either way. Consequently, when you look at both sides of the shofar you see a narrow end and a broad end.

We must also understand the connotations inherent in the sounds of the shofar. What are the concepts behind these ideas?

A person trying to repent must look back, with his mind's eye, to the actions he committed in the past. Also, he must look forward with regards to his future actions. The reason is that full teshuva is comprised of two parts.

1. Regretting the past; i.e., repenting for having violated the King's dictates through his sins.

2. Resolving that from now on, he will do only what is right.

Hence, someone who decides to do teshuva finds himself situated between the past and the future. In so doing, he looks forward and looks back; i.e., to the “narrow” side of his errant past, and to the “broad” horizon of his bright future. (We will explain why the narrow side is connected to the past, whereas the wide side is connected to the future.)

There is special significance to each type of shofar blast. The tekiya blast is symbolic of joy and goodness, whereas the shevarim and the teru'a blasts represent pain and suffering. These are also connected to teshuva. On the one hand the person violated the decrees of the King. Consequently, he must show how very sorry he is, as it is written: “My sin is before me always” (Tehillim 51:5). Such a person intends to always keep his past sins in mind, and to reflect on how he pained G-d's holy presence through his misdeeds. At the same time, however, once a person has firmly resolved to act in accordance with G-d's will, he has reason to be very happy, because his new path in life will draw him closer to G-d, as the Prophet Hoshea says in verse 14:2, “And you shall return until you reach the L-rd your G-d.” Moreover, by doing sincere teshuva a person can actually mend whatever spiritual damage he may have caused, thereby saving himself from future punishment. Such a resolution should be the cause for great joy.

Based on this, we can explain the following puzzling verse in Tehillim, 2:11: “Serve G-d with fear, and rejoice with trepidation.”

The Gemara (Berachot 30b) asks, “What is the intent of this verse in combining those two opposite emotions? Rabbi Ada bar Masna answered in the name of Rav, ‘In a situation of joy, there should also be trepidation’.” Similarly, in the Zohar, Rabbi Elazar says, “In one part of my heart I weep, while in another part I am joyful.” The reason for this is that, in order for one’s teshuva to be complete one must involve both aspects of love and fear, which will involve pain as well as joy.

It is important to note that although a ba'al teshuva must combine the two opposite forces of pain and joy in his heart, nevertheless, the main emphasis should always be on the positive side — joy. This is especially true nowadays.

Therefore, we can suggest the following. The narrow end of the shofar represents looking back at one’s past and is symbolic of sadness, which a person should try to reduce as much as possible. But when it comes to happiness (which is hinted to in the broad side of the shofar), one should increase his joy as much as possible, for we are taught that one must serve G-d with joy and gladness. Nevertheless, a person shouldn’t go overboard. Everything should be done sincerely and in proper measure, exercising good judgment at all times. This state of mind is alluded to in the Hebrew letters of the word b'simcha ― with joy ― which can also be read in Hebrew as [proper] thought (machashava). The idea is that, from a Torah perspective, true joy includes a proper frame of mind.

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