Rosh Hashana: Reaching the Heavenly Throne, One Step at a Time
In the famous final Mishna of Masechet Yoma, Rabbi Akiva presents two analogies for the purification achieved through the process of Teshuba. First, he cites the verse in the Book of Yehezkel (36:25) in which G-d proclaims, "I shall sprinkle upon you purifying waters, and you shall be pure." Here, the purification of Teshuba is compared to the purifying Para Aduma waters, which are sprinkled on a person or object that had come in contact with a human corpse, in order to purify it. Then, Rabbi Akiba references a verse from the Book of Yirmiyahu (17:13), "Mikveh Yisrael Hashem" – "G-d is Israel’s Mikveh’." In this verse, Teshuba is likened to immersion in a Mikveh.
Rav Yishak Elhanan Spektor of Kovno (1817-1896) explained that these two analogies represent two vastly different models of repentance.
A Mikveh purifies a person through the immersion of his or her entire body in the water. If even one strand of hair extends outside the water, the immersion is invalid. Immersion in a Mikveh, then, represents what we might call "180-degree Teshuba," where a person makes a complete about-face, swiftly transforming from a sinner to a righteous Sadik, "cleansing" himself or herself entirely, like one who immerses in the Mikveh waters.
The Para Aduma waters, by contrast, reach only a very small portion of the person’s body. The person becomes pure by virtue of just part of his body receiving the purifying waters. This model, Rav Spektor explained, represents what we might call "four-degree Teshuba," repentance by taking small steps forward. Only a small portion of a person’s conduct is improved – just like a small portion of a person’s body comes in contact with the Para Aduma waters – but this suffices to bring a degree of purity.
I am familiar with a number of people who succeeded in following the Mikveh model of Teshuba, in completing transforming themselves in a very short period of time, entirely changing their behavior. But for the vast majority of us, the more practical model of Teshuba is that of the sprinkling of the Para Aduma waters. Rarely does one succeed in making long-lasting changes in his or her behavior through a sudden overhaul. Permanent change occurs through small steps, making one simple change at a time.
For most of us, committing ourselves to never again speak Lashon Ha’ra is not practical. What we can do, however, is commit to eliminate Lashon Ha’ra from our conversations at the Shabbat table.
For most of us, it is not practical to commit to become proficient in the Talmud during the coming year. But we all can make a commitment to add a period of time each day, or least each week, for advanced Torah learning.
This is "small-step Teshuba," and for the vast majority of us, this is the way it should be done.
The Talmud teaches that Teshuba reaches the Kiseh Ha’kabod (heavenly throne). Rav Shimshon of Ostropoli (d. 1648) noted that if we write the letters of "Kiseh Ha’kabod" incrementally, starting with the letter Kaf, followed by Kaf-Samech, then Kaf-Samech-Alef, then Kaf-Samech-Alef-Heh, and so on, each time adding the next letter, all the letters combine for a total Gematria of 713 – the Gematria of the word "Teshuba." After making this observation, Rav Shimshon was asked why the phrase "Kiseh Ha’kabod" needs to be
associated with the word "Teshuba" in such a convoluted way, by adding one letter at a time. He explained that this is precisely how Teshuba reaches the heavenly throne – incrementally, by taking one small step followed by another small step.
If the notion of Teshuba seems frightening or intimidating, it is only because we think Teshuba means "immersing," making a complete transformation all at once. But there is also another model of Teshuba – making one small improvement at a time, which is something each and every one of us, without exception, is fully capable of.
Let us all choose one small step we can take to improve as we begin the new year, and this small step will then bring us closer to the heavenly throne, rendering us worthy of a happy, healthy year, Amen.