It is clear from the words of the Hachamim that during this time of year we should focus on becoming closer to God, returning to God, and doing teshuva.
I was always bothered by the following question: Why do we need to do teshuva? If we use the model of the "scale"- with our averot (sins) on one side of the scale, and our zechuyot (merits) on the other, then maybe we should just do more mitzvot. Why do we need to repent?
The prophet tells us: Seek the Lord when He is found, call Him when He is near (Yeshyahu 55:6). The rabbis understand that this verse teaches us that God is more accessible this time of year. Therefore the prophet says "seek the Lord." The prophet was not giving us a good idea; rather, he was giving us a warning: If God is close and accessible, then we must seek him out. Furthermore, if He is willing to forgive us, and to clean our slate, then it is not a time for more mitzvot, rather, it is a time to repent, and to move closer to God. During this time of year, not to do teshuva is the greatest sin that we can do.
Teshuva is an embarrassing exercise. We do the same thing every year. We promise not to speak lashon hara, and, inevitably, we will speak lashon hara, year after year. The Ramban writes that our teshuva must be so sincere that God can testify that we will not sin again. How can we ever reach that level? Teshuva becomes frustrating and even embarrassing. Even Adam Harishon grappled with this reality. After the sin of eating the fruit, he says, "my wife gave me the fruit, and I will eat." The commentaries note that he speaks in the present tense, and not in the past tense because he acknowledges that he is human and that he will certainly sin again; he is merely being honest. That is what we do on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur- we know we will sin again. So how are we not to despair?
I would like to share with you the advice of Rabbi Akiba. The Mishna (Yoma 8:8) teaches: Rabbi Akiva said ‘Happy are you Israel, before whom do you become pure, and who purifies you? Your Father in heaven, as it says ‘I will pour on you pure water and purify you’ (Yechezkel 36:25) and it says ‘God is the mikveh of Israel’ (Yirmeyahu 17:13), in the same way that the mikveh purifies the impure, so does God purify Israel’"
Rabbi Akiva cites two verses. The first verse describes how God will sprinkle holy waters on us, and purify us. The second verse relates that God is compared to a mikve, the mikve of Israel. Why does Rabbi Akiva need to bring two proofs?
Rabbi Akiva is teaching us that there are two types of teshuva. One type of teshuva is like a mikve- one must be totally submerged in the mikve. In this case, a person is completely submerged and promises God never to sin again. There is, however, another form of teshuva. At times, God sprinkles water on us and even though the water does not cover us, it purifies us. This is partial teshuva. Each year, we come before God and do partial teshuva. We tell God that we will try our best, but we know that we will have great difficulty completely changing.
Many people speak in the synagogue. They commit not to speak any more in the synagogue, and very quickly, they resort back to their previous behavior. It is better to commit to a small step, for example, not to talk before Aleinu, to do partial teshuva, and "to be sprinkled with the waters of purity." Even the littlest commitment which we fulfill is valuable.
In essence – this is a harder route of teshuva. It is much simpler to commit to change everything, and then despair. However, to make an honest commitment to change small things, to do partial teshuva, is difficult, but doable, and that is our means of coming closer to God during this time of year.