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Home » High Holidays, Nitzavim, Rosh Hashanah

Niztavim: The Art of Repentance

Submitted by on October 6, 2005 – 3:21 pmNo Comment | 3,024 views
A Simple Meditation
Rabbi Levik of Bardichev once interviewed a long list of candidates for the position of Shofar blower. (One who sounds the ram’s horn during the service on Rosh Hashana.) The rabbi passed over many illustrious scholars and profound meditators in favor of a fairly unsophisticated young man.

Asked to describe his meditations during the Shofar ritual the man responded, “I think about my deal with G-d. I have desires and so does G-d. He wants me to sound the Shofar and I want him to provide for my family. I will do for him and I want him to do for me.

Simple. Succinct. A man who is confident in his everlasting relationship with G-d. Confidant in the biblical covenant between G-d and the Patriarch Abraham. A covenant that is illuminated on Rosh Hashana and is often invoked in the High Holiday liturgy.

Layers upon Layers

Rosh Hashana, the first day of the Hebrew calendar year, is synonymous with introspection and resolution. On this day we review our behavior of the past year and note our strengths and  weaknesses. We take stock of positive attributes that we might enhance and of negative ones that we must correct. It is a day of repentance for the past and of resolution for the future

To understand the concept of repentance we must, by way of analogy, consider an onion. the art of repentance - innerstreamThe onion is comprised of many layers. The outer layer often grows rotten and when it does we peel it away and reveal the layer that lies beneath. If the second layer is also rotten  we peel it away too and inspect the next one. We continue to peel off layers till we find a layer that has yet to spoil.

The same holds true for the Jewish soul. The soul is our inner core and it is rarely, if ever, exposed. It functions through myriads of layers that encompass it.

The layer closest to the soul itself is that of desire. Wrapped around the layer of desire is a layer of intellect. The soul desires and the intellect determines if the desire is healthy. If the desire is healthy then we grow passionate, revealing the next layer, that of emotion. We then plan and conspire, utilizing the layers of thought and speech, and finally, the outermost layer, that of action.

Sin corrupts our ability to behave ethically and correctly and the outermost layer, that of action, is always the first to be corrupted. To repair the damage we simply peel away the outer layer and draw fresh, uncorrupted energy from the untouched layer just beneath.

At times the corruption extends beyond the outermost layer and reaches the inner faculties of speech , thought, emotion and even intellect. At such times we are forced to dig deep and peel away many layers until we find one that is yet untouched by sin.

At times we peel away all the layers and reach the actual core, the soul itself. Here our analogy falls short for the onion’s innermost layer does sometimes spoil, whereas the soul itself is never corrupt. The soul is an untapped wellspring of faith that can always refresh the attributes already corrupted.

The Covenant

This is why the high holiday liturgy invokes the covenant between G-d and the Jewish people. A covenant is struck between two friends to seal their bond against all manner of threat. Friendships can come unglued for any number of reasons. The best of friends can,  at times, betray each other and their friendship can come unraveled. (1)

A covenant ensures that the friendship will persevere. Should it ever be betrayed, should it ever unravel, the covenant ensures that the bond will survive. On the outside, it may at times unravel but it can never come fully undone. At the deepest level, at the inner core, the soul is always bound by it’s covenant with G-d.

Repentance is the process of reaching that inner bond, using it to reinvigorate a stale relationship and restore what has seemingly come undone. The Hebrew word “Teshuvah” means “return.” It signifies a return to our soul, to the inner bond that has remained faithful throughout.

This is the simple meditation that was so appealing to the great rabbi Levik. In the final analysis, G-d and his people are bound in eternal love. We care for him and he cares for us. We do for him and he does for us.


At times we require the encouragement and assistance of our fellow Jews. Our souls are intimately linked, and when one soul finds itself in dire straits, other souls offer a helping hand. This is why we stand together on Rosh Hashanah. (2)

Leaders and elders, wood choppers and water carriers all stand united on this day. We may differ in status, but we are each other’s family. The covenant formed our nation and connected us with G-d. The covenant shaped our destiny and connected us to each other. (3)Footnotes

1.Deuteronomy 29:11.

2.Deuteronomy 29: 9.

3.The Mishnah states, (Avos 4: 3) “Do not scorn any person . . . for no person is without his hour.” In this sense, we understand that every Jew has at least one attribute in which he or she is superior to all other Jews. It is true that some Jews are leaders and others are followers, but every Jew excels, and is therefore a leader, in at least one area. It is in that particular area that this Jew can lead all others. This is why the leaders stand together with the water carriers, not only to lead them but also to learn from them.

4.  This essay is based upon Likutei Torah Deuteronomy, p. 41 (R. Schneeur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chassidus Chabad, 1745 – 1813). See also Shem Mishmuel Ki Teztze, 5671, (R. Shmuel Salir, Rebbe of Sochaczev, 1855-1927).

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