Aseres Yemei Teshuvah 5778

Breaking free from inertia[1]

אף מי שאינו נזהר מפת של עכו”ם, בעשרת ימי תשובה צריך לזהר
Even someone who normally eats [kosher] bread baked by a non-Jewish [baker][2], during the ten days of repentance one must be stringent [to only eat bread baked by a Jew][3]

The seven days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, including the holidays themselves, are known as the aseres yemei teshuvah, the ten days of repentance. They are days reserved for introspection and correcting past faults[4], with the hopes to better one’s behavior for the upcoming year. There is a halacha, Jewish law, that one should try to take on extra chumros, stringencies, during this time. It’s not meant to be a lifetime commitment; just for these ten days. The paradigm example that is given is that for these ten days one should be careful to only eat bread baked by a Jew.

While it sounds nice that we’re encouraged to improve our religious performance, the way the law is formulated seems strange. What’s the point of practicing stringencies for only a temporary period? If anything, it appears a little hypocritical. We don’t normally hold ourselves to be on the level to keep these stringencies, but because it’s a serious time, it seems like we want to appear more holy[5]. We keep them with every intention to stop once Yom Kippur is over. How can this law be properly understood?

The forty days leading up to Yom Kippur are akin to a less intense form of the aseres yemei teshuvah. They include the entire month of Elul, and finish with the ten days of repentance. Elul is understood to be an acronym[6] for אני לדודי ודודי לי, I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine[7]. It is a time where Hashem is close to us, and wants us to be close to Him. In previous generations, it used to be that when people heard the blessing for the new month of Elul in shul, they would feel a tremendous sense of awe[8]. Simply hearing the word Elul inspired them to draw closer to Hashem. We don’t experience this in our days. It’s so hard for us to relate to the time of year we find ourselves in. What has changed?

Rav Yisroel Salanter suggests[9] two possible causes for the lack of inspiration. One is physical. It’s instinctual for a person to continue to act as they usually do, and it’s very difficult to break free from a habit[10]. It’s a form of inertia, like a car stopping suddenly and all the packages inside continuing to move forward. Therefore, just because the month of Elul or the aseres yemei hateshuvah have arrived, doesn’t mean there will automatically be a change in behavior or attitude[11]. The second cause is spiritual. Previous iniquities cause a spiritual blemish in a person, which can clout their judgement. It makes it very hard for the person to consider purifying their heart and fixing their actions.

How can people break out of their inertia? By creating a man-made wakeup call. It’s similar to waking up someone who is in a deep sleep by shaking them furiously. The cure is to increase the good deeds the person does. This is based on the idea that external actions awaken internal cognizance[12]. Performing new actions by definition changes one’s routine. Those good deeds will then cause the person to start to internalize the messages of this season, and want to correct their ways for the future.

This is the idea behind taking on chumros, stringencies, during the aseres yemei teshuvah. Chazal are teaching us the proper way to fix one’s ways. Once a person starts taking on new good deeds, this will awaken their inner conscience. They’ll automatically become closer to Hashem. Even the tiniest of added good deeds, even those that are temporary, do the job. This is what it takes to break free from routine.

Kesivah VeChasima Tovah! May we all be inscribed in the book of life.

[1] Based on Sifsei Chaim (written based on the teachings of Rav Chaim Friedlander), Moadim I: Elul, הכנה ליום הדין ע”י שינוי הרגלים

[2] See Mishnah Berurah § 603 s.k. 1

[3] Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 603:1

[4] The Mishnah Berurah ad. loc. s.k. 2 quotes the Ye’aros Devash I § 1 that the seven days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are representative of the entire past year. The Sunday of the aseres yemei teshuvah represents every Sunday of the past year. It’s an opportunity to correct any wrongs that were committed on any Sunday of the past year. Same with Monday, Tuesday, etc.

[5] Michtav MeEliyahu II p. 56

[6] See Mishnah Berurah § 581 s.k. 1

[7] Song of Songs 6:3

[8] As reported by Rav Yisroel Salanter in Ohr Yisroel § 14

[9] ibid

[10] Sifsei Chaim loc. cit. demonstrates just how strong the force of habit is. Chazal teach (Sukkah 52a) that in the future the yetzer hara, the evil inclination, will be slaughtered by Hashem. At his “funeral”, it says the men will need to be separate from the women. Even once the force of sin is gone, since people are so accustomed to indecent acts, it will still be required to keep the genders separate! See Michtav MeEliyahu III p. 41 for another example

[11] In previous generations however, they spent the entire year doing good and serving Hashem. Therefore, it was easy for them to strengthen their resolve during the forty days leading up to Yom Kippur (Ohr Yisroel loc. cit.)

[12] An idea that permeates Sefer HaChinuch (for example, see § 16), and made famous by Mesillas Yesharim at the end of Chapter 7

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