Maximising the Aseres Y’mei Teshuva
By: Dovid Samuels
The days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are referred to as Aseres Y’mei Teshuva – the Ten Days of Repentance. As the name suggests, these days are a prime opportunity for us to recognise our short fallings, change our ways, and return to Hashem. The halacha states, “It is a great sin if someone doesn’t repent and doesn’t increase his Torah learning and performance of mitzvos during these days, more than the rest of the year.” It is also taught, “It is incumbent on all of us during the Aseres Y’mei Teshuva to fix up ourselves, in general and in specific detail, and every moment which is not spent occupied in thoughts of repentance is a loss that can never be regained.”
But how do we maximise the opportunity that these days present?
Rabbi Yehonoson Eibeschutz introduces us to an incredible understanding of the Aseres Y’mei Teshuva, in general, and the holy day of Yom Kippur. He teaches us that there is a fundamental connection between the Ten Days of Teshuva and the Ten Commandments which we received at Har Sinai. Each day of the Ten Days corresponds to one of the Ten Commandments, so that each day, one by one, we can correct and perfect every one of the commandments. And since, together, the Ten Commandments contain within them the essence of the entire Torah, the potential of these Ten Days should not be underestimated.
He explains: The first day of Rosh Hashanah (the first of the Ten Days) corresponds to the first of the Ten Commandments: “I am Hashem your G-d…” This is why we blow the Shofar; to coronate Hashem and publicly recognise Him as the King. To proclaim to ourselves and everyone that He is Hashem, our G-d. (According to Rav Saadia Gaon, this is the first reason given as to why we blow the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah).
The second day of Rosh Hashanah corresponds to the second of the Ten Commandments: “You shall not have other gods…” – the sin of idol worship. This is appropriate as the second day of Yom Tov is always a reference to the Jews in chutz la’aretz – outside the Land of Israel, and living “outside of the Land” is representative of the sin of idol worship, as we are under a non-Jewish rule. With this in mind, we can understand something a little bit deeper. The two days of Rosh Hashanah are considered to be, halachically speaking, one long day. For this reason we have a question whether we make another “Shehechiyanu” blessing at Kiddush on the second night. If the two days of Rosh Hashanah correspond to the first two commandments, and those two days are considered to be one long day, it makes sense that we are similarly taught that the first two commandments were said simultaneously by Hashem in one utterance. The first two commandments are two halves of a whole, just like the two days of Rosh Hashanah.
The third day of the Ten Days corresponds to the commandment of “You shall not kill”. It is for this reason that we have a fast on the third day of the Aseres Y’mei Teshuva, sadly commemorating the murder of the great tzaddik, Gedaliya. That day is ideal for correcting any bad character traits which fall under the umbrella of murder (eg. embarrassing someone in public is akin to murder).
The Ten Days always have a Shabbos included among them, called Shabbos Shuva – the Shabbos of Repentance. This will obviously correspond to the commandment of keeping the Shabbos. True Shabbos observance is incredibly complicated and it is very easy to inadvertently transgress a Rabbinic, or even a Torah prohibition. Shabbos Shuva is designated to repent for all of our Shabbos desecrations throughout the year.
There is one more layer to add to shed a bit more light on the power of these days. Our Sages teach us that these Ten Days receive their unbelievable power of repentance, more than the rest of the year, from our forefather, Avraham. Avraham was tested with ten trials. He successfully passed every one of them. As a reward, we were given the Ten Days of Repentance, for each of the Ten Commandments.
Avraham Avinu, and all of our forefathers, spent their whole lives preparing the way for their descendants to follow. To this day, we are drawing from the wells that our forefathers dug, helping us through all of our difficulties and giving us the strength to stay connected to Hashem, against all odds, and in times of unthinkable darkness. When Avraham, the first father of our nation, displayed exemplary self-sacrifice in passing all of Hashem’s ten tests, he engrained in the DNA of the Jewish people the ability to overcome all of the obstacles in the way of us serving Hashem and re-attaching ourselves in true repentance. Each test laid the foundation for each day of repentance, allowing us to fully exemplify the Ten Commandments.
The holy day of Yom Kippur, the last of the Aseres Y’mei Teshuva, corresponds to the final commandment: Lo Sachmod – the prohibition against coveting or desiring that which isn’t yours. But how does this commandment reflect the essence of this great day; the day in which the Jewish people are likened to angels? The importance of this prohibition is reflected in its order in the Ten Commandments. We are trained to see the last in the list as the least important, but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, this final commandment is intrinsically linked to the first commandment. The law against coveting, following the desires of the heart, goes hand-in-hand with the mitzvah of emunah (belief), which also takes place in the heart. A person who fills his heart with desire will have no space in it for true faithfulness to Hashem. This is like a string of precious pearls. Without a strong knot at the end of the string, each pearl will simply drop off. The first nine commandments are precious pearls, and the final commandment – against unbridled desire – is the knot which keeps all of the previous commandments in place. It is the glue which holds the Ten Commandments together.
This idea of being in control of one’s physical desires is of utmost importance in attaining spirituality and perfection. The Maharal of Prague explains at length that the control over one’s physicality was the critical difference between our forefather Avraham, who built the Jewish people, and the wicked prophet Bilaam, who tried to destroy the Jewish people. He points out that through the similarities in their behaviour we can see how they really differed from one another. Both Avraham and Bilaam arose early to saddle their donkeys before embarking on their journeys. Now, the word for donkey in Lashon HaKodesh is chamor, while the word for physicality is chomer. This tells us that while they saddled their donkeys, they were actually embarking on a test of how affected by their physicality they really were. Avraham’s donkey was male, whereas Bilaam’s was female. A male cannot join naturally with a male; instead, one must rather control the other. This hints to the fact that Avraham was in complete control of his physicality. A male and a female, on the other hand, naturally do join together, signifying that Bilaam was still very much connected to and affected by his physicality. The end result? Well, we know how vastly different Avraham’s achievements were from Bilaam’s. But how is this relevant to us? Chazal teach us clearly what the end game is: Those who follow in the ways of Avraham Avinu will benefit both in this world and the next; whereas those who resemble Bilaam will, in the end, find themselves in a pit of destruction.
It is no wonder, then, that the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, a day on which we abstain from all of the luxuries of this world, where we play the roles of angels, corresponds to the prohibition against improper desire. We afflict our bodies so that our souls can connect back to their Source. It is a day which is dedicated exclusively to prayer and repentance, allowing us to quell the call of our bodies to fill their wants and desires, and focus entirely on elevating ourselves above physicality. This is the day which allows us to succeed on all of the subsequent days of the year, serving as the knot at the end of the necklace, the glue holding everything together.
- Chayei Adam – 143 ↑
- Keshes Yehonoson – 2 ↑
- Ya’aros Dvash 2:1 ↑
- This is despite the fact that those in Eretz Yisroel also celebrate two days of Rosh Hashanah, unlike the other chagim, as explained in the Talmud Rosh Hashanah. ↑
- Zohar Chadash – Yisro 48a ↑
- Tana d’vei Eliyahu – Zuta 22 ↑
- Derech Chaim 5:19 ↑
- Pirkei Avos 5:19 ↑