Excerpts from the new book “Leading with Love: Guidance for Our Generation from Maran Harav Aharon Yehudah Leib Shteinman shlit”a”
Living with Faith
…Take for example, the enormous tragedy which occurred in the United States. [The attack on the Twin Towers] was such an eye-opener in that a major world power, feared by all the other countries, could be stricken by such a sudden tragedy! The initial reaction should have been to acknowledge, “We see the hand of Hashem.” But listen to what people are saying. They are constantly explaining away what happened with all sorts of causes.
Certainly, there was an immediate cause. But we must realize that the “cause” is just Hashem’s way of running the world through natural means, for He does not want to run the world in a noticeably miraculous fashion. (It should be noted that here we did see things bordering on the miraculous.) The fact is that one needs much siyata d’Shmaya to recognize that all is from Hashem. Because Hashem effects good [in the world] through the innocent and bad through the guilty, He chose to send the tragedy through those [terrorists]. However, everything is from Hashem! People tend to confuse matters and to think that so-and-so or such-and-such was the cause. Therefore [to overcome this tendency], we must strengthen ourselves greatly in our emunah. We must realize that everything is hashgachah. Nothing at all can occur that is not governed by Hashem’s special Divine providence.
Fear of Yom Hadin
We are now just a few days before Yom Kippur. Throughout all the eras and all the generations, the Jewish Nation has always been very serious and solemn during the period of the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah (the Ten Days of Repentance) out of fear of the approaching Day of Judgment. In truth, the “Books of Life and Death” are open, and our fate is dependent primarily on Yom Kippur. Although the judgment of the tzaddikim and the resha’im was already inscribed and sealed on Rosh Hashanah, who can consider himself a tzaddik? At best, we are beinonim (average). Indeed, if only we would be beinonim! Therefore, our day of judgment is Yom Kippur.
If such was the fear in years past, nowadays the fear should be many times greater. We all know that barely a day has gone by [in recent years] without a tragedy, chalilah v’chas, terrorist attack, car accident, or one of the many types of illnesses [we have been afflicted with]. Almost daily, we experience awful tragedies. This is all decided on Yom Kippur.
We have also seen that there were communities in the Diaspora that considered [the security situation in] Eretz Yisrael more dangerous than in their own country. Yet, events have proven that those places are even more dangerous than here. There is no place that is not under the hashgachah of Hashem. With these [events], Hashem has shown how we must rely solely on Him, not on people!
The Aseres Yemei Teshuvah – a precious gift
Hashem gave us the great present of the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance. Hashem has set aside these days so we can merit a great deal – if only we repent.
The Gemara teaches that the completely righteous are inscribed for life, the completely wicked are inscribed for death, and those in between need to repent. If they repent, they will merit life, but if not… (Rosh Hashanah 16b). This passage tells us that there is only one solution – teshuvah, repentance. The Rambam as well writes that if one does not repent, he cannot merit a favorable judgment. However, the Rambam continues that therefore, during the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, the entire Jewish Nation is accustomed to increase their contributions to tzedakah and their good deeds, and to occupy themselves with mitzvos… (The Laws of Teshuvah 3:3-4). Now, the question arises: If, as the Gemara and the Rambam say elsewhere, only teshuvah helps, what is the point of increasing mitzvos during this period?
The explanation seems to be that besides what Chazal call teshuvah sheleimah (complete teshuvah), there is a lower level of teshuvah, where one draws himself closer to Hashem. In a small way, this, too, is teshuvah. It is not true teshuvah, repentance for the actual sin, which requires regret over the past misdeed and a firm resolution [not to sin] in the future. That would be the best! However, even when a person does not merit [to do teshuvah] to such a degree, since he draws a bit closer to Hashem, and does something because he wants to better himself, that, too, is a form of teshuvah to an extent.
We say in our prayers, “Teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah annul the evil decree.” Does this mean that tzedakah alone or tefillah alone can annul the harsh [Heavenly] decree? What happened to the sin [that caused the decree]? It is understood that teshuvah can annul the decree because teshuvah uproots the sin. But how do tefillah or tzedakah help? The statement does not seem to mean that one needs all three together, because teshuvah can certainly be effective on its own.
It seems, then, that tefillah or tzedakah alone can be effective because by engaging in them, one is bettering himself. This is a form of bringing oneself closer to Hashem.
We say in the Shemoneh Esrei [in the blessing of repentance], “Our Father, bring us back to Your Torah.” At first glance, we may wonder why we mention Torah. We should ask, “Our Father, bring us back from sin!” We can also ask why we say [in that same blessing of the Shemoneh Esrei] “and draw us close, our King, to Your service”? The answer is that the intent of these words is that through our coming closer to Torah, to fear of Hashem, and to His service, we are coming closer to Hashem – even if we do not actually do teshuvah for the sin.
With this, we can understand the meaning of the Rambam’s ruling [quoted above] that Jews increase their performance of mitzvos during the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah. Even if one does not attain complete teshuvah, which is certainly preferable (but one may find difficult in some areas), he should at least increase his performance of mitzvos. With each additional mitzvah, he shows a desire to come closer to Hashem.
Taking this idea further, the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim, sec. 603) writes that even one who is lenient throughout the year with regard to eating bread baked by a non-Jewish baker, should be stringent during the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah. Many are baffled by this law. Such a person knows full well that [the day after Yom Kippur] he will go right back to eating bread baked by a non-Jew. Can this then be considered teshuvah? The answer is that although he is not doing teshuvah, he is showing that he wishes to draw closer to Hashem.