September 1, 2016
Menachem Ziegelboim in #1036, Elul, Interview, teshuva

Why do we need an entire month to do tshuva when one thought is enough to switch from rasha to tzaddik? * What is the practical implication of the King displaying a smiling countenance? * What is the difference between bittul and lack of self-esteem? * How does lack of self-esteem affect a persons service of Hashem? * These and other questions were asked of Rabbi Nadav Cohen, sought after lecturer and author of a book on Tanya. He clarifies what our job is in the month of Elul.

In Lubavitch, the emphasis in Elul is on the “King in the field.” Does that not push aside the topic of t’shuva which is essential in this month?

It is not a contradiction to t’shuva, for the King comes to the field in order to help us do t’shuva. What does it mean that the King is in the field in Elul? What does this parable come to tell us? The King comes to the field for our sake, so that we get additional strength to move toward Him; so that we can welcome Him. Going to greet Him means doing t’shuva. The Alter Rebbe in his first chapter of Igeres HaT’shuva asserts that t’shuva means kabbalas ol malchus Shamayim (accepting the yoke of the kingdom of heaven). This is the work that is required of us during Elul, accepting the yoke of G-d’s kingship.

Why does the King need to go out to the field in order for us to do t’shuva?

The Rebbe explains that the King goes to the field primarily for those who are distant, those who work in the field, i.e., those who have thrown off the yoke of heaven, G-d forbid. Someone in that position often feels that he is a lost cause; he crossed the line and cannot do t’shuva. He feels that there is no reason for him to try and do t’shuva. We tell him, now in Elul, the King is in the field for you!

We all understand that the Alter Rebbe does not mean that we should go to an actual field to look for the King. It means that the King is coming toward us all and it is possible to go and greet Him (to accept the yoke of heaven, i.e., to do t’shuva) even if we feel distant and that our situation hopeless. When someone hears this, that he will be accepted, that his t’shuva will be received despite his present situation, it gives him the strength to go and greet the King.

Just knowing that the King is in the field is empowering?

I remember a shiur in Chassidus during Elul in Ramat Aviv. R’ Yossi Ginsburg, the rosh yeshiva, taught the famous maamer from Likkutei Torah and the atmosphere was electric. That morning, one of the balabatim in the neighborhood who was curious to hear what was taught in the yeshiva, joined the shiur. When he heard the explanation about the King in the field, and how now is a special time in which anyone can approach the King, he was incredulous and he exclaimed, “Why don’t you publicize this to everyone?”

Indeed, we need to publicize to everyone that the King is in the field.

In the parable it says the King greets everyone graciously and displays a smiling countenance. What is the significance of that?

The Rebbe presents a fantastic explanation in the maamer “Ani L’Dodi 5726.” True, the King going out to the field empowers a person, but the person still has a yetzer ha’ra that prevents him from going out to greet the King. That is where the smile comes in. The King shows him that he takes pleasure from his wanting to do t’shuva, and this demonstration of encouragement empowers him to overcome the obstacles to doing it.

The Rebbe adds that there are people for whom even this won’t help, and to them the King displays a smiling countenance. Hashem reveals to him that He loves him as he is, with all his deficiencies, with an essential love that has nothing to do with his actions. When a Jew feels this, this inspires him to do t’shuva with an essential love for Hashem. Consequently, all matters of this world don’t attract him and he overcomes all obstacles and does t’shuva.

In the parable it seems to say that the month of Elul is merely a preparation for Rosh HaShana. If we look at the parable of the King in the field, we can ask – what’s so bad about having the King in the field? Why do we need to follow him to the palace?

The King comes to the field for us, to draw us close, but we are not satisfied with the King as He is in the field, without royal garments. We want to see him in His full glory; we want the lofty revelations of Tishrei, the open illumination of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. We need to be ready and worthy so that we can go with the King to His palace as the Alter Rebbe says.

To Chassidim, Elul also means preparing to go to the Rebbe for Tishrei and that definitely puts the entire Elul into an entirely different light. Every Chassid wants to go to the palace of the Rebbe after Elul when he prepared properly.


We keep talking about t’shuva and it is one of the most familiar and basic concepts in Judaism. Still, I’d like to take a moment to discuss: what is t’shuva?

In chapter one of Igeres HaT’shuva, the Alter Rebbe explains that t’shuva is accepting the yoke of heaven. With this categorization he is making the mitzva of t’shuva easier and at the same time, making it harder.

He makes it easier since “abandoning the sin” is enough and confession isn’t necessary. He makes it harder because he does not suffice with abandoning the specific sin the person committed, but abandoning all sins. The requirement is to accept the yoke of heaven for all mitzvos, not just the mitzva the person failed in.

If that’s the case, how do we do t’shuva?

T’shuva is connected with accepting the yoke of heaven, which is connected with the concept of bittul. However, sometimes we misunderstand this concept. People think that bittul is having a low self-esteem, that I am not worth anything. That is not what bittul is about. On the contrary, feeling a lack of self-worth is very problematic and is the root of all our other spiritual problems.

You are touching on a sensitive area. There are quite a few people who dismiss themselves, who put themselves down, and they are sure this is what Chassidus demands. What do you mean?

I am not talking about diminishing the sense of self, but a lack of self-worth. A person who does not value what he is, is a person who evaluates himself based on what people think of him (or more accurately, what he thinks people think about him). He himself does not think much of himself, and it’s only if he gets approval from others that he feels worthy. Or, in the opposite case, he feels the opposite.

This presents the person with a very big problem and it leads to quite a few other problems too. If he is really successful and talented and people admire him, he will feel proud and superior to others. Either he will want to talk about himself and his achievements to others or, if he has deficiencies, he will constantly try to hide them from others so they won’t diminish him. Then he turns into a closed person.

Unfortunately, society today teaches this. Modern western culture encourages achievement but the message is, why aren’t you like someone else, why aren’t you like your successful neighbor? Why aren’t you like your brother who learns so well?

So what is the solution?

Chassidus, of course. Chassidus teaches that each one of us is a part of G-d above, literally. Each of us is a diamond, and Hashem loves and accepts us as we are. We don’t need to try and be someone else. We can be who we truly are. Like the line quoted from R’ Zushe, that when he goes up Above, they won’t ask him why he wasn’t like Avrohom Avinu or like his brother R’ Elimelech, but why he wasn’t Zushe.

To say “I’m worthless” is not the bittul that Chassidus demands. Bittul is when a person is aware of his good qualities and what he lacks and knows it is all from Hashem. Then, there is no pride taken in the good qualities. Instead, they are used and harnessed to serve Hashem. And the bad traits don’t need to be hidden in fear that someone will find out about them; rather, they need to be fixed.

By learning Chassidus they go away?

Definitely not, it needs to be brought down into the realm of actual practice. Look, correcting the innermost core issues can take a long time. The Rebbe offers a simple solution – think about how you would act if you valued yourself, and start acting that way.

Wouldn’t that be superficial?

On one level it is the external that affects the inside, but on a deeper level, it is not superficial because what is the truth about a Jew? The truth is he is a part of G-d above, literally, someone with genuine worth with no connection to what people think about him.


Why do we need an entire month of t’shuva when, as the Rebbe often says, quoting the Rambam, one thought is enough to make him a tzaddik?

T’shuva can be done in a moment, yes, but in order to reach that moment, a lot of work needs to be done. The Alter Rebbe explains in Igeres HaT’shuva that t’shuva is indeed in a moment, as we said. It is enough to accept the yoke of heaven and we have already returned to Hashem. But if the commitment will be just words, it won’t last, like many good resolutions we have made that don’t last. In order for t’shuva to be real, it is not enough to say words; we need to undergo an inner process, contemplation, a change in perception, working on our feelings – and all this will ultimately lead the person to genuine t’shuva from the depths of his heart and not just superficially.

Getting back to what we said before, Chassidus teaches that t’shuva is not done only with tears and pounding the chest, but with joy too. What is t’shuva with joy? The two words seem to contradict one another…

First, t’shuva is a mitzva and all the mitzvos need to be done with joy. The Alter Rebbe explains that the fact that Hashem forgives us again and again, is in and of itself something that makes us happy and gives us hope.

Let’s look at this more deeply. What is simcha? Why does Chassidus emphasize simcha so much? Simcha is energizing, it causes a person to be optimistic. It gives him a positive outlook on life and strengthens his emuna, unlike sadness which closes down and squeezes a person and makes him see everything negatively.

You cannot succeed in life at all, and particularly with mitzvos, when you are sad. Success in overcoming the animal soul happens when we are happy.

But when it comes to t’shuva, it is even more important. One of the most destructive feelings which Chassidus warns us against is the feeling of guilt, of I’m not good enough, a form of self-flagellation. With the mitzva of t’shuva, in which there needs to be some spiritual accounting, the fear is that this feeling will take over. So Chassidus comes and provides the cure in advance. T’shuva? Yes. With joy. Don’t get involved with the past, with what we did which wasn’t good; think more about the future and how it will be much better. As the Rebbe explains that in our generation we don’t have the strength for merirus (bitterness) and merirus can bring us down. So simcha is where it’s at.


The Rebbe talks about the acronyms of Elul and emphasizes the one having to do with Geula. Can you tell us how the Geula is connected with Elul?

We are the generation of Geula, right before the big hisgalus, at a time when we can already taste the Geula. We are already told to start living Geula. The Rebbe talks about this a number of times in his sichos. So it is not enough for us to strengthen Torah, avoda, and chesed in Elul (which are alluded to in the name Elul) and it’s not enough for the increase in these three areas to be done in a spirit of t’shuva (which is also alluded to in the name Elul). We need it all to be done in a Geula way.

Therefore, we need to increase Torah, avoda and chesed with the clear knowledge that Moshiach is coming. On a deeper level you can say that what we add in the month of Elul to the three pillars needs to be done in a way of Yemos HaMoshiach. Think: How will my davening look in Yemos HaMoshiach? and start moving in that direction now. How will my Torah study be, or my giving of tz’daka? and start moving in that direction. Obviously, when a person suffices with the minimum of tz’daka, this is not the way he would give if he knew that Moshiach is already here.

That is quite a demand. The Rebbe speaks about unlimited Torah study and the unlimited giving of tz’daka. How is that possible?

Chazal use the phrase, “according to the camel is the load.” If that is the demand, then we can do it. Along with this demand of the Rebbe, he gives us the ability to rise above the galus frustrations that we have and see higher, broader, and deeper.

But the simplest t’shuva is when at the beginning of the whole process we mark a goal, a destination, where we want to get to. In order to get there, we start with small steps. We divide the big goal into small goals and we are successful.

For example, if our goal is that our davening should be like that of Yemos HaMoshiach, we start with saying Modeh Ani properly. After succeeding in that, we move on. We have unlimited Torah study as our goal, but we start by being more careful about our learning times, and while we learn we are more focused and have fewer distractions, and so on.

When we start with small things, we experience success and this motivates us to continue until the true and complete Geula, starting with our personal Geula.

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (http://beismoshiachmagazine.org/).
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