The Power of Teshuvah – Day 34
Strategy 9: Pray
On Rosh Chodesh Elul 5695 (1935), a few short years before the annihilation of European Jewry began in earnest, Rav Dessler wrote the following advice to his son:
My dear son, please remember what is before you, the Day of Judgment, which requires great preparation. You must daven from the depths of the heart to arouse Rachmei Shamayim (Mercy from Heaven) that we merit Heavenly Assistance, and that Hashem gives us success in attaining teshuvah from the depths of the heart, for this is the ikar (essence) through which we can emerge innocent in justice, B’ezras Hashem.
The Talmud teaches that spirituality is the one area of life that Hashem has turned over to Man’s control: “Everything is in the hands of Heaven except yiras Shamayim.” How, then, can we pray for Hashem to enable us to come closer through teshuvah? How are we able to ask Hashem in the Yamim Noraim Shemoneh Esrei, “And so, too, O Hashem, our God, instill Your awe upon all Your works, and Your dread upon all that You have created?” It would seem that we are asking Hashem to impose His will in the one area that He has left to our will.
While we cannot ask Hashem to make us do the right thing, we can ask Him to help us see ourselves clearly and to awaken our hearts to teshuvah. Since teshuvah is an internal process, we have to work on it from the inside out, starting with our hearts. Prayer, which originates in the heart, is therefore an ideal tool for elevation.
When we pray to Hashem for help in doing teshuvah, we demonstrate that being close to Him and doing His will are our priorities. That is the feeling we express when we recite the fifth blessing of Shemoneh Esrei, “V’hachazireinu b’teshuvah sheleimah l’fanecha” — influence us to return in complete repentance.
Because tefillah and teshuvah are driven by the desire of coming closer to Hashem, when we pray for forgiveness and Divine assistance, we are indeed considered to be doing teshuvah. These prayers are contained in Shemoneh Esrei: “Selach lanu” requests forgiveness and “Hashiveinu” asks for the ability to repent.
Besides its power to open our hearts to teshuvah, prayer enables our efforts to bear long-lasting results. We can stay on track by asking Hashem to keep difficult challenges and temptations out of our path. Since life is a continual confrontation with temptation, we can and indeed should pray for spirituality at all times.
Rav Chaim Volozhin taught his students that prayer could protect them from encountering such challenges as anger, lashon hara, looking at improper sights, and other sins that cross one’s path uninvited. He advised:
Pray before there is a misfortune, because the yiras Shamayim that brings one to pray is what will save [the person] from the test … The [fact that man prays to be saved] declares to his Creator that he recognizes very well the greatness of the [spiritual] test.
We are not alone in our quest to purify our hearts and bring ourselves closer to Hashem. We can turn to God openly, passionately, in our own language and ask Him to free us from our self-imposed bonds. We can share our anguish with Him regarding our trials and failures at self-improvement and by doing so, we acknowledge that only Hashem, in His infinite love, can help us.