So, why is it so hard for us to seriously focus on the Mitzvah of Teshuva? Here are some of the usual suspects. I don't want you to think that they are self-evident, dreary platitudes. Simple is not the same as simplistic. As the Mesilas Yesharim illustrates, simplicity sometimes hides profound truth. And, as the Mesilas Yesharim definitely doesn't say, it's taken a long and dissolute life to come up with this list.
A. Lust. I am not ready to give up my pleasures. Self-denial is both out of style and not good for your mental health.
B. Pride. I’m as good as anyone else, I’m at least as good as those rabbis, those professional Jews, and I don’t need to apologize for my lifestyle. And I’m certainly not going to admit they are any better than me by changing to be more like them.
C. Sloth. I know I ought to do tshuvoh, but it’s just too much effort, both mentally and physically, for me.
D. Fear of Peer Group Reaction, fear of what other people will think of you. Your friends will think you've gone frum, or your family will be angry at you for not going with the flow of their comfortable lives and assumptions. In some circles, doing teshuva is very anti-social. I know a young couple that was ostracized by their erstwhile friends, and suffered a great deal of emotional pain, and eventually moved out of the neighborhood, because the young woman decided to wear a sheitel. Way to go, friends!!!
E. Despair. I’m no good, I'm beyond redemption. Or, I’ve tried it before, and it didn’t work, and I would just be lying to myself to think it’s going to work now. This is usually just a rationalization for A, "Lust" and C, "Sloth."
F. Denial. You believe that changing your lifestyle would be so terribly traumatic, (see A, "Lust" and D, Fear of Peer Reaction,) that you create a delusional reality that supports your refusal to undertake it. Sometimes the tool of denial is convincing yourself that you are not capable of doing tshuvoh (see E, "Despair,") and sometimes B, "Pride," that you don't need to.
You might recognize some of these factors from the last time you thought about going on a diet, because it's really the same issue of will power and admitting failure and the need to change. This is what keeps the people in the women's magazine business prosperous. When you fast on Tzom Gedaliah, though, keep in mind that the same conscious decisiveness that keeps us from eating on that day demonstrates that we can indeed do teshuva and eliminate other bad behavior.
A few years ago, I read a story in the paper about the arrest of a suspect in a crime (I think it was by Stefan Esposito). The article said that the suspect "allegedly" shot someone several times in a parking lot, but the victim survived and was able to identify him. Also, a security camera in the lot filmed the crime, and every time the suspect fired the gun the flash very clearly illuminated his face. Also, an off duty policeman witnessed the crime, pursued the suspect, chased him and arrested him two blocks away, at which time he was found to be in possession of the weapon used in the crime.
The article ended by stating that
In the beis din shel maaloh, they can build a good case against ovrei aveirah as well. Our lives are recorded and played over during our trial, and malachim who witnessed the events testify about what occurred, and worse yet, the suspect has signed a document stating exactly what aveiros he did. We face an uphill legal battle.
But despite what might seem to be pretty bad odds, there is a great deal we can do to ameliorate the consequences of our aveiros.
Remember the Minchas Chinuch. He says if not for the passuk that passels a Sukkah Gezulah, the fact that you’re not mekayeim the mitzvah because of Mitzva Haba’ah be’aveira wouldn’t be that much of a problem, because even if you haven’t been mekayeim the mitzvah by eating there, at least you weren’t mevateil the assei by eating outside of a Sukkah: you did eat in a Sukkah, just you weren’t mekayeim the mitzvah. Same thing with teshuva: even if you can’t be mekayeim the mitzvah of teshuva, at least don’t be mevateil the assei.
Many people don’t realize how broad the concept of tshuvah is. It runs from the Gemara in Kiddushin where "shema hirheir tshuvah b’libo" makes him a safeik tzadik gamur, to extremes like tshuvas hamishkal and galus. Simply accepting that what you have done is wrong, and being ashamed of what you have done, is a great mitzvah. You may not be ready for the extreme end of the scale, but anyone can be m’kayeim the great mitzvah of tshuvah by recognizing the need to do it, and knowing how easily accessible the beginning of the range of options is.
We see this in the Mishna in Yoma. Reb Akiva says Ashreichem Yisrael, how lucky you are, Yisrael, that you have the option of Teshuva, and he brings two pesukim: Vezarakti aleichem Mayim Tehorim, and Mikvei Yisrael Hashem; teshuva is like the sprinkling of the ashes of the Parah Adumah, and it is like immersing in a Mikva. Rav Pam Zatzal explained that Reb Akiva is illustrating the broad range of the Mitzva of Teshuva: If one immerses himself in a mikva, as does a geir who re-creates himself, this is the greatest mitzva. But being sprinkled with the ashes of the Para Aduma, which seems to be a far lesser personal investment in tahara--it is a mere sprinkling on a person that does not even remove his clothes, his begadim tzo'im, also brings tahara and purification. Reb Akiva is telling us Ashreichem Yisrael-- Teshuva at any level is a magnificent, wonderful gift to Klal Yisrael.
In Parshas Vayeilech, the Ramban on 31:17-18 says that "Ki ein Elokai bekirbi" is not a real vidui, and it is certainly not a teshuva shleima. But it is recognition of the sin, it is some degree of regret. And in the next passuk, 31:18, the Ramban explains that this tiny little incomplete teshuva results in a tremendous lessening of the tochecha; it ends the Tzaros Ra'os ve'Rabbos, but it doesn't end the galus entirely. Klal Yisrael has to do a better teshuva to end the galus. But it is a powerful and effective step which bears fruit immediately.
Similarly, the Ramban on Devarim 30:14, Mah Hashem sho'eil mei'imach, and Ki karov eilecha hadavar me'od, says that the Davar is Teshuva. The minimum requirements are few and within reach. See, also, Kiddushin 49b: if a wicked man proposes to a woman, and the woman's acceptance is conditional on his being a holy man, a tzadik gamur, and the man is known to be a lowlife scoundrel, we still have to consider her possibly married, because "shema hirheir teshuva be'libo," maybe he had thoughts of repentance in the moments prior to his proposal. Evidently, this would classify him as a tzadik gamur!
I wish you, in this Eish Shechora ahl gabei Eish Levana, a Kesiva Vechasima Tova Le'alter le'chayim tovim. Thank you for your valuable insights, mar'ei mekomos, and mussar.